Lack of U.S. Peace Movement Solidarity with Syrian Uprising and the “No Good Guys Excuse”
I marched (er, clothed) with CODEPINK women when they stood butt-naked across the main strip in my Arkansas hometown protesting the U.S. military invasion of Iraq. As a longtime anti-interventionist, I am on U.S. peace group mailing lists out the wazoo. To my best knowledge, I received no mass emails about Syria—until U.S. strikes became imminent.
As someone attentive to protesters in Syria since February 2011, I noticed that U.S. peace organizations expressed little early interest in Syria’s uprising—with caveats. Syrians approached most of the groups that were supportive, not vice versa, except for the Palestinian-founded Nonviolence International. In September 2011, I approached the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and they were responsive. A Syrian Canadian activist friend, long active in nonviolence work, approached Minnesota-based Friends for a Non-violent World; they were responsive. Waging Nonviolence editors have been responsive.
This is not a complete list. But where is the majority of the U.S. peace movement? Maybe I just don’t know; I’m only one person, seeing part of the picture. I would like a list of solidarity actions U.S. peace organizations have held for Syrians since March 18, 2011, demanding the regime stop massacring civilians, or petitions they circulated for the release of prisoners of conscience. How have U.S. peace organizations shown solidarity with nonviolent resistance to a brutal regime in Syria?
Neglected by the global community is how Syrian civil resistance people felt in the first phase of the uprising, lasting till midsummer 2011, characterized—despite isolated incidents of violence—by consensus around nonviolence. I realize that’s subjective, but it’s useful to examine what that feeling could mean. It could mean that Syrian uprising folk indeed experienced little solidarity from peace movements abroad.
There was a palpable difference in the U.S. peace scene’s interest in Syria before U.S. strikes became a possibility vs. after, as Danny Postel has pointed out. Those Saturdays in September 2013 when U.S. peace groups rallied—without much presence of Syrians, or worse, in some cases with pro-Assadists involved—against imminent strikes, I thought, “Where were such demonstrators when nonviolent protesters began getting killed by lethal regime fire? Where was the ‘human shield’ movement before 2013?” (That “human shield” business, given the context of Syrians falling dead under regime airstrikes for over two years, was the single most ludicrous moment of U.S. anti-war stirrings.)
The “No Good Guys” Excuse
One reason that’s been given in some of the responses to Postel is that there are “no good guys” to support. Not true; the Syrian protest movement was and is unified. All the blather about a “divided Syrian opposition” comes from focusing on traditional political actors. It ignores the grassroots protest structures that sprang up, in the form of local protest organizing committees, unified in vision.
The Syrian Revolution’s civilian grassroots base organized into hundreds of local protest organizing committees beginning in April 2011. Since then, the grassroots have organized at higher levels to form 128 local councils. Geographically spread across Syria, drawn mostly from populations unseasoned in established oppositional parties, from diverse sects and religions, heavily small-town and rural, and non-ideological, they are unified around regime change, human rights, and freedoms, and secular pluralistic democracy. They express those values clearly, in statement after statement, and in democratic self-governance. Leaders have emerged, horizontally rather than hierarchically or centrifugally.
A community-based uprising existed in Syria for six months before the Syrian National Council formed abroad in August 2011. The SNC marginalized the grassroots, giving only eight of some 279 seats to representatives of grassroots coalitions while the exiled Muslim Brotherhood opposition group finagled blocs of seats. When a grassroots activist fresh out of Syria, Moaz Khatib, became head of the SNC, he could not long tolerate its preoccupations with internal rivalries and external agendas, and soon resigned. To bring the grassroots Syrian Revolution to the table, let the diasporic body currently claiming to represent the uprising re-form from local councils inside Syria, transcending its de facto nature as a grazing-ground for U.S. and other foreign agendas.
The notion that there is no unity on the Revolution side comes also from focus on armed actors, such as the Joint Military Command, which did not form until 2012. Protesters organized themselves for nearly five months before the (secular) Free Syrian Army began on July 29, 2011, after which independent armed brigades began declaring themselves, using the FSA name. In January 2012, armed groups of Syrian extremists became active, and by 2013, foreign jihadist cadres were entering Syria to “help” the Revolution. Jihadists played to Islamophobic tendencies alive in the U.S. Left as on the Right, and global media gave them the spotlight they sought.
Insisting that the Syrian Revolution lacks unity, leaders, and values ignores the grassroots uprising. That’s why this charge baffles Syrian uprising folk. I can understand the White House, and even the Syrian opposition’s politicians and military leaders, ignoring the grassroots movement—but peace activists have no excuse. The Syrian Revolution’s grassroots civilian base still exists, and is still unified around democratic values. Its cadres have been killed and imprisoned by the Assad regime’s ongoing repression; marginalized by diasporic political bodies; and face increasing repression by extremist armed forces. But after the non-Syrian jihadists go home, and the contentious foreign agendas rearrange themselves, the people power of the civilian resistance will still be there, if its participants have not all been killed or imprisoned by then. They are not Islamists, and they are not “fractious”; they are nobody’s proxy, and they are the only hope for building a democratic post-Assad Syria.
Solidarity: Do It Now
The broadbased, unified, secular, civilian resistance is still the core of this Revolution. Under fire from both Assad regime and armed jihadists now, it experiences little solidarity activity from peace groups around the world. If members of the world peace community want to see a pluralistic democratic alternative to Assad state, let them support the civilian resistance and its emerging leaderships in Syria, such as those embodied by the Local Councils, instead of amplifying Johnny-come-lately armed extremists, or promoting regime narratives such as that touted by the Lebanese-born nun, Mother Agnes-Mariam. Demand the release from prison of civilian resistance activists; protest when they are killed. Find and know the civilian resistance in Syria; support them.
Born in Syria, Professor Mohja Kahf teaches Middle Eastern studies and Arabic literature at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. A poet, book author, and activist, she tweets for the Syrian revolution @profkahf.