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Socialist Project • E-Bulletin No. 1332
November 18, 2016

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Solidarity With the People of Syria!
Build the Antiwar Movement!

Richard Fidler

David Bush's article “Syria and the Antiwar Tradition,” in the November 3 issue of The Bullet, is a commendable attempt to debate what antiwar activists in Canada and other “Western” countries should be saying and doing about the current war in Syria.

Syrian protest.

In that country, the rebel cities that rose up four years ago in revolt against the brutal Bashar al-Assad dictatorship are now under a genocidal siege, bombed and assaulted from the air by Assad's military, aided and abetted by Russian fighter jets and bombers. Their desperate fight for survival, if unsuccessful, will put paid to the Arab Spring and with it the potential for building a democratic, anti-imperialist governmental alternative in the Middle East for an extended period to come. Socialists everywhere have every interest in supporting the Syrian people and opposing that war.[1]

David Bush correctly calls for building a broad antiwar movement in this country and he cites as precedents the powerful movements against the Vietnam war in the 1960s and ’70s and the Iraq war in 2003. Oddly, however, in discussing how the antiwar movement should address the war in Syria, he wants to impose limits on the political message and alignments of the movement that in my view would contradict the goal of building a united front of opposition to the war. In doing so, he – unwittingly – reveals one of the major reasons why such a movement is lacking.

David takes issue in particular with “sections of the international left” that seek to build a movement of support to the anti-Assad opposition and opposition to the brutal military assault on it by the regime and its allies, chiefly Putin's Russia. They are framing the complex situation in Syria “in ways that are completely off the mark in terms of guiding an appropriate response at home,” he charges.

Modern Imperialism

For socialists in the imperialist countries, he says, “the main enemy is at home.” In Canada, this means focusing the antiwar movement on Canada's “drive to war” while presumably putting solidarity with the Syrian people and their democratic popular uprising on the back burner. He criticizes some left opponents of the war for confusing “the act of building a solidarity movement with the act of building an antiwar movement.” Solidarity, he says, involves “bringing awareness and material support to a group of people,” while an antiwar movement is directed to “stopping your own government's drive to war.”

“Speaking out on crimes perpetrated elsewhere is important but prioritizing the fight at home is key....”

I fail to see this distinction between building solidarity and building an antiwar movement. The revolutionary socialist movement has historically not made such a distinction: building mass antiwar movements is precisely the clearest and most direct way to express solidarity with the victims of imperialist war and the democratic and revolutionary forces on a global scale.

“[P]rioritizing the fight at home,” David explains, means that “In Canada, the focus should be on ensuring the Liberals do not re[-]engage with airstrikes in Syria. It also means demanding the [Canadian] troops be withdrawn from the Middle East and from the Ukraine and Eastern Europe, while also advocating for more refugees to be taken in and stopping Canada's escalating arms trade.”

In themselves, these are good demands. But isn't there something missing? What about the bombing, and the actually existing war that is taking place today in Syria? Surely we can't remain silent on that.

For example, in France an antiwar committee called a demonstration for October 29 in Paris around a number of demands that speak to the self-determination of the Syrian people. Among them: Immediate end to the bombing of Aleppo and in the rest of Syria; departure from Syria of all foreign militias and occupation armies; international prosecution of war criminals; French government assurance of protection, in accordance with international law, of the Syrian people, prevented up to now from having the necessary means to defend themselves against the air bombing of schools, hospitals, markets and homes; immediate and unconditional access to the besieged and starving populations, in coordination with the democratically elected local councils; and immediate freeing of all political prisoners in Syria.

These demands, or some variation of them, should resonate with many people, not least the Syrian exile community whose ranks are now swelled by millions as a result of Assad's brutal repression. In Ottawa recently, I chanced upon a group of about 100 demonstrators on Parliament Hill waving Canadian and Syrian flags. Almost all of the demonstrators were Syrian Canadians. The demonstration, I was told by the chief marshal, had been hastily organized within their community to call on the Canadian government to protest the bombing of Aleppo and other cities. The demonstrators’ slogans were clear and straightforward: Stop the bombing! End foreign intervention! Trudeau, speak out against Assad's murderous assault!

