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New Internationalism » Article / Commentary

U.S. Not Bombing Syria: A Victory Against Another U.S. War

September 19, 2013 ·

President Obama's decision to ask Congress for authorization to use military force against Syria set the stage for a resurgent anti-war movement that cohered quickly - and won an extraordinary, unforeseen victory.

For just these moments we should be savoring a victory. The U.S. is not bombing Syria, as we certainly would have been if not for a huge mobilization of anti-war pressure on the president and especially on Congress. It was, according to the Washington Post, “the first major test of the strength of the anti-war movement in the Obama era.” 

Some of us might disagree that it was the first – there was/is Guantanamo, was/is Afghanistan, was/is the expanded drone war, was/is Libya… But this time, yes – we passed the test. By mobilizing what the Post called “progressive groups [that] rapidly mobilized opposition to Obama’s Syria plans with calls, e-mails and demonstrations,” we prevented a dramatic and deadly escalation of the brutal war already underway in Syria.

Celebrations should perhaps be muted – President Obama still maintains he has the right to send cruise missiles and warplanes against Syria with or without Congressional or UN approval. The U.S. -Russian agreement on finding and destroying Syrian chemical weapons could still founder. Others in the Middle East – most notably Israel – still hold chemical and nuclear weapons arsenals that threaten and destabilize the region. And most of all, hundreds of Syrians were killed even the day after the U.S. -Russian agreement was signed. The war is far from over.

But this is an extraordinary, unforeseen victory for the global anti-war movement, following weeks of fear that a military strike was imminent. First the British parliament, facing a cavalcade of protest and pressure from our friends in the Stop the War coalition and beyond, unexpectedly stood up to pressure from their conservative prime minister, voting overwhelmingly against supporting a U.S.  strike. 

That turned things around in Washington. Suddenly President Obama – who had been prepared to go to war unilaterally and thus illegally without the UN, without NATO, without the Arab League – was apparently not quite ready to go to war without the Brits. His decision to ask Congress for authorization to use military force against Syria set the stage for a resurgent anti-war movement that cohered quickly, bringing long-time peace activists back and pulling in new constituencies from those mobilizing for economic justice, women’s rights, immigration, labor and beyond.

A New Movement Rises

We were everywhere – inside and outside the halls of Congress, in Washington and in local districts, in raucous protests outside the Capitol and in one-on-one meetings with Members, in church basements and on world-wide television. We didn’t worry about organizational forms, we just went to work – our campaigns were fast, agile, and focused, and we brought enough pressure to force Congress to say no. We were everywhere. The world was with us, and we said no.

We’re all just coming up for air. Here’s some of what I was working on, with so many others. Early on in the crisis I joined the Democracy Now! crew to discuss the diplomatic options being ignored, and the dangers of accepting the Bush-era claim that the only choices are war or nothing. With my long-time co-conspirator David Wildman, the general secretary for human rights and racial justice for the Global Ministries of the Methodists in New York, we wrote of “Moral Obscenities in Syria” in The Nation. Along with folks from FCNL, the Center for American Progress and others, I was part of a video town hall meeting/teach-in on Syria sponsored by MoveOn.org – with thousands of people participating. 

Code Pink holds up bloody hands behind Secretary of State John Kerry throughout two-hour hearing.

When the president announced he would ask Congress for authorization, I wrote of the “Optimism and Fear” of the new political moment. We drafted talking points on why we shouldn’t attack Syria that IPS’s crack communications team distributed far and wide. I became practically a regular on MSNBC’s News Nation for a while, dissecting each day’s developments and coming back to diplomatic alternatives. On The Real News I discussed why a military strike provided no solution at all to the crisis in Syria, and on NPR’s Forum program on San Francisco’s KQED, we debated Syria and red lines. On WBAI I talked with Alex Kane and Lizzy Ratner about why an attack on Syria would mean “a disaster any way we cut it.” I spent hours every day on various Pacifica and other radio shows across the country, and on TV shows as far abroad as South Africa, Catalunya, and Lebanon. On Russian TV I talked about the CIA deputy director’s fears about the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, and on China’s CCTV about what Washington’s “evidence” did and didn’t show. 

