“The reality is that the U.S. government is supporting armed extremist groups who are terrorizing the Syrian people and trying to destroy Syria’s secular state.”
By Sarah Martin Southside Pride
December 19, 2016
On Nov. 13, the Middle East Committee of Women Against Military Madness (WAMM) hosted a report back from Syria with Judy Bello, a national peace and justice leader. Judy reported (from NY via Skype) on her most recent trip to Syria. This was her second participation in a delegation to Syria. Two years prior to this, Judy had joined a group of activists, journalists and politicians from the U.S., Asia, Africa and South America who traveled to Syria to observe the presidential elections. (She reported that some Syrians living abroad were allowed to vote at their local embassies, but many who could not, came from all over the world to vote in Syria; Bashar al-Assad won resoundingly.)
In July of 2016, Judy went to Syria again—this time with the peace and fact finding mission of the U.S. Peace Council, a grassroots seven-member delegation of U.S. antiwar organizations, lawyers, labor activists, journalists and educators. The U.S. delegation met with decision makers—what she described as a wide-ranging number of Syria’s vibrant and robust civil society, including NGOs, nonviolent opposition forces and parties, Muslim and Christian religious leaders, students, business leaders, victims of war and violence, members of the Syrian Bar Association, women’s rights activists, parliamentarians from different political parties, and high-level government officials.
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The U.S. delegation was also granted a two-hour meeting with President Bashar al-Assad. [The U.S. Peace Council does not advocate for or against the Syrian government; they state their position as leaving it up to the Syrian people to make decisions about their government. uspeacecouncil.org]
The goal of the U.S. Peace Council delegation was to see and hear firsthand the actual conditions on the ground in Syria—especially important because Americans know so little about Syria due to mainstream media bias in their reporting and characterization of the war in Syria. They went to assess for themselves and learn from some of the Syrian people about their situation and what their views were about the solution to the war and violence. “Almost everything we read about Syria in the media is wrong,” said delegation member Gerry Condon, vice president of U.S. Veterans for Peace. “The reality is that the U.S. government is supporting armed extremist groups who are terrorizing the Syrian people and trying to destroy Syria’s secular state.”
The following are excerpts from Judy Bello’s report:
Syria is an ancient country of openness and tolerance. For example, the Christian Orthodox bishop and the Grand Mufti, the highest Sunni scholar in Syria, are good friends. Judaism, Christianity and Islam exist together in Syria as they have for generations. The Sunni/Shia divide that we hear about in the West is not a part of everyday Syrian life. In fact, people told me that it’s embarrassing to ask your neighbors what religion they are. The Syrian government is secular and not dependent on religious affiliation. Syrians of any religious background can hold positions in the government. 80% of the Syrian population identify as Sunni, and Sunnis participate in all government institutions, including the Syrian Army.
The population of Syria is 23 million. [Though difficult to estimate, the death toll for the war in Syria may be over 400,000] The majority of those who have died in Syria are defense forces and fighters. Aleppo is a city of 3 million, and half of it has been destroyed mostly by opposition forces when they took over East Aleppo in 2012. The cities of Homs and Damascus have populations of over 1 million. There are 100,000 people in Raqqa, which is controlled by ISIS. Two-thirds of the people displaced internally by war and terrorism have actually sought safety in government controlled areas. The Syrian government stated that no one should have to live in a tent. Displaced people are housed in schools and mosques, move in with families, or are housed in buildings erected for them by the government. Only a limited number live in opposition areas, and it is difficult for them to leave.
In the media, we only hear about the war in the opposition areas. Unknown to most Americans, it’s U.S.- and European Union (EU)-imposed sanctions that are causing widespread devastation and hardship across all of Syria. Raw materials for machines purchased in Europe cannot be imported. Syria can no longer manufacture basic medical supplies like antibiotics. Sanctions impede transportation. Syrian money is worthless outside of Syria. Syrians are isolated. Lawyers are banned from bringing suits in international courts. Students and professors are no longer welcome at universities outside of Syria. Syria had been under sanctions for years and, as a result, had developed relative self-sufficiency in producing goods for its own needs, but the years have taken a toll and Syria is stretched even more thin because resources need to be used for defense in war against their country.