But where was the traditional antiwar movement? And what if anything is it doing about Syria? The most recent statement on the Canadian Peace Alliance web site is headlined Stop Bombing Syria. But it is focused on NATO. Not wrong in principle, but the statement, addressed to Canada's previous bombing of ISIS positions in Syria, is many months out of date. There is nothing on the CPA site about the current murderous air and bombing assault on Syria's cities. And it would appear that across the country the movement is doing nothing to protest the war.

Why the silence? Is it only because Trudeau has pulled Canada's fighter jets out of Syria; after all, Canadian planes and troops are active in other parts of the Middle East. The CPA denounces the bombing of Syria by Harper and Trudeau but says nothing about the bombing now by Putin.

Shift in Global Geopolitics

In my view, the failure of the antiwar movement in Canada – and elsewhere – to address the situation in Syria is a reaction in part not only to the admittedly complex nature of the military and political alignments involved but in particular to a shift in global geopolitics that the anti-imperialist and antiwar activists are having difficulty assimilating and incorporating in their strategy. (For explanations of those alignments see the suggested readings listed at the end of this article.)

To put it bluntly, I sense a reluctance on the part of many activists to condemn the Russian bombing and its alliance with Assad when Russia itself is the target of NATO encirclement and threats of aggression, especially in Eastern Europe. This is understandable. As David Bush notes, political and economic elites in the “West” are waging a campaign to demonize Russia, reflected in hypocritical attacks on some antiwar organizations for not signing on to that campaign. As David says, we must reject the view that Russia is the main enemy on a global scale. Thus it is logical and correct for him to include the demand for Canadian and NATO troop withdrawals from Ukraine and Eastern Europe among the appropriate demands for the antiwar movement of today.

But does that preclude criticism and denunciation of Russia's bombing and overall counter-revolutionary strategy in Syria? That was the view of one comrade in discussions I participated in recently. He expressed his discomfiture at criticism of Russia's conduct in Syria. “Where Russia is concerned,” he said, we should instead aim our fire at the U.S. and NATO.

This seems an evasion to me. It is not the U.S. or NATO which are bombing the hell out of Aleppo and other dissident cities, it is Assad and his Russian ally. To be sure, Putin's commitment to maintaining the Assad regime is in part motivated as a response to threatening moves by the U.S. and NATO in other regions, especially eastern Europe. But do such maneuvers oblige us to maintain silence on Russia's atrocities in Syria? (As it happens, in Syria the U.S. has been attempting to collaborate with Russia and the Assad regime in efforts to rout its Islamist fundamentalist opponents.)

It is no accident that David turns to the pre-World War I debates among socialists for historical precedents for today's antiwar movement. Our world today is much more like the world in the early 20th century, one of contending imperialist powers of uneven strength and influence, than to the Cold War confrontation of East and West blocs that shaped global politics in the latter half of the century.

David draws attention to the linkage between war and imperialism that the early socialists made. As he notes, however, their fine resolutions were ignored when the war broke out: “most sections of the [Socialist] International sided with their own ruling class.” The “correct orientation of each national group,” he says, “was to oppose its own ruling class's drive to war.” The main enemy is at home.

I agree, but would add that this stance did not mean that socialists in one imperialist country would turn a blind eye to the crimes of other imperialist powers in their mutual rivalry for plunder of resources, new markets and colonies. Socialist internationalism was the corollary of consistent solidarity with all the peoples and nations subject to imperialist exploitation and aggression. That is the essence of the resolutions of the Second International and the Zimmerwald Left cited by David.

United Front of Antiwar Opposition

This points us to the need for political clarity in the united front of antiwar opposition David proposes we build. He cites the precedents of the mass movements that were built in opposition to the Vietnam war in the 1960s and ’70s and the global mobilizations against the impending Iraq invasion in 2003. In both cases, as he notes, the “terms of the movement were simple: do you oppose the war? If yes, then let's join forces on that question and debate other political perspectives along the way.”

“What has been lost in the debate around the war in Syria is precisely this perspective,” he says.

Actually, in the case of the Vietnam war, it was not quite that simple. A fierce debate was waged in the movement, especially in the United States, over the slogans that would build the broadest front of opposition to the war and solidarity with the revolution. In the beginning many antiwar activists wanted to focus the movement on the demand for negotiations to end the war in the hope of finding common ground with bourgeois politicians by conceding some legitimate interest to Washington, some interest it could defend in negotiations with the Vietnamese revolutionaries. Those in the militant wing of the movement, on the other hand, argued for the simple demand “Out Now!,” which was consistent with the democratic right of the Vietnamese people to self-determination and thus an expression of the fullest solidarity.

