Because some readers will instantly jump to the conclusion that my criticism of Assad and Putin’s brutal war on Syrians must imply that I am in favor of the U.S. bombing Syria, let’s put it on the record that, no, I am not in favor, nor have ever been in favor of the U.S. bombing any country for any reason. —Sonali Kolhatkar
Editor’s Note: Whether or not you agree with Korhatkar’s assessment of Assad, the White Helmets, the chemical attacks and of the left’s complicity because of support for the “strongmen” reasons she posits, she is correct in the most important part of her assessment, that is, that the differences of opinion are causing “a deepening rift within the American left over the war in Syria.”
It may be true that this rift may contribute to blocking efforts to find nonmilitary solutions to end the war in Syria, although there are other causes as well, such as the fact that the Middle East wars are geopolitical, that is, about resources and empire and the corporate greed of the arms manufacturers who are making a lot of money manufacturing bombs and drones, not to mention the culture of militarism and violence that has perniciously invaded US culture that Henry Giroux has analyzed.
Meanwhile as the debate around nonviolent vs. more aggressive tactics among the protesting left continues among the groups that organize the marches and actions, the antiwar movement is slowly growing.
For example, around April 15, 2018, answering a call by the United National Antiwar Coalition, marches, rallies and demonstrations took place across the country. In September 2017 during their week of action 1,606 Campaign Nonviolence marches, vigils, rallies and other forms of public witness took place. More are expected in 2018.
Editor’s Note: Only 70 people attended this demonstration. It could have something to do with the fact that Minnesota was in blizzard conditions. It snowed all day the day before and was still snowing. The “real feel” of the temperature was somewhere around 14 degrees and the wind gusts were 22 mph. Hardy souls in Minnesota. Each of the 70 who were there represented many others who could not/did not attend because of the weather.
Minneapolis April 15, 2018
Minneapolis April 15, 2018
And those examples are only the tip of the iceburg. Small actions where protesters are committing acts of civil disobedience at military drone bases take place regularly, as do bannerings, weekly and monthly vigils, and antiwar marches around not only Syria, but all the countries the U.S. is bombing as well as Gaza/Palestine.
These actions rarely get publicity, even from independent left media, although they are often covered by local media if civil disobedience is involved. (Sinclair would like to end that coverage.)
Overall, tens of thousands and more of U.S. citizens are taking part in often smaller groups than the large demonstrations that get all the publicity. And the more violence there is, the more coverage the large demonstrations get, even if the majority of the protesters are nonviolent—although it is no surprise that the mainstream corporate media chooses to cover violence rather than issues. Which is not to say these large demonstrations should not be getting publicity, but that they only represent a part of the picture of activism in this country and globally. And protest has extended further: For example 3000 Google employees demanded recently that corporate Google end work on the Pentagon drone project.
The rift Kolhatkar has identified in the left has not prevented this growth of the antiwar/pro-peace movement. Has it prevented an end to the war in Syria? Syria is only one of many countries the U.S. is engaged in bombing directly or in the case of Yemen, indirectly. It would definitely be helpful if this rift in the left over Syria did not exist, but the overarching problem is much greater:
“There are powerful entities that are natural opponents of any peace movement. These natural enemies of peace and justice movements are very powerful, very wealthy, very well-connected, very secretive and very corporate.” —Gary Kohls, MD
There is a deepening rift within the American left over the war in Syria. It is unfortunate that this rift is eclipsing actual activism to stop the suffering of Syrians. But since apparent support for Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin is so strong among some sectors of the left, it is worth tackling the debate if only to try to get past it and on to the more urgent job of shining a light on the plight of Syrians and considering nonmilitary alternatives to ending the complex war.
Because some readers will instantly jump to the conclusion that my criticism of Assad and Putin’s brutal war on Syrians must imply that I am in favor of the U.S. bombing Syria, let’s put it on the record that, no, I am not in favor, nor have ever been in favor of the U.S. bombing any country for any reason. Bombs, especially those coming from the U.S., are never launched with the well-being of ordinary people in mind. They are launched for reasons that have more to do with geostrategic and/or financial interests. The U.S. was wrong to have been bombing Syria in order to oust Islamic State, and it is wrong to bomb Syria in order to attack Assad.
That American militarism has nefarious motives does not mean the U.S. has a monopoly on imperial ambitions, nor does it mean that only the U.S. (or Israel) is capable of hurting people on a large scale.
