The revolutionary struggle in Syria against President Bashar Al-Assad is being buried under the rubble.
For nearly six years, Syrians have endured a genocidal backlash from Assad and his allies as rebel forces have attempted to liberate towns and cities from the Baathist regime’s grasp. In towns like Madaya, for example, entire communities are being starved by the regime for daring to defy its authority. In Daraya, the starvation siege was so unrelenting that it resulted in wholesale surrender tantamount to sectarian cleansing.
Compounded by Assad’s systematic bombing of civilians, infrastructure, hospitals, and medical and emergency personnel in densely populated urban areas, these realities have created a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. With nearly a quarter of a million civilians dead since 2011, Assad is responsible for ninety five percent of these deaths, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
To make matters worse, a Western arms embargo continues to prevent Syrian rebels from acquiring air defense systems, leaving civilians completely vulnerable to airstrikes from the suburbs of Damascus all the way to Aleppo. Desperately seeking relief, many Syrian opposition voices have called for international humanitarian intervention in the form of a No Fly Zone (NFZ).
Filtered through the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, however, the Syrian demand for a NFZ has become so politically toxic in Western leftist antiwar circles that its real meaning has been lost. Rather than discussing how to respond to the legitimate grievances of Syrians and their understandable desire for a NFZ, many antiwar groups—like the Stop the War coalition in the UK and Answer coalition in the United States — have completely rejected it as an imperialist ploy. In callous disregard for the suffering of millions, the leaderships of these coalitions have either ignored or lied about the Assad regime’s responsibility for Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe.
While the crisis in Syria is indeed destabilizing the region and the West, it has also proven to be a test of the antiwar opposition’s ethical principles—one in which solidarity with the plight of the oppressed has been almost entirely lost.
Contextualizing the No Fly Zone
The Syrian humanitarian crisis has thrown the U.S. antiwar movement into disarray and confusion. Many good activists are torn between a desire to help, and sincere concerns that intervention would become a Trojan horse for U.S. imperialism. Iraq’s disintegration under a U.S. occupation is a constant reminder of the cynicism of this country’s foreign policy endeavors.
This begs a series of questions. Is there really a contradiction between fighting imperialism and being in solidarity with the Syrian struggle (or any peoples’ struggle) for self-determination? Does demanding that Western governments protect civilians against airstrikes mean we are somehow pro-war?
In his book, Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, Howard Zinn, a giant in the U.S. antiwar tradition, provides an answer to these questions:
“If violence is ever to be justified, the evidence must be overwhelming and clear; the greater the proposed violence the greater must be both the magnitude of the social goal and the certainty that it will be achieved. Certain other principles are also essential: that the more closely the violence is focused on the social malignancy—as in precision surgery—the greater likelihood that it can be justified; that the persons who pay the price (since cost must be measured against gain) are the ones who decide whether violence will be used. Self-defense, involving direct action by the persons attacked and against the attacker, meets both these principles.
Modern warfare has certain fundamental characteristics which make it the least defensible use of violence in achieving any social goals: It is massive, indiscriminate, not focused on the evil-doers; its human cost is gigantic; it violates the principles of free choice on two counts, because it is fought by conscripts, and against people who did not decide to be involved (civilians).
Revolution within a country, on the other hand, is by its nature focused against the regime presumed to be oppressive. It involves self-determination, because revolutionaries, not having total state power, cannot create conscript armies; they depend on the consent of the oppressed.”
In a clear rejection of pacifism, Zinn defends revolutionary violence as a legitimate exercise of the popular right to self-determination, and links the struggle for self-determination with antiwar principles. From an ethical perspective, Zinn views violence as justified where it is a means to mitigate human suffering. According to this reasoning, so long as the means do not denature the end, then the means are justified by the end. In this way, Zinn defends targeted violence aimed at ending indiscriminate violence against civilian populations.
Admittedly, within the context of Vietnam, Zinn focused on how revolutionary armies were justified in using violence to protect civilians, and not whether third-party imperial powers are. It is likely, however, that he would have offered intellectual credence to the NFZ in the case of Syria. Surely, for this, he would have been called an “imperialist” by many so-called human rights activists, which demonstrates the morally bankrupt and misguided nature of today’s antiwar activism.