Over time, with mounting antiwar sentiment among the public and the U.S. troops, spurred by the military victories of the Vietnamese fighters themselves, Out Now became the dominant slogan, and around that demand a mighty movement was built that eventually did force Nixon to the bargaining table, where Washington was obliged to make concessions that contributed to the ultimate victory of the Vietnamese revolution. (In Canada, we also raised the demand for an end to Canada's complicity with Washington's war.)

The point is that opposition to a war may not by itself be sufficient as the basis for building an effective antiwar united front. The central demands must be principled and point to the clearest and most effective way to end the imperialist intervention and advance the interests of those fighting it on the ground. Thus I would question David's assertion that in the case of Syria a united front of antiwar opposition should include “all those who advocate for ending the involvement of your own ruling classes.” Would that include supporters of Assad? Of the Russians, or of the other forces allied with them? David rightly rejects such alliances elsewhere in his article. I would think the central political message should include the demand for an immediate end to the bombing and the assault on the civilian population, coupled with other demands that express material solidarity with the Syrians, not their government – along the lines of the slogans raised in the Paris and Ottawa demonstrations I noted above.

In the case of both Vietnam and Iraq, the war was the project of the hegemonic imperialist power, the United States, albeit in alliances with lesser imperialist powers. And in Vietnam, the other protagonists were North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front: strong forces united around a common project of national liberation, re-unification of their country, and a break from imperialist domination.

In the Middle East today this scenario does not apply in the same way. In fact, the lack of a united anti-imperialist, anti-Hussein movement in Iraq was the primary explanation for the failure of the resistance. And disappointment over the failure of the global antiwar protests in early 2003, immense as they were, to impede the Pentagon assault on Iraq is a major factor in the passivity of the international antiwar movement today. The more recent Arab Spring, inspiring as it was, could not compensate, as it took the form of largely spontaneous uprisings that, even where victorious, did not produce major democratic or popular conquests and in Egypt were soon succeeded by a regime even more repressive than Mubarak's.

Unipolar World?

But there is a further factor as well. Today's world differs substantially from that of the Vietnam war. In the 1960s, a military, political and economic bloc led by a dominant imperialist power, the United States, confronted a bloc of states that in one way or another had been torn from the circuits of capital accumulation under Wall Street's aegis and constituted a vital source of support and even survival for “Third World” liberation movements, as in the case of the Cuban revolution. Today, in the wake of the collapse of the ostensibly “socialist” bloc, we need to pay more attention to the shape of the world that is emerging on a global scale. In a context of declining U.S. hegemony and the emergence of new and nuclear-armed capitalist powers like China and Russia, we must assess what that means for the anti-imperialist fighters of today.

I think it is wrong to approach Syria as just another front in some “new Cold War” between Russia and the U.S. and NATO. Each situation must be assessed in terms of the class forces involved, not some abstract geopolitics that overlooks the interplay of contending imperial interests. In the post-Cold War world, a new era of national and inter-imperialist competition and rivalry, socialists undermine their own credibility if they limit their “anti-imperialism” to denouncing only their “own” imperialism. As Gilbert Achcar argues in a valuable article, our starting point in this case must be the interests of the Arab revolution, the Arab Spring, and the popular uprising that in Syria erupted almost half a decade ago.

The challenge posed to the antiwar movement by the global configuration of forces is huge, there is no denying it. But where peoples are fighting their oppression and imperialist intervention, there is no dichotomy between antiwar resistance and solidarity with the forces on the ground. Nor should our solidarity be determined by whether or to what degree the Canadian state is directly involved.

Yes, in Canada we must direct our fire against the Trudeau government's aggressive moves against Russia and its present and projected military engagements elsewhere, as in Africa.

But a consistent antiwar movement should also have no hesitation in attempting to mobilize solidarity with the Syrian democratic and popular opposition – for an end to the war: for an end to the bombing, withdrawal of all foreign troops (in this case mainly Russian), and emergency provision of massive food, medical and other necessary supplies to the population in the besieged cities. •

Richard Fidler is an Ottawa activist who blogs at Life on the Left.


1. For a recent description of some of the ways in which the Syrian grassroots opposition has organized in the face of Assad's repression, see “Self Organization in the Syrian Revolution,” by Mark Boothroyd.