There is an unsettling feeling of déjà vu in the Syria debate. I recall my very first street protest in 1999 when Bill Clinton’s administration began bombing the nation that was once Yugoslavia. I felt the need to oppose what seemed like a senseless and horribly violent approach to tackling a humanitarian issue. When I found the local protests that were taking place, there were multiple signs in support of the dictator Slobodan Milošević. At first I thought it was a misguided attempt to declare that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and that by standing up to the U.S. Milošević was being erroneously considered a hero. In recent years I have concluded that there is a strong penchant among some sectors on the left to desire glorification of leaders and strongmen (and they’re almost always men) who espouse a favored political position in opposition to the U.S.
When I began doing solidarity work with Afghan women, specifically the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) in the early 2000s, I had a similar experience. While there was no specific Afghan strongman that the so-called anti-imperialist left could rally around, there was the legacy of Soviet occupation that sectarian groups strongly and inexplicably defended. RAWA members’ position against the U.S. war after the 9/11 attacks was not enough to earn them respect among some on the left simply because they were also hugely critical of the bloody Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Some even viewed their denunciation of the fundamentalist and misogynist Taliban forces that they lived under as playing into the hands of the U.S. bombing campaign.
For years I excoriated the left for ignoring Afghanistan, a war that continues today. I can only conclude that there is little motivation among American leftists to protest a war where there is no charismatic anti-American strongman to defend.
Today, Syrians are viewed through a similarly flawed lens by sectors of the American left. Assad, a dictator by any definition, and his ally Putin are both seen as bastions of anti-U.S. resistance. The leaps of logic that some on the left are engaging in, in order to vilify Syrian rebels and civilians in favor of these two leaders, are breathtaking.
Many are casting the chemical attack on Douma as self-inflicted. The theory is that the rebels who until recently occupied the area inflicted the damage on Syrian civilians as part of some elaborate scheme to frame Assad. Many have suggested Assad had nothing to gain from attacking Douma. But Assad did have a clear strategic objective of ridding Douma of the rebel group Jaysh al-Islam, which had been holding Douma for years. Within hours of the chemical attack, Jaysh al-Islam forces caved to Assad’s tactics and gave him what he wanted when they fled the city. Why would rebels frame Assad only to leave their stronghold right afterward?
Many are citing Robert Fisk’s reporting this week from Syria on a doctor who was not a witness to the attack and yet claimed that the dozens of Syrians who died were asphyxiated by dust rather than poisoned by chemicals. Fisk made no attempt to explain the many reports of a chemical smell and of white foam at the mouths of victims. His report directly contradicts that of Associated Press and Guardian newspaper journalists who were also on the ground where Fisk was and managed to corroborate with multiple sources including survivors that there had been a chemical attack from the sky. Earlier investigations by Al-Jazeera and The New York Times also concluded that the claims by survivors of the attack were accurate. Are we to believe that The New York Times, Al-Jazeera, AP and The Guardian are all part of some grand conspiracy to push the U.S. to bomb targets important to Assad?
Apparently, acknowledging the reality of the chemical attacks by Assad is akin to inviting the U.S. to expand its Syria war to Assad’s targets. And so in order to oppose that, are we to deny the real suffering of Syrians? Are we to bend reality to suit our desire?
Just as there is a chorus contradicting the lived experiences of Syrian civilians, there has been an effort to undermine the White Helmets, a rescue program that has been accused both of receiving U.S. funding (it has gotten U.S. Agency for International Development money just as other projects have) and of being a front for al-Qaida.
How are so many on the left falling for such fakery? The Guardian’s extensive investigation into a propaganda effort to discredit the White Helmets offers some answers. (Editor’s Note: See also Beware of White Helmets Bearing News by Ann Wright for a different viewpoint.) Just as it is all too easy to fall for fake news these days, it is also easy to corroborate sources and determine veracity with a little effort.
If leftist and progressive calls to curb American imperialism are to be taken seriously, our analysis of international relations and foreign policy needs to be far more sophisticated. Not everything needs to be viewed through the lens of leaders who oppose the U.S., as though no other country in the world is capable of or interested in flexing its power internationally and domestically. If we are truly concerned about the well-being of ordinary Syrians, we need to care about them whether they are being killed by Syrian, Russian or American forces. We can condemn the mass atrocities being committed by Assad and Putin and oppose any U.S. military interference in the region. Both these things can be true at once.
When the left accuses conservatives of falling for fake news, we may imagine our rational approach to the world makes us more immune to falsehoods. Sadly, in the case of Syria (and Afghanistan and other nations), the left may be just as vulnerable to seeing all things through the lens of our political worldview rather than through facts. This does little to help ordinary people the world over who are victims of violence.
Sonali Kolhatkar Columnist. Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV,…