By Malik Little
People like Robin Yassin-Kassab make good arguments against U.S. airstrikes on the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria; the problem is that hardly anyone else is making them. Instead, we usually hear some variation of the following five.
The U.S. crossed President Obama’s “red line” in the 1980s by aiding and abetting Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons in the 1980s, first against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and then against Iraq’s restive Kurdish population. The U.S. crossed Obama’s “red line” again during its invasion and occupation of Iraq by using white phosphorus during an assault on rebel-held Fallujah. Before that, the U.S. used Agent Orange, napalm, and white phosphorus in Viet Nam. Based on this extremely brief history of U.S. chemical weapons usage, the U.S. is in no position morally to punish the Syrian regime for crossing a “red line” although it is in this position militarily.
Anti-interventionists who build their case on U.S. hypocrisy operate under the illusion that non-hypocritical military powers exist or that wars are exercises in morality. They don’t and they aren’t.
Waiting for a militarily powerful state founded and led by Santa Claus or a modern-day Gandhi to arise is not an acceptable course of action in the face of the clear and present danger of continued chemical weapons use by the Assad regime.
4. Non-violent alternatives, non-military options.
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow talked up sanctions, negotiations, arms embargos, war crimes tribunals, stepped up humanitarian aid to refugees, and all manner of embarrassingly ineffectual schemes given that the Syrian people exhausted non-military options over two years ago. For those that don’t know, their peaceful protests were met with gunfire, the torture and mutilation of children, rape on a mass scale, shelling, airstrikes, Scud missiles, and sarin gas attacks by the Assad regime that have killed over 100,000 people, forced two million to flee to neighboring countries, displaced five million internally, and led seven million to need humanitarian assistance – all in a country of a little more than 20 million.
There simply is no non-violent way to stop such a heinously violent regime.
The right of nations to determine their own fate free of foreign interference or external coercion is a rightly cherished and – through the anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century by the people of Syria and many others – a hard-won democratic principle. This democratic principle is not operative in Syria today because there already is massive foreign interference and external coercion – not by the U.S. but by Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia. Assad is propped up by foreign bayonets, boots on the ground, and money while the opposition relies on primitive, homemade weaponry because the ineffectual arms they receive intermittently from Saudi Arabia and Qatar are hardly effective at countering Assad’s continually renewed supply of tanks, planes, and heavy artillery. Add to that the multiple Israeli airstrikes that went completely unopposed and unanswered and we can see that U.S. airstrikes and/or stepped up military aid to the opposition will not violate a non-existent sovereignty and the inoperative democratic principle that underlies it.
In these debates, the I- and the E-words are generally used as pejoratives rather than as scientific or descriptive terms that could shed light on the question of U.S. military intervention into the Syrian civil war. Simply identifying the U.S. as an imperial or imperialist power says nothing about whether a given policy or action is good or bad, worthy of support or deserving opposition.
Of course, most self-described anti-imperialists oppose any and every military move of imperialist powers as a matter of principle, one that applies irrespective of time, place, history, context, or circumstance. From the sound premise that imperialism is bad, they draw the absurd conclusion that imperial powers can only do bad things, so whether they arm tyrants like Saddam Hussein and Francisco Franco or freedom fighters like Ho Chi Minh or America’s Founding Fathers makes no difference; for them, all of these imperial interventions were equally bad for humanity and deserved to be opposed. For this crowd, U.S. military intervention in foreign conflicts is about the nature and character of the U.S. and its role in the world rather than the nature and character of the conflict the U.S. becomes party to. This “it’s not you, it’s me” approach to other people and their wars has been correctly described as narcissistic, as if America’s national mirror is the right tool for reflecting on Syria and what to do about it.
1. Bad to worse.
The situation of the Syrian people is tragic and dire, but military action will only make their situation worse – so goes the argument. As Sarah Palin put it, “So we’re bombing Syria because Syria is bombing Syria?”
Seventy years ago, Jews in the Warsaw ghetto picked their guns up to put the Nazis’ guns down by staging an uprising as Adolf Hitler began exterminating the Jewish population of Europe with chemical weapons. Jewish leaders and the Warsaw ghetto’s fighters begged Allied governments to do something, anything, to alleviate their plight, but the Allies turned a deaf ear to their cries and stuck to their cruel “hands off” do-nothing policy.
Polish Jew and socialist Szmul Zygielbojm killed himself to protest the Allies’ criminal indifference and his suicide note ought to haunt today’s anti-interventionists because his words are nearly identical to those of the Syrians who plead for U.S. military action against their oppressors:
“The latest news that has reached us from Poland makes it clear beyond any doubt that the Germans are now murdering the last remnants of the Jews in Poland with unbridled cruelty. Behind the walls of the ghetto the last act of this tragedy is now being played out.
“The responsibility for the crime of the murder of the whole Jewish nationality in Poland rests first of all on those who are carrying it out, but indirectly it falls also upon the whole of humanity, on the peoples of the Allied nations and on their governments, who up to this day have not taken any real steps to halt this crime. By looking on passively upon this murder of defenseless millions – tortured children, women and men – they have become partners to the responsibility.”
Like World War Two, Syria is a rare case where the only way to peace is through war, where the only way to save lives is to take lives, and this truth has nothing to do with the tired Hitler-Assad analogy or Orwellian doublethink. The only way to save lives in Syria is to bring down the regime that is snuffing them out by the thousands.
Ask any veteran of the French, Italian, Greek, or Yugoslav resistance movements if the Allied bombing campaigns against fascist forces made bad situations worse. Ask them if putting the Nazis’ guns down would have been possible without picking their guns up in conjunction with the guns of Allied governments.
Malik Little is an activist and writer. You can find him on Facebook.