An Open Letter to the Authors of the United National Antiwar Coalition Statement, "We are NOT Charlie Hebdo!"


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Brothers and Sisters of the United National Antiwar Coalition: 

The humanitarian crisis in Syria can no longer be ignored. As the recognized leadership of antiwar opposition in the United States, and as a leadership that builds the opposition to war by directly challenging US imperialism, it is to be expected that UNAC issue a statement on the world's single greatest humanitarian crisis.

A statement on this crisis is required if we are to develop the spirit of international solidarity that must necessarily be the backbone of a successful effort to oppose imperialist wars. A well written statement that builds international solidarity with the Syrian masses will be a powerful instrument for educating activists and building an international opposition to US imperialism. Every antiwar activist will welcome UNAC's leadership in this matter.

Alas, UNAC has already taken a stance on the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and unfortunately this stance greatly compromises UNAC's moral authority. In the January 16, 2015 statement, "We are NOT Charlie Hebdo!", you state:

"The United States, with French support, has brought about the death and immiseration of hundreds of thousands of Syrians through its backing, covert and otherwise, of "moderate' and fundamentalist combatants, the latter mustered with the aid of the allied Gulf States. The current U.S. bombing of Syrian sites continues the slaughter of civilians." ("We are NOT Charlie Hebdo!", United National Antiwar Coalition)

Incredible! An entire paragraph dedicated to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and the only time to date in which UNAC has referred to the crisis, and Assad is not mentioned once!

Why stop our condemnation with the US and France? Russia supplies Assad’s air force, which he uses to bomb civilians. As the Druze, and increasingly many Alawites, refuse to fight in Assad’s army, the bloody dictator has turned to Hezbollah and fighters from Iran. If concern for Syrians motivates our statements, why exclude the vast majority of Syrians, those who suffer the brutality of the Assad regime, buoyed by foreign powers?

Instead of a serious appraisal of the root causes of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, we find what looks very much like an apology for Assad, thinly veiled behind anti-imperialist rhetoric. Did the writers of this paragraph intend for the reader to come away with the impression that the Assad regime has had no part to play whatsoever in the crisis? As written, the paragraph suggests that the entire civil war in Syria is a concoction by the U.S. and its regional allies in the Gulf States.

Do the authors of this statement seriously expect us to believe that the mass mobilizations across Syria in the spring of 2011 were not protests for democracy against the brutal Assad regime? Does the leadership of UNAC think that Assad's decision to use his military forces to repress these protests played no part in precipitating the civil war? As written, the paragraph suggests these events never took place, or that they are entirely irrelevant to the current crisis!! 

Building human solidarity is the ultimate task of an antiwar opposition, but we cannot succeed at this task by ignoring the terrible reality the Syrian masses know all too well--Assad is destroying Syria. Yes, US imperialism has shown absolutely no interest in saving Syria. Yes, the United States, like Russia, like Iran, cynically intervenes in Syria to improve its relative geopolitical position. We can rest assured Syrians are painfully aware Mr. Obama is not on their side, but the question is also posed for us, as an antiwar movement, whose side are we on? Do we stand with the Syrians suffering daily from Assad's air strikes and use of chemical weapons, do we stand with the millions of Syrian refugees fleeing barrel bombs and cluster munitions, or do we stand with Assad? In moral choices of this nature, there is no middle ground. Our sense of international solidarity and our duty to truth demand that we recognize what the world already knows; Assad is responsible for the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The courageous efforts of a network of grassroots activists in Syria, the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, and the work of citizen journalists, have forced international fact finding missions to conclude that Assad is responsible for massive war crimes, but UNAC does not even mention his name!

By way of contrast to UNAC's standing position on the crisis in Syria, let us consider Amnesty International's statement, keeping in mind that the latter does not pretend to build a mass movement against war and imperialism. Although the tragic statistics of the crisis have already far surpassed those cited by Amnesty International, and even though the organization studiously avoids taking sides in the conflict, its statement is an unequivocal condemnation of the Assad regime:

"Three years after pro-democracy protests arose in spring 2011, Syria remains in a state of human rights and humanitarian crisis. The United Nations lists more than 9 million Syrians as refugees and internally displaced peoples, making it the largest current refugee crisis in the world. Tens of thousands of civilians across Syria, including children, have been forced to endure a life of hardship under siege. Most of the sieges are imposed and maintained by forces loyal to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Others have been mounted by opposition and other non-state armed groups.