In between there were meetings with members of Congress and their staffs, discussions with journalists and analysts, rallies outside of Congress and conference calls with Peace Action leaders and other peace strategists all over the place. When President Obama scheduled his second speech – the one where he announced there would be no air strikes, for now – we scheduled community viewings of the speech and panel discussions about what comes next. Late that night I issued a statement jointly with the Reverend Jesse Jackson in which we looked beyond the immediate victory to the need for maintaining vigilance and to the future goal of a Middle East weapons of mass destruction-free zone – with no exceptions. That would include not only Syria’s chemical arsenal but Israel’s unacknowledged, uninspected, and dangerous nuclear arsenal as well.

It’s been an amazing time.

Now, there’s a huge amount of work still to do. The U.S. -Russia chemical weapons agreement is signed, but could easily derail. We have to keep the pressure on both the administration and Congress, making clear that military force will still be illegal, immoral and dangerous, even if the Syrian regime doesn’t dot every “i” and cross every “t” to Washington’s wishes.

The UN Report That Doesn't Prove Who Did It

The UN report on Syria’s chemical weapons is important – confirming the use of sarin gas. But it raises more questions than it answers on issues beyond that.

The U.S.  claims that the UN report somehow “proves” that the Syrian regime is responsible for the attacks simply aren’t true. The UN inspectors were careful to keep within their narrow mandate of determining what the weapons were – but everything else, including the kind of rockets that might have been used, remains inconclusive.

Newly appointed UN Ambassador Samantha Power said the report showed definitively it was “clear the Syrian regime was behind the attack.” Really? She – along with every other mainstream commentator talking about the UN report – must have forgotten to mention the UN inspectors’ own reference to what they themselves called “limitations.”

On page 10, for instance, the report describes how “a leader of the local opposition forces who was deemed prominent in the area to be visited by the Mission, was identified and requested to take ‘custody’ of the Mission.” It goes on to explain how that contact was not only to facilitate safe movement by the inspectors – something also appropriately arranged by contacts with the Syrian government – but was also “to facilitate the access to the most critical cases/witnesses to be interviewed and sampled by the Mission and to control patients and crowd in order for the Mission to focus on its main activities.” So apparently access to – and perhaps choice of? – victims and witnesses was arranged by the opposition. Perhaps even more significantly, on page 22 of the report, the inspectors analyzing the munitions describe how “during the time spent at these locations, individuals arrived carrying other suspected munitions indicating that such potential evidence is being moved and possibly manipulated.” (Emphasis mine.) 

The inspectors were honest about the limitations of their report. They’re not sure, but maybe the evidence was being moved around, maybe manipulated. We can’t be sure either. That’s why claiming this report somehow proves anything definitive beyond the horrific use of sarin gas as a chemical weapon is simply wrong. This was a war crime – and there should be accountability. But to do that right, we need another inspection team, this time with a mandate to figure out who was responsible. We can’t do that based on evidence that has been “possibly manipulated.”

What's Left To Do?

First, we have to make sure the U.S.  does not return to its threats of military strikes – even if some technical glitch delays implementation of one or another piece of the agreement. Any such threats would still be illegal, immoral, and dangerous. The new peace movement that rose with such power in the last few weeks needs to stay engaged, mobilized, ready.

Second, we need to move beyond the chemical weapons prohibitions towards helping to end the brutal war underway in Syria. We need to make real the U.S.  insistence that “there is no military solution.” That means calling for an urgent ceasefire and arms embargo by and to all sides. It means pushing the U.S.  and Russia to return to plans for a Geneva II peace conference, with all sides at the table. That includes representatives of the original non-violent democratic protest movement in Syria – still struggling under tremendous odds, though their voices are too often drowned out by the violence around them.

Syrian refugees in southern Turkey.

Third, we need to pressure the U.S.  to provide far greater assistance to the humanitarian crisis raging across Syria and throughout the region. With two million Syrians seeking refuge in neighboring countries, almost six million displaced from their homes including a million children, desperation has set in. Money, certainly, is needed; the US is pledging significant amounts, but much of it has not been delivered to the UN and other agencies, and much more is needed.

