Sunday 24 March 2013

Peacewashing Syria?

Marrickville Peace Group held a vigil calling for an end to the violence in Syria on March 20. Their statement reporting on this is reprinted below.

The attention of MPG to the Syrian crisis and their vigil is to be applauded – we need more groups and initiatives like this around peace and disarmament issues and the members of this group deserve support and respect for their action. It is however in this vein that I must take up some of the arguments used. I respectfully take them up because they have wider currency in Left/antiwar thinking about the situation in Syria. First the MPG statement:

Marrickville residents call for peace in Syria

Residents attending the peace vigil at the war memorial at Marrickville Town Hall on Wednesday morning called for a peaceful resolution of the war in Syria and an end to arms sales to either side of the conflict.

“The terror that each day confronts the people of Syria is fueled by the international arms trade, said Colin Hesse, spokesperson for Marrickville Peace Group.

“The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States are the five largest arms exporting countries in the world, and these weapons are predominantly used against the civilian populations of the countries these weapons are sold to.

“The suffering of the Syrian people is directly supported by the most powerful nations, so we call for an end to the arms trade and peaceful resolution of the civil war in Syria, said Mr Hesse

Father Dave Smith from Dulwich Hill Anglican Church spoke passionately for peace, saying “So many of our sisters and brothers have suffered and so many acts of inhumanity have been performed that the country will remain scarred for many years to come.

“Though it’s not always obvious what we can do from here, one thing we can do is to tell the truth about what is really happening - about media bias, and about the way we profit from seeing Syria destroyed.

“We all have blood on our hands, but we can make a stand today for truth and for peace for the people of Syria, said Father Dave.

“Amnesty International has been campaigning for the last 10 years for an international arms trade treaty to stop the flow of weapons to those who will use them to abuse human rights, said Amnesty International spokesperson Karl Weaver.

“This week the negotiations for that treaty have resumed at the United Nations in New York and we are hopeful that a treaty will be secured.
"It is time for the killing in Syria to stop. It is time to take the weapons out of the hands of those who will use them to commit war crimes.

There is much to agree with here: the sentiments in favour of peace in Syria and opposition to arms flowing into the country, and the role they play in the commission of war crimes, no matter on which side of the conflict. The last thing the Syrian people need are weapons coming in from ANY source, or foreign intervention by ANY of the imperial powers or the wannabe’s like the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Iran. However I take issue with the casting of the Syrian conflict as some kind of symmetrical civil war.

The principal dynamics of the conflict in Syria have their origin in the brutal response of the Assad regime to demand for political reform and the determination of the Syrian people to resist. Sure the conflict has taken on the characteristics of a civil war through its degeneration into an armed conflict. Like all such armed conflicts it has seen the emergence of some dodgy, armed groups, and human rights abuses but the underlying politics cannot be ignored. The task for a peace group, I believe, is to assert the primacy of civil resistance in the struggle, not retreat to position of false political symmetry.

This is analogous to casting the Israel-Palestine situation as a “conflict” between equal partners, only needing the intervention of a peace process. This ignores the asymmetry of the situation faced by the Palestinians and the validity of their struggle against occupation and ethnic cleansing, So it is in Syria, describing the struggle as a civil war only requiring only the intervention of arms controls and a peace process ignores the underlying asymmetrical political dynamic.

Further, as recently highlighted by a Syrian Leftist activist Ghayath Naisse in Socialist Worker, the principal imperial intervention in terms of supplying arms, and fuelling the violence, is the role of the Russians. There is also the lesser imperial wannabe in this context, Iran. This isn’t to say that the other powers, principally the United States, Britain and France aren’t playing a role or would not like to do more, but while fanning the conflict, they have to date been limited by their own fears of weapons in the hands of Islamic-oriented groups. Paradoxically, the Western imperialism’s trying to operate through their proxies in the Gulf states and Turkey has probably made this situation more difficult, skewing some of the power in the Syrian armed resistance further towards the more violent sectarians.

But as Ghayath Naisse and others have pointed out, here is a lot more going on in Syria, with the armed sectarians actually not as significant as both the West, and some in the anti-imperialist Left, believe, Outside of and alongside the armed struggle (which, as a response to the violence of the Assad state, I understand but do not, as a non-violent, antiwar activist, support) there is a vibrant civil resistance and tens of thousands of Syrians building community governance mechanisms to try and manage their lives in a war zone or in areas freed from Assad’s influence.

Of course elements in the Syrian opposition “leadership” are calling for US and Western armed assistance but does this invalidate the Syrian people’s struggle on the ground? The links of the Palestinian leadership to foreign powers (the corrupt Fatah to the US and the authoritarian Hamas to the Iranians and the Brotherhood-dominated Egyptian government) does not invalidate the grassroots Palestinian struggles, particularly those involved in civil resistance, the BDS campaign and what is likely to be a coming, renewed, intifada. People fighting for their liberation are not necessarily to blame for the manipulations of their often self-appointed or unaccountable leaderships.  The presence of this manipulation in the direction of encouraging foreign intervention in Syria is no excuse to abandon political support for the oppressed Syrian people.

We are right to be concerned by the US and other Western imperialists – the US is the principal predator power in the Middle East with its support for Israel, its invasion of Iraq, its fuelling of conflict with Iran, its link to undemocratic states from Jordan through to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and its attempts to undermine the Egyptian revolution through continuing to fund the Egyptian military. But as explained, it is not, as yet, the pre-eminent imperial power in Syria.

In this context I find the date chosen for the Marrickville vigil, March 20th, curious. This is the anniversary of the outbreak of the Iraq War, an American imperial venture. Why not the preceding Friday, the second anniversary of the March 15 beginning of the Syrian revolution, when protest broke out in Dara’a over the arrest of school kids for painting anti-Assad slogans on walls?. This avoids singling out the prime culprits in Syria, the Assad regime and its Russian backers, for criticism. MPG was not alone in ignoring this important anniversary, It was also ignored the bulk of the anti-imperialist Left, the Greens and anti-war activists in general. I except here Socialist Alternative, and there are no doubt others, who have maintained a consistent and principled stance of support for the struggle of the Syrian people.

If we are to genuinely seek peace in Syria it has to be in the context of supporting the Syrian people in their struggle, one which is part of the broader uprising throughout North Africa and the Middle East and which encompasses the struggle of the Palestinian people. The rights of people to push for their liberation are not divisible.

There are plenty of ways those of us who oppose violence can offer our support to the Syrian political struggle. By taking the side of the Syrian resistance political terms and being willing to clearly sheet home to the Syrian state and its Russian backers that the starting point for peace must be their ending attacks on the Syrian people, releasing political prisoners and implementing genuine democratic reforms (the departure of Assad will come, it does not necessarily have to be a precondition). And yes, we should call on the opposition to respond in kind, reject violence, and demand that both sides respect human rights. And yes we should continue to be vocal about demanding an end to all attempts at foreign interference in, and arms flows to, Syria, as MPG has effectively emphasised.

As peace activists, we should support a renewed emphasis on civil resistance against the Assad regime, in preference to armed struggle which ultimately only internalises the violence of the oppressor and debauches movements for political change.

Further suggest reading: the informative “Why Civil Resistance Works” by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan (Columbia University Press, Paperback Ed. 2013). Includes sources to the wider discussion on non-violence and civil resistance. There was also a shorter Q and A by Chenoweth on this subject in a 2011 edition of Foreign Policy magazine.

See also my February 11 blog below which deals with broader issues of war and violence.

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