Civilians continue to be at the receiving end of frequent indiscriminate attacks by Syrian government forces. Government forces also continue to commit other grave violations, including war crimes such as arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearance and extrajudicial execution. Amnesty's documentation provides fresh evidence that such crimes are widespread as well as systematic, and are being perpetrated on an ever-increasing scale and as part of state policy. We also have evidence of the government targeting special groups such as medical workers and journalists. Many Syrians are victims of enforced disappearances.

Amnesty International also has documented abuses by armed opposition groups, including the assault by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) on minority groups. In the areas they control, ISIS forces have committed numerous serious rights abuses, including some that amount to war crimes: They include abductions, arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment and unlawful killings."

Amnesty International’s tip of the hat to “objectivity” forces them to incorrectly include Islamic State in the armed opposition to Assad. In lumping Islamic State into the opposition, Amnesty International ignores the well-documented reality that it is the opposition that has borne the brunt of the fighting against IS.

We must apologize for this extensive quote, but Amnesty International's flawed attempt at a balanced appraisal of events in Syria stands head and shoulders above UNAC's cowardly refusal to even mention Assad.

The question must be put to the authors of UNAC's document, why do you refuse to identify the single greatest war criminal in Syria?

Isn't building human solidarity ultimately the task of our antiwar opposition? How else can we oppose the dehumanizing propaganda imperialism uses to justify wars if we cannot find the courage to stand in solidarity with millions of suffering human beings? How can we build international solidarity if we ignore the reality the Syrian masses know all too well?

The statement "We are NOT Charlie Hebdo!" is in other ways a very powerful rejection of imperialist cynicism and grandstanding, its rejection of Islamophobia is above all praiseworthy, but the paragraph on the crisis in Syria is a poison pill! Now that the humanitarian crisis can no longer be ignored, the venom will take effect. Can UNAC overcome its reluctance to recognize that Assad is responsible for the crisis? Children’s bodies are washing up on the beaches, hundreds of thousands of refugees pour across Europe's borders, but the bitter venom of a statement that fails even to touch Assad with rose petals compromises UNAC's moral authority to express solidarity with so many suffering millions.

To the extent that the destruction of Syria has taken place with the acquiescence of the Obama administration, the United States government is responsible for the unfolding tragedy.

But the UNAC statement does not denounce Obama’s inaction in the face of massive war crimes by the Assad regime. Instead, the UNAC statement ludicrously suggests that the humanitarian crisis is primarily the result of the U.S. airstrikes. Of course, the US government's phony "War on Terror" against the Islamic State has only contributed to the misery of the Syrian people, but here it must be added that the Syrian opposition groups have called for the U.S. to end its airstrikes, even as Assad shares airspace with the US jets!

The UNAC statement also attributes the crisis to the arms supplied by the Gulf monarchies, but are the Syrian masses to be condemned for defending themselves? If we are in the business of condemning violence, we must begin with the Assad regime’s violent oppression of the massive and peaceful demonstrations for democracy.

UNAC cannot cover up its failure to condemn Assad by harshly condemning other actors. The numbers speak for themselves; the body count shows that the direct agent of the "immiseration of hundreds of thousands of Syrians" is, first and foremost, and without serious objection, the terrorist Assad regime. Even the Islamic State appears amateurish beside Assad.

Assad is responsible for the crisis, with the acquiescence of the Obama administration. In other words, US imperialism could put a stop to the slaughter, if it so desired.

UNAC's direction for the antiwar movement, however, leads us away from condemnation of the inaction of the Obama administration in the face of a terrible humanitarian crisis. Rather than denounce Obama for allowing the crisis to unfold, UNAC proposes that we march to defend the Assad regime’s sovereignty!