Although Zinn did not live long enough to witness the Syrian revolution, his demonstrated courage and moral convictions suggest he would have likely stood in solidarity with the Syrian people and their demand for protection. Following Zinn’s lead, the fundamental principle of our antiwar movements today ought to be opposition to “massive, indiscriminate” violence against civilians, no matter what the means might be.
Of course, some means are better than others, but they are often dictated by the course of events. The Syrian people would not have suffered so terribly, and our antiwar movement would not be in such a deep crisis, if the initial wave of peaceful popular struggle had forced Assad out. If Assad had not received foreign support from Russia and Iran, the peaceful movement against the regime might have succeeded in bringing it down.
Despite the heroic efforts and sacrifices of the Syrian opposition, however, these more desirable means failed. There is nothing to be gained now from imagining how alternative scenarios could have saved us from demanding imperial powers become the agent, and indeed the means, for protecting civilians from Assad’s campaign of carnage.
Zinn grappled with opposing a war in which millions died, and did not escape its terse realities by imagining idyllic alternatives. The failure of modern antiwar movements lies in their inability to do the same.
Protecting Syrian Lives
Just as the demand “Black Lives Matter” is a direct moral appeal for solidarity, the Syrian call for a NFZ is also an appeal for support against terrible repression.
Because the Syrian revolution is a direct challenge to the legitimacy and sovereignty of the Assad dynasty, the revolutionaries cannot seek recourse from the same regime that bombs them. This is why our role as antiwar activists in the West is so important—we must seek justice on their behalf by calling on our governments to intervene and protect them.
Some will object that, although an intervention might stop the bombing, it could also corrupt the revolution and make it dependent on imperialist forces. This, however, is an abstract objection to a concrete demand that ending aerial bombing is key to saving Syrian lives. With the revolutionary impulse in Syria under attack from barrel bombs, betrayal is hardly the eminent danger. On the contrary, an end to the bombing would reinvigorate the revolutionary impulse; Assad cannot hold territory, much less take it back without recourse to bombing.
In fact, this is the reason why the Obama administration has not intervened to stop the bombing. The United States does not support democracy in Syria any more than it does anywhere else. In Syria, the U.S. government allows Assad and his allies to do the dirty work of bleeding the revolutionary impulse dry—a measure of de facto support for the regime that contributes to the counterrevolution.
Concerns that a U.S. imposed NFZ might lead to war with Russia are also misdirected. Obama and Putin have been continually negotiating their respective interests, at the expense of the Syrian people. The September 2016 ceasefire agreement on Syria between the United States and Russia, which ultimately failed, nonetheless underscores their collaboration as partners in an expansion of the War on Terror in which Assad is a junior partner.
Following the principle of self-determination, the antiwar movement should offer an alternative to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, organize against the War on Terror, and oppose the moribund and phony peace process Israel exploits to expand settlements in the West Bank (while starving Gaza). These aims are in no way, shape, or form mutually exclusive. On the contrary, to make the idea of achieving peace through justice meaningful, the antiwar movement must articulate demands that capture the complex interactions between different regional expressions of what is essentially the same fight. Be it in occupied Palestine, or Egypt, or Syria, the struggle is that of self-determination for the oppressed.
A robust antiwar movement can address the complex interaction between these multifaceted struggles for self-determination by raising a demand, for example, that the U.S. government end all financial support for Egypt and Israel’s militaries, and that the money be sent as aid without any strings to Syrian refugees and Gaza. If met, such a demand would force Israel to negotiate, the Egyptian military to relinquish power, bring immediate relief to millions in desperate need, and, in one fell swoop, deal a tremendous public relations blow to violently sectarian forces.
We must never forget that the alternative to never-ending wars, occupations, dictatorships, and sectarian violence is solidarity with democratic struggles for self-determination. Yet the revolution in Syria, and the Assad regime’s brutal response to this unarmed and pluralistic popular struggle, has tested the antiwar movement’s commitment to this principle. By regurgitating Assad’s slander, Western antiwar coalitions have become the left-secularist exponents of Islamophobic and Orientalist stereotypes and widely inaccurate tropes that Islam is ultimately responsible for the humanitarian crisis.
Howard Zinn taught us that confronting repression is elemental and takes precedence over more ambitious agendas. Heeding this lesson, we must wholeheartedly support the demand of Syrian revolutionaries that Western countries intervene military to stop the bombing.
 Howard Zinn, Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, 1967, p. 65