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SYRIA: WHAT IS TO BE DONE? (Aug. 7, 2013)

By David McReynolds

David McReynolds is a member of the Socialist Party, Democratic Socialists of America, and Committee of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. Now retired, he was on staff of War Resisters League for nearly 40 years.

We know that the war in Syria—which is a civil war, not a revolution—is profoundly tragic, with over 100,000 dead, with tens upon tens of thousands of people fleeing into neighboring countries. I'm baffled that the left seems in confusion. I know there are some on what might be called the "hard left" (I'd be inclined to call it the thick headed left) who see Assad and his regime to be socialists under assault, including, by one recent statement, by Israel. (I have no idea what Israel will do—its foreign policy is brutal and clumsy but not usually insane—I doubt very much the Israeli generals, much as they may hate Assad, want to risk trading a relatively peaceful border for one under the control of extreme Islamists). And I'm aware that another part of the left seems to feel that we must intervene (a small segment of the left, but one we heard from on Libya as well).

At least I know how little I know about Syria. I have never been there, nor made a study of it. (Unlike Libya, about which I did know something, and where I think US/NATO policy was dishonest). I know Assad has run a brutal regime. I also know that he does have some genuine popular support (my source for this is the New York Times). And I know that at this time, the rebels are in retreat and Assad is gaining the upper hand in a military sense. It may well be that Syria cannot be "put back together," that a Rubicon has been crossed in terms of bloodshed. I know there are deep religious divisions in Syria (not, I think, the cause of the trouble, but, once the trouble begins, then, as with Iraq, they take on a terrible life of their own).

Most of all I don't think there is anything the left can or should do except profoundly and totally oppose any military aid to the rebels, and give all possible support to negotiations. Some things to keep in mind: Lebanon had a similarly bloody civil war which continued until it finally simply ran out of steam. The US had a civil war which, considering how small our population was, took a terrible toll. More Americans lost their lives in our civil war than were lost in the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War all put together!!!

We do know (even if, as with me, we don't know much) that there were some decent, secular, democratic forces involved in the original uprising against Assad. We can seek to maintain contact with them, even as we categorically refuse to send military aid, either overtly or covertly. (Here, as so often, I would urge those who feel we need to send military aid to find a way to go there and join the fight—I'm sure the rebels would rejoice in a few English speaking radicals willing to carry guns, and I'd suggest that those in the hard left who think Assad must be defended to take similar action—put their bodies where their slogans are).

I'm disturbed by the shallow level of some of the discussion. We have heard of possible use of poison gas by Assad—though of late that charge seems to have lost steam. [see postscript below-eds] For Americans to raise the question of chemical war is in poor taste, since we were teachers in this area, not only with tear gas, but with the enriched uranium littering the battle fields of Iraq, and the terrible toll agent orange took of the Vietnamese (and of Americans serving in that war).

It is in particularly poor taste for the Americans to raise this, given the "covert" role we played in helping Saddam use poison gas against the Kurds and the Iranians.

And speaking of Saddam, and bloodshed, and the need to intervene for "humanitarian reasons" in Syria, I do not remember one word from the White House during the terrible war Iraq launched against Iran and which took the lives of a half million young men on each side over the course of that war. On the contrary, the US was delighted to see Iran under military attack.

As a pacifist I would not fight in this or any war—some would say a cheap way out. But I can distinguish between and among wars. If ever there was a just war, it was that of the Vietnamese people against the US, and if ever there might have been reason for a Security Council decision to establish a no-fly zone, it would have been there, against the US. I think all of us who are now old would say the Spanish Civil War was also a just war, and we salute those who fought there in defense of the Republic. We can say, of the Israeli attacks on Gaza and on Lebanon, that while they were not attacking secular, democratic forces, they were engaged in barbaric attacks on civilian populations, and involved the use of white phosphorus. I'll take the "humanitarians" in the State Department seriously when they speak out in defense of the Palestinians.

But most of all—granting how terrible this war is, and how unjust it is for its impact on the civilians—have we not learned by now that one cannot count on an imperial power to act with democratic and humanitarian concerns? Have we forgotten how, in Indochina, the US sold out the Viet Minh, with whom we had been working, and turned that area back over to the colonial control of France?

No military aid to the rebels. A curse on all who send in weapons, whether Russia, Iran, or Hezbollah or, as some seem to forget, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States which have been so eager to fund the rebels but are totally opposed to democratic and secular movements in their own territory. What has happened to that part of the left which seems to think the US has a positive role to play in these areas?

Let me close by noting of the voices in the State Department for some form of humanitarian "aid" that they represent an armed and oppressive state which invaded Iraq without reason, has laid waste to Afghanistan and has given Israel unconditional support. They have lost the right to speak in moral terms. Silence would become them very well. Or, at the least, serious work with Russia for an international conference to bring the warring parties to the table.

POSTSCRIPT August 23, 2013