It is clear that UNAC's antiwar strategy is based on the well-worn American tradition of isolationism. UNAC has revamped this tradition with critical language about imperialism, but its reluctance to build international solidarity, or even to condemn the war crimes of a dictator, reveal the isolationist content of UNAC's antiwar strategy.

Would condemning Assad serve as a justification for US imperialist policy in the Middle East? Imperialism will create whatever justifications it needs for its wars. Its sycophants and propaganda machines work constantly to lie and deceive. To confront these lies, we need only speak clearly and honestly. Our case against imperialist war will be built on truth, or it will not stand. When our antiwar opposition shouted "Not in Our Name" to Bush's plans to cynically use the tragedy of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, we did not attempt to mobilize against imperialist war by denying the barbarity of the attack on New York. We did not apologize for Bin Laden or try to ignore the tragedy. We steadfastly denied imperialism the moral authority to wage war in our name.

Sadly, however, now the moral authority of our own movement is in question. Can we seriously propose to build an anti-imperialist antiwar movement by ignoring the reality that for four years now the Arab masses have been waging a life and death struggle for democracy? Yes, of course imperialism seeks to manipulate this struggle, to twist and distort its course and outcome, this is only to be expected, but the mass movements of the Arab spring were not the work of imperialist stooges. Is it beyond our vision and courage to build solidarity with these movements even as we oppose imperialist war? Who is our real ally in the struggle against imperialism, a bloody dictator or the people who rose up against him demanding democracy? Can the authors of the UNAC statement not see that only the Arab masses themselves, hopefully with the solidarity of our antiwar movement, will be able to overcome the damage wrought by Sykes and Picot? The struggle for democracy is the struggle for self-determination; it is objectively an anti-imperialist struggle. Building solidarity with the struggle for self-determination is not an option for our movement; it must be our priority!

Does Jabhat al Nusra’s role in the armed opposition to Assad mean we must forsake and give up for lost the democratic struggle? First and foremost, while we are in the business of condemning imperialist policies, we should recognize that Nusra gained strength only after the Obama administration very consciously turned its back on the democratic opposition, paying lip service to human rights and democracy, but in the end, clearly doing nothing more than hand wringing. Shall our antiwar opposition follow Mr. Obama's shameful example? Time and again we come back to the basic moral imperatives that must drive our efforts to build a movement against war: Nusra's politics and role in the armed opposition to Assad is irrelevant in so far as our moral obligations to come to the defense of the civilians being tortured, starved to death, and bombed by Assad. If there is any hope for a democratic alternative to Assad and sectarian jihadism it will only be found in the Syrian masses, and it is absurd for us to demand of them that they present themselves, in their terribly desperate state, to our liking before we honor our moral duty to denounce the war crimes of a dictator.

Islam is a fundamental part of Syria’s cultural heritage. It is inevitable that Muslims, and that Syria’s oppressed Sunni Muslim majority, play a leading role in the struggle against Assad. To expect otherwise is simply absurd. To abandon our moral obligation to stand up for human rights and democracy because the people who need our solidarity openly declare their faith in Islam expresses an attitude that stinks very much of chauvinism and Islamophobia.

Our antiwar opposition has set two good examples to follow. We have unconditionally condemned Israel's recent war on Gaza. Our condemnation was not deterred by the constant references in the US media to Hamas and its largely ineffective rocket attacks. This was a courageous and principled stand in defense of the Palestinian right to self-determination and the human rights of the Palestinians. Similarly, UNAC has issued a clear statement in defense of the democratic rights of the members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who are the targets of a U.S. and Saudi sponsored coup. We should apply the same reasoning to guide our position with respect to the struggle for self-determination by the Syrian masses.

Moreover, if we are to oppose the phony War on Terror, we must propose an alternative. Can we seriously propose to the Syrian people that Assad is an alternative to Islamic State? If Syrians believed Assad was the alternative to IS, they would be joining Assad's army to fight the latter, but even Assad has admitted that he must rely on foreign fighters to support his regime. The alternative to sectarian jihadism is also the alternative to dictatorships; the only alternative is the struggle for democracy.

How should we oppose the phony War on Terror? We should build solidarity with the struggle for democracy; we should demand respect for human rights, for an end to torture, for an end to the bombing of civilian populations.