The only border that Syria controls is the one shared with Lebanon. Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader in Lebanon, has said this is an existential fight. “If Syria loses, we all lose. If they win, we will all abide.” Syria’s other borders are under foreign control. The Jordanian borders and the Turkish border, through which weapons and opposition fighters flow, are controlled by the Americans, Jordanians, Turks and Al Nusra. ISIS is on the Iraqi border, in a huge desert area that resembles a moonscape. The Golan border with Israel is controlled by Al Nusra.
There are credible reports of an Israeli Defense Force [IDF] medical facility set up in the Golan to patch up wounded Al-Nusra and Al Qaeda fighters and send them back to Syria to fight against the Syrian government with photos of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu himself visiting these soldiers.
Syria is fighting against all of these invasions from their borders. The war is waged within and against Syria by experienced hardened jihadist fighters who come from places outside Syria like Chechnya and Libya. They are bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, and often supplied with U.S.-made weapons.
Since early 2011, Qatar was paying wages to anyone in Syria who would fight against the Syrian government. Turkey did most of the training of Syrian opposition fighters and has facilitated movement of Al Qaeda fighters into Syria from Chechnya and Afghanistan, and from all over the world. Libyan fighters flowed into the country with arms acquired after they fought there. These are hardened, experienced jihadi fighters, mercenaries and extremists, funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and backed by the U.S. since fighting in Chechnya, Afghanistan and Libya.
Why have some Syrians in the opposition-controlled areas joined the fight with the jihadists? They did so for several reasons. Many joined for reasons that were temporary and have long passed; they were threatened by the armed opposition and offered protection, mafia style; the opposition threatened to take their sons or kill their whole family; and some felt they would have more power and more social standing if they joined the opposition.
But by this time, people were fed up with the fighting and very dissatisfied with life in these poorly-governed opposition-controlled areas. The ordinary people are tired of fighting, tired of being afraid of stepping out on the street, tired of being caught in a place where they might get shot just for smoking cigarettes, or a woman could be humiliated for letting her hair covering fall off. Before the war, equal numbers of men and women attended school and there were no official restrictions on clothing.
The Syrian government is defending itself and its people, which is a normal reaction for a country under attack. At the same time, in the midst of this, they’ve initiated a reconciliation program that’s given amnesty to thousands of people in areas they’ve been able to recover from the militants. The reconciliation process involves providing incentives for people to stop fighting and gives them a safe passage back to the lives they have left.
The Syrian government has successfully implemented reconciliation programs in areas in and around the cities of Homs and Damascus, as well as in other locations. Syrian fighters who wished to lay down their arms were restored to the civilian population while those who wish to continue fighting were bused to Idlib, an opposition-controlled area. Meanwhile, for those civilians whose homes had been destroyed, the Syrian government provided various forms of relief, including food, medical care and housing. In most, if not all, of these areas, a majority of the civilian population had been held hostage by armed gangs for extended periods of time.
We have to look at our own presence in this war and stop saying, “It’s Assad” or “It’s the Russians.” Syria is a sovereign country with a government elected by the people. The U.S. has many nonviolent options to put an end to this war. It could lift the sanctions on Syria and withhold resources to the violent opposition. It could pressure Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to stop funding and facilitating the foreign fighters.
The U.S. presence is, in fact, the biggest problem in this war: While maintaining sanctions on Syria, it lifted sanctions in ISIS-controlled areas and allowed the EU to sell ISIS parts to pump oil. Then the U.S. did nothing about the wagon trains of trucks carrying the ISIS oil to be exported for profit—something that was finally stopped by Russia, which was invited by the Syrian government to help defend the country against ISIS. The U.S. has bombed Syria on a daily basis and is now talking about a No Fly Zone which would prohibit Syria from defending its own skies, but permit the U.S. to do more bombing.
Everyone I met in Syria has lost a loved one or family member. Syrians are tired of this war. Everyone I spoke to there is also hopeful that Syria will become whole again and that the people will be free again. The delegation was deeply impressed by the unity and determination of the Syrian people to defend their country and their sovereignty; their rejection of efforts to divide the population along sectarian lines; and their determined emphasis that what is going on in Syria is not a civil war but a foreign-imposed invasion.
Longtime peace and justice activist Judy Bello is on the Administrative Council of the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) and is a founding member of the Upstate [New York] Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars. In addition to participating in this recent fact-finding mission in Syria with the U.S. Peace Council, in the previous decade she traveled with peace delegations to Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria.