Peace "Plus" in Syria

by Berry Friesen (May 30, 2017)

It’s never simply “peace” we want.  It’s always peace plus something else. Often, the "plus" part complicates peace, strangling it before it can grow.

For example, the world has not heard much from US peace advocates about Syria. That's because we are deeply divided and unable to articulate a clear message.

Here in my corner of the world (Lancaster County, Pennsylvania), we have peace organizations that have been very welcoming of Syrian refugees, but silent about the horrible war that expelled those refugees from their homes.

Let’s explore how the peace movement is divided around Syria.

One camp wants peace plus a new government led by someone other than a member of the Assad family. This camp supported the Obama Administration’s demand that “Assad must go” because of President Assad’s poor record on human rights.  It emphasizes the nonviolent roots of the “Arab Spring” six years ago and downplays overwhelming imperial collaboration with Salafist groups ever since.  It is critical of Assad’s efforts to expel Salafist invaders and criticizes Russia and Iran for coming to Syria’s aid.

A second camp wants peace plus a secular government that will keep Syria free of imperial control.  This camp sees President Assad as Syria’s best hope to achieve this. Thus, it tends to speak well of Russia’s and Iran’s military and diplomatic help, but critically of the empire’s support of Salafist extremists, especially al-Qaeda and ISIS. This camp criticizes Assad on human rights, but recognizes his popularity among Syrian people and the propaganda and deception at the root of many anti-Assad accusations.

National groups in the first camp include Sojourners, the War Resisters League and Pace e Bene.

Groups in the second camp include Veterans for Peace, the United National Antiwar Coalition and Peace Action.

Groups trying to keep a leg in each camp include Code Pink and United for Peace and Justice.  *

Syrian-born people are active all across this spectrum.

The groups named so far are left-of-center politically; each would call itself “progressive.” Yet it would be a mistake to assume there are no right-leaning peace groups.

Antiwar.com is a prime example; it combines a libertarian stance with an anti-imperial perspective and a call for peace in Syria.

Though the Trump presidential campaign cannot be described as “anti-imperial,” it harshly criticized the interventionism of the Bush and Obama administrations and promised to let the Syrian people decide Syria’s future.  Certainly Trump won some voter support because of this campaign promise.

More recently, the Trump Administration has reneged on that commitment and now seems to be attempting to gain control over eastern Syria.  Whether this reversal reflects Trump’s true intentions or is in response to pressure from the establishment core of the two war parties, I cannot say.

My point is there is a segment of the American right that opposes US imperialism, often more consistently than some segments of the American left. Yet contact between peace-oriented people on the left and right is nearly nonexistent.  This too weakens the voice for peace in Syria.

Here at this blog, we have focused on the efforts of the US-led alliance to destabilize Syria, arm Salafist forces and bring to pass a Syria so weak that it can exist only as a vassal of the empire.  (Of the three essays linked in the endnote below, our stance is closest to Ajamu Baraka’s.) These destablization efforts are rarely reported by Western mainstream media. Yet they truly reflect the very character of empire, a character first revealed to us by biblical texts.

Stances aside, what can be done to stop the bloodshed in Syria and open the pathway to negotiations and peace?

Russia currently leads one such initiative (the “Astana Process”), supported by Turkey and Iran; it includes the Assad Administration and 13 armed rebel factions negotiating collectively as the High Negotiations Committee.

This Process includes amnesty provisions for rebels who lay down their weapons; de-escalation areas for rebels who intend to fight another day; ceasefire agreements negotiated locally for defined “security zones;” checkpoints around those security zones maintained by Russian, Turkish and Iranian forces; free access to security zones by humanitarian agencies; and the cessation of aerial bombardments over both de-escalation areas and security zones.

It entails government-supervised evacuations of armed rebel fighters from places of intense fighting. It does not affect the continuing war between the Syrian government and ISIS in the eastern part of Syria.

Ultimately, the Astana Process assumes the Assad Administration will negotiate a political settlement with the rebel groups remaining in the de-escalation areas. However, that step is only a hope and is not yet in sight.

How can US peace groups support the Astana Process?

   1.  Inform their supporters of the dominant role the members of the US-led empire have played in fueling the war in Syria these past 6-plus years.

   2.  Call on the Trump Administration to support the Astana Process and cease all efforts to establish a neo-colonial presence in eastern Syria;

   3. Push for congressional support for H.R. 608 and S. 532, the “Stop Arming Terrorists Act” sponsored by Representative Tulsi Gabbard and Senator Rand Paul respectively.

Stephen Kinzer, senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University and award-winning author and journalist, offers this background:

“The proposal to stop sending weapons to insurgents in Syria is based on the principle that pouring arms into a war zone only intensifies suffering and makes peace more difficult to achieve. Congress made a decision like this about the Nicaraguan contras during the 1980s. Aid to the contras was cut off by the Boland Amendment. The result was a peace process that finally brought an end to wars not only in Nicaragua, but also in El Salvador and Guatemala. This is the example we should be following. Cutting off arms shipments forces belligerents to negotiate. That is what we achieved in Nicaragua. It should be our goal in Syria as well.”

For too long, the US voice for peace in Syria has been tentative and weak.  The American public, which has enormous sympathy for Syrian refugees, is confused and thus silent about the war itself.  As supporters of peace, we can do better.  For the sake of the Syrian people, we must do better.
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*    Reflecting these three stances, see essays by Jim Wallis, Ajamu Baraka and Phyllis Bennis.