Related Reading


#3 Barrie Zwicker 2016-11-18 11:35 EST
Fidler article
Fidler’s analysis is flawed, to say the least, by his major omissions. Standing out like sore missing thumbs are:

[a] The many early calls, some continuing, from “the West” for “regime change” in Syria. John Kerry is but one of these. Calling for “regime change” in another country is at the very least arrogant and dangerous. It is, additionally, tragicomic when coming from those representing a power, the imperialist USA, that has overthrown many democratically elected governments, among which is Iran’s. It is the people of Syria, whom Fidler claims to represent, whose job it is to change their governments, preferably peacefully and if the situation is too dire, by more muscular means, not by outside-imposed clandestine agents of death, destruction and chaos.

[b] These funded, trained and paid “insurgents” sent to Syria by “the West” and other interlopers. He clumsily avoids a whisper about these, even though even in Western mainstream media the violent conflict in Syria is routinely described as “a proxy war.” (See as one instance to hand, Mark MacKinnon’s report in The Globe and Mail of today [Nov. 18] that includes these references):

“Atop the pile is a closeup of the city of Aleppo, and Mr. Fallon uses his finger to trace the shrinking part of the city that is controlled by anti-regime rebels. The fighters, some of them Western-backed…”

“Donald Trump, the president-elect of the United States, has indicated that he plans to end U.S. support for the anti-Assad rebels.”

[c] Western-contrived false flag operations in Syria, for instance the early reports that the Assad government used chemical weapons, that lyingly buttress the Western narrative and are abetted by false front organizations and other psychological warfare tactics, all normally reliably megaphoned by the Western mainstream media.

“But isn't there something missing?” Fidler asks of Bush’s piece. That’s rich.

#2 Peter Gose 2016-11-18 09:03 EST
Pretty disappointing to see you spouting this ISO crap, Richard. This is pretty much on a par with the NATO talking points we get from Ashley Smith. Your discussion completely overlooks that the Arab Spring in Syria was hijacked by jihadis funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and trained in Turkey, in no small measure by the CIA. Is this your idea of a liberation struggle or national self-determination? Wahhabi head-chopping and liver-eating have never been a big part of the mix in Syria and people there vastly prefer Assad to that, which is why they voted overwhelmingly for him in 2014 and why most of the population has congregated in government controlled areas. During the 3 week + bombing halt in Alleppo, it was the jihadis who weren't letting people out through the humanitarian corridors, and in the past couple of days that captive population has been demonstrating against Al-Nusra, not Assad.

The bigger picture here is that this hijacked uprising is part of a larger Anglo-Israeli-Saudi state-smashing agenda in the middle east that has already claimed Iraq, Lybia and Syria, that is, the non-sectarian states in the region. Since the Yinon Plan of 1982, Israel has increasingly favoured the promotion of sectarian chaos among neighbouring states as a security strategy. Saudi Arabia has been happy to comply and the US is on board because it's captive to those two clients and too weak to effect overt regime change any more. Geopolitically, Canada is part of this axis of jihad. When we sell arms to Saudi Arabia, we promote wars of aggression against Syria and Yemen. David Bush is right: we have to fight the enemy at home.

#1 Purple Library Guy 2016-11-17 22:52 EST
Oh, for . . .
Bug off. The Syrian people have plenty of reasons to be dissatisfied with the Syrian government, but the thugs the Syrian government are fighting do not represent them. Rather, they represent the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and to some extent Turkey. They're just a modern form of the Nicaraguan Contras who happen to be terrorizing a country whose government we're not as enthusiastic about. Plenty of time to resume objecting to the Syrian government after it has gotten rid of the vicious mix of fanatics and mercenaries currently trying to destroy the country.

As to Russia, the Syrian government asked them to help and they helped; there's nothing actually wrong with that. Not only is it in accord with international law, it isn't even immoral. This is somewhat distinct from US actions in Syria, which violate international law in myriad ways including "the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."

It's still a war of aggression if you train the troops, arm the troops, and get a friend to pay the troops, even if the troops aren't actually your citizens. I would prefer if the Syrian government and any allies it can find would minimize civilian casualties in the process of fighting off this invasion, but defending your country from invasion is still fundamentally different from invading a country. It is ludicrous to suggest that an "anti-war" movement should agitate to stop invaded countries from defending themselves.

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