We must turn to the Syrian people and hear what they have to say. Repeatedly, in various statements, UNAC honors the Syrians’ right to self-determination, but though the words are repeated over and over, they are always issued as a basis for rejecting any criticism whatsoever of the Assad regime: UNAC’s position is to defend the sovereignty of the Assad regime, and UNAC’s defense of the latter objectively places it in opposition to the Syrian struggle for self-determination.

The plea from Syrians is simple: Stop the bombing! The demand for a "No Fly Zone", for a humanitarian intervention comes against the opposition of the Obama administration and is raised by the Syrians themselves.

The stark reality of the crisis in Syria objectively creates the pressure for a humanitarian intervention in Syria. Countless toothless resolutions by the United Nations have not made the crisis go away, and now the crisis threatens Europe's stability. UNAC's statement "We are NOT Charlie Hebdo!", however, studiously avoids the discussion. Instead of courageously grappling with the Syrian masses' plea for human solidarity, and wrestling with the challenge this represents for our efforts to build an antiwar opposition, The UNAC statement carefully juxtapose what amounts to a cowardly apology for Assad with a condemnation of the US intervention in Libya (based on a balance that much like the discussion of Syria fails to say anything about the democratic struggle against Khadafi). As if the matter could be settled quite so simply! The authors of the UNAC statement may wish to ignore the Syrians' demand, much like world leaders tried to ignore the humanitarian crisis, but the crisis will not go away; encouraged by our silence, Assad continues his reign of terror from the skies.

How shall we respond to the cry from our Syrian brothers and sisters to put an end to the bombing? We must have this discussion! This is a serious challenge to the current course of our antiwar opposition. This coming October, UNAC has called for a month of mobilizations against all US wars, including, and quite specifically, "humanitarian interventions". This mobilization places us at odds with the Syrian masses!! We must reconsider this course of action!

US imperialism may soon be compelled to intervene in Syria simply because the tide of refugees threatens to destabilize Europe. “Mission creep” from the initial stated goals of such a “humanitarian intervention” is to be expected. Yes, US imperialist policy will continue to be imperialist policy. How then do we respond to the humanitarian crisis and prevent imperialism form manipulating the crisis to its own end? The Syrians, in their struggle for self-determination, to which UNAC repeatedly pays lip service, are calling for a No Fly Zone, as such, this demand is quite specific. Can we respond to the Syrian’s call for solidarity and apply the same courageous rejection of imperialist policy that we raised following the attacks on the World Trade Center? Can we respond to the crisis in Syria and frame the discussion in such a way that we limit imperialism’s machinations? We must try to do so, because we cannot simply ignore the humanitarian crisis or treat it as if it were an unavoidable, natural disaster, doing so would only cost our movement its moral authority, leaving us unable to mobilize and build the international solidarity that will be required to bring to an end imperialist adventurism.

The discussion before us is difficult, but it will not go away. The Syrian masses have demonstrated that they will be heard, be it in Syria where they struggle to survive the despotism of Assad, or in fleeing the latter's reign of terror, they are forcing the issue. The call for a humanitarian intervention is on the table. If we are to move forward as an antiwar alternative we must seriously consider their call for solidarity.

If we do not respond to the humanitarian crisis, we will be unable to offer a moral alternative when US imperialism, forced into action by the destabilization of Europe, cynically manipulates the crisis to its own end, but we cannot seriously respond to the crisis without recognizing the hard truth that Assad is first and foremost responsible for the destruction of Syria.

Brothers and sisters of UNAC, isolationism has never been an effective basis for opposition to imperialist war. The only real basis for a mass-based opposition to war must be a spirit of international--human--solidarity. UNAC can and should play a leading role in building this spirit of solidarity, but its ability to do so is being compromised by a refusal to stand in solidarity with the Syrian masses, who are opposed to Assad.

We call on UNAC to take a stand in solidarity with Syria's people. Building real international solidarity will not compromise our ability to challenge US imperialist policy in the Middle East, on the contrary, imperialism can only be effectively challenged through building international solidarity.


By Antiwar Committee in Solidarity with the Struggle for Self-determination

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