Anti-War in Form, Pro-War in Essence
It’s a cry being heard in the streets of the United Kingdom and the United States as President Barack Obama gears up to launch airstrikes on the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but it is a curious one. “No war in Syria”? Where have these people been the past two years as Syria’s Arab Spring turned into a brutal civil war? It’s a bit late to start marching for “no war in Syria.” Americans are notoriously slow — we still reject the metric system, after all — but this is a bit much.
A better slogan might be, “no war with Syria,” but even this is problematic because it betrays the self-centeredness typical of most Americans. The world can burn, just so long as the flames don’t touch our shores. The CIA can arm mercenaries abroad and topple democratically elected foreign governments, just so long as people who are mad as hell about that don’t fly planes into our buildings. Bloody wars can continue, just so long as they don’t involve American blood and treasure. “No war with Syria” is something a progressive like Phyllis Bennis and a reactionary like Rand Paul — who wishes Bennis didn’t have abortion rights, the right to vote, or enjoy affirmative action — can get together on.
But vacuous left-right alliances are nothing new in American politics.
What is new and distinctive about this new, so-called anti-war movement (whose half life will be even less than the one around NATO’s action in Libya back in 2011) is the alliance between overtly pro-Assad forces and the peaceniks veterans of the movements against the Viet Nam and Iraq wars. During the run-up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, nobody had the gall to carry portraits of Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein, the butcher of Baghdad and the Gasser-in-Chief of Halabja.
Pro-Assad forces are not anti-war, they are for the Assad regime’s war on all opposition forces — secular, Islamist, and Christian alike. At a Los Angeles rally, the Assad fans’ chants for peace were mumbled and half-hearted. When a speaker grabbed the microphone and shouted in favor of shabiha , the regime’s bloody civilian enforcers rooted in the Assad family’s criminal underworld connections, the crowd’s spirits were lifted and they began lively pro-Assad chants.
What is emerging now in the United States and the United Kingdom is a movement that is anti-war in form but pro-war in essence. It is opposed to U.S. military involvement in Syria, but says and does nothing about Russia sending millions of dollars in arms to the regime or about Iranian and Lebanese boots on the ground. It complains rightly and justly about America’s past and present crimes in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Viet Nam, but falls into Holocaust-denialism by claiming that Assad’s well-documented massive, murderous chemical weapons attack that killed 1,400 of his own people is a lie. This nascent movement is taking a side in Syria’s civil war by openly and unapologetically aligning with stateside supporters of the Assad regime while outwardly masquerading as neutral in a foreign conflict. It is a movement based on the same brand of hypocritical and highly selective, partisan outrage that powers the modern Tea Party.
This unholiest of unholy alliances has led Syrian-American supporters of the revolution to organize their own counter-protests. Better to march with them — even if their position on intervention is questionable or downright wrong — than march with people who are on the wrong side of history in Syria and whose opposition to U.S. airstrikes is based solely on their loyalty to a demonstrably murderous dictator.
Everyone in the West who wants to attend a so-called anti-war march needs to think through these issues because they are inseparable from the broader war in Syria, a war that began long before and will continue long after brief and militarily ineffective Tomahawk strikes, a war much longer than the American attention span, a war much more complicated than the cookie-cutter ‘analysis‘ by the peaceniks that is dusted off and re-used with each new armed conflict no matter how unique and different each war is. Once the cruise missiles are gone, the war will be over for the Americans but not for the Syrians.
Everyone who is ready to march against U.S. airstrikes side-by-side with Assad fans waving the regime flag need and glorifying shabiha need to ask themselves if they are also prepared to march with neo-Nazis against Israel, with the Klu Klux Klan against Obama, with the British National Party and Nick Griffin against Prime Minister David Cameron over Syria? Answering ‘yes’ means being consistently morally bankrupt; being morally bankrupt on a case-by-case basis by answering ‘no’ is no better. The way out of this devilish dilemma for this nascent opposition to U.S. airstrikes is to make support for Bashar al-Assad and his war a red line and join hands with the Syrians abroad who are not on Assad’s side.
Before you protest, think!