Fourth, we need to use our victory in preventing greater U.S.  war in Syria to expand to demanding real negotiations with Iran. That means urging the Obama administration to open new talks with Iran’s new president. That means calling for an expansion of the chemical weapons prohibition in Syria to a full weapons of mass destruction-free zone throughout the Middle East – no exceptions. That means Israel’s unacknowledged but widely known chemical and nuclear weapons arsenals would be brought under international supervision, just like Syria’s, and quickly destroyed. Just like Syria’s. 

Other Crises Continue — Egypt, Iraq

In the meantime, while attention shifted urgently to the new crisis rising with the threat of U.S.  military strikes against Syria, the consequences of the coup d’etat in Egypt continue to escalate. With the overthrow of the democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi and the attack on the Muslim Brotherhood, protesters and journalists remain in jail, police and military forces appear to have virtual impunity for widespread human rights violations, any independent or critical media platforms have been closed down or face the threat of closure. There is not yet a full-scale return to the U.S. -backed military dictatorship of the Mubarak era. But without question the military authoritarianism currently ruling Egypt represents a massive set-back to the democratic trajectory, uncertain as it was, of the early mobilizations of Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring.

Supporters of the Mubarak regime, within and outside the military, are ascendant. Saudi, European and other international support for the military rulers remains powerful, although U.S.  military support has been dwarfed by other backers and U.S.  influence remains weakened. More important – many Egyptians, including many who participated in the anti-Morsi protests and calls for the army to overthrow the elected government, have pulled back, criticizing the military coup. In a roundtable of Al Jazeera Opinions, I wrote about the prospects for reclaiming Egypt’s democratic spring.

In Iraq the legacy war – left over after U.S.  troops withdrew – continues to rage. July was the most violent month since 2008, and it hasn’t gotten much better since. On some days, the death toll rivaled the current horror of Syria. And indeed, the expansion of Syria’s civil war to become five separate wars involving regional, religious and global conflicts, has spilled over Syria’s borders to destabilize all its neighbors, Iraq most of all. The growing alliance between extremist Islamist forces in the two countries, now fighting mainly in Syria, threatens both. I joined the team of Huffington Post’s HuffLive to talk about the rising violence in Iraq.

And Palestine...

Once again, regional crises have pushed Palestine-Israel – the occupation, settlement expansion, Israeli soldiers raiding Palestinian towns and refugee camps and killing Palestinian civilians, even the so-called peace process ostensibly underway again – off the front burner. But the Kerry-initiated plan remains, despite all the evidence that it will fail. Not because “the U.S.  can’t want peace more than the parties….” But because the U.S. -run “peace process” industry is grounded in a recipe for failure: acceptance of Israeli domination – military, political, economic, diplomatic, security and more – as the basis for talks. 

Until diplomacy is grounded in international law, human rights, and equality for all, it will fail. In Mondoweiss I wrote about why the Kerry initiative will fail. Perhaps now, twenty years to the week after Oslo, it already has. (If you want to read my 1993 critique of the then just-released Oslo Declaration of Principles, it’s on Mondoweiss here.) What we also have to worry about, is that it could “succeed” – creating a non-viable, unjust, non-comprehensive, non-contiguous truncated Bantustan that will be called a Palestinian “state,” and deeming any further struggle outside the pale. We have a lot of work to do.

Phyllis with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Cape Town.On the more optimistic side, with global support for U.S.  domination of Israel-Palestine diplomacy rapidly declining, and global support for civil society campaigns of boycotts, divestment and sanctions on the rise, I had the wonderful opportunity of spending ten days in South Africa in July. I participated in briefings, discussions, and public meetings with government officials, parliamentarians, and civil society activists, particularly the Afro-Middle East Center, all committed to making support for Palestinian national rights and opposition to Israeli occupation and apartheid stronger components of South Africa’s foreign policy. 

 And I had the extraordinary opportunity to meet with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose own commitment to Palestinian rights – and non-military diplomatic solutions in Syria – remains inspirational for all of us. On Syria, Bishop Tutu recently said, “I’m so thankful a significant majority of Americans are saying no to military intervention. We’ve got to find a solution that will in the end be one that makes Syria a better country, a better people. We can be human only together. …The Syrians are members of our family.”

He was right. As always. We have a lot of work to do.

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