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Syria and the Peace Movement

Thea PanethOn Sunday, June 30, Phyllis Bennis of Institute for Policy Studies and Michael McPhearson of United for Peace and Justice met with Boston area peace activists to discuss the situation in Syria and what we can do.  

Phyllis Bennis began by saying she had come to Boston to attend the memorial for Charley Richardson, co-founder of Military Families Speak Out, the previous afternoon. She felt he would be glad that the very next day, peace activists from the Boston area were having a strategy session on the escalating situation in Syria.

The situation in Syria is a disaster and getting worse, with casualties rising.  At this time, more than 100,000 people have been killed.  A third are civilians, with government supporters and militias being killed in higher numbers than rebels.  On the battlefield, the rebels have been losing ground and the Syrian Government gaining. 

Negotiations have been stymied by several factors:  Saudi Arabia and Qatar are not in agreement, no one is speaking with the democratic opposition, there are issues around who represents the rebels, and the omitting of Iran from negotiations. 

In the face of these problems, the idea of an international conference (Geneva II) with backing by the U.S. and Russia seems to have fallen apart. 

The conflict has spread beyond Syria; spilling over into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and the Golan Heights.

There are five discernable wars going on:

  1. Civil war - between Syrians. This began as nonviolent uprising against the repressive Assad regime.  The Assad regime had ties to the west that included support of extraordinary rendition and torture of Maher Arar, rendered from JFK). The uprising of 2010 turned violent after the arrest and murder of several 13 and 14 year old boys.  Armed opposition arose with armed forces defecting from the regime, with an initial idea to protect population. The uprising did not want intervention, or sectarianism, but these voices were edged out.  Some civil society non-violent activists are still organizing but many have fled, and these voices are sidelined by roar of guns on all sides in a full-scale civil war.  Other aspects, the uprising occurred after an 8 year drought and little work in Syria, with jobs going to preferred Alawites rather than general population.
  2. Regional War for power and the players are:  Saudia Arabia (Qatar, Turkey, Egypt, UAE, Jordan) vs. Iran (Syria, Iraq), “they’ll fight to the last Syrian.”
  3. Sectarian – Sunni – Shia (Iraq, Iran).  Syria is Sunni with strong Alawite, minorities – Druze, Christian.  The Syrian government and the rebels have lost support in the ongoing struggle.
  4. Global War between US – Russia (cold-war type conflict).  There are some issues around the naval base at Tartus, which Russia just evacuated. 
  5. Israel – Iran conflict which includes nuclear issues.

There is also an issue of a sub-war within the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are arming different rebel factions with weapons purchased from the U.S.

Saudi Arabia is arming Muslim Brotherhood-allied rebels and Qatar is arming the Salafi extremists with Al Qaeda ties.  These weapons have U.S. end-use restrictions which are either very broad, or the U.S. knows they are being violated and is not doing anything about it.  The issue around chemical weapons use seems to have been dropped, there is no evidence to back it up. 

France and Britain want U.S. support for a no-fly zone and bombing the Syrian Air Force.  Qatar and Saudi Arabia want the U.S. direct involvement in sending weapons.  So far the U.S. has sent 200 trainers to Jordan, non-lethal night vision glasses, communication gear. 

Israel is not so keen on overthrowing the Assad regime, which has kept the border under control.  The Israeli attacks in the spring were to prevent arms shipments from getting to Hezbollah/Lebanon. 

The thinking in U.S. strategic circles is to see the conflict as a long-term war and leveling the playing field by arming the rebels.  The U.S. kept the Iran-Iraq war going by choosing sides and arming Iraq, but that war never spread beyond their borders, this one already has spread and is destabilizing the entire Middle East. 

It seems that the U.S. military does not want to intervene, the intelligence community mostly is opposed to direct military intervention while the White House has had the biggest shifts and is vulnerable to pressure.  With Libya, Britain threatened to withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan, which the U.S. did not want.  The appointing of Rice and Power is a bad sign they led the campaign to get the U.S. to intervene in Libya, “they never saw a human rights violation that did not need the marines.”

The situation is much more complicated than an imperial war, all the uprisings of 2010 (Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya) were internal, anti-repression, pro-democracy uprisings. 

The major powers (U.S., Russia) should be cutting off arms to all sides to force them to the negotiating table and all sides need to be at the table, excluded parties are not bound by any of the agreements. 

Michael McPhearson spoke about building unity in the peace movement and broader outreach to the public.  At this time, 70% of the U.S. public opposes intervention in Syria.  Both Phyllis and Michael identified some basics that the peace movement can advocate for:

  •  A ceasefire and cutting off arms to all sides, ending the arms shipments is the signal of endgame, and forces all sides to the table;
  • Humanitarian relief (not intervention) for refugees and Syrian civilians through UN agencies;
  • Renewal of the call for a conference with all parties at the negotiating table;
  • A Nuclear Free Zone in the Middle East.

Our work going forward needs to be rooted in the facts, a deeper understanding of the complexities, as well as a realistic assessment of whom our own base is and how we might broaden that base so that more people understand how serious this crisis is and join us in taking action.

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