Earlier this year, scholar and journalist Idrees Ahmad penned a scathing piece on Medium.com entitled “Aleppo is our Guernica — and some are cheering on the Luftwaffe.” Aleppo is a crucial rebel stronghold in Syria and it is under relentless assault by Russian bombers taking off from Iran as well as troops of the Syrian army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
Ahmad was comparing the fate of Aleppo to that of Guernica, a Basque town bombed in 1937 by Hitler’s Luftwaffe for three hours in support of Francisco Franco’s fascist forces in Spain. Over 1,600 people were killed. Pablo Picasso immortalized this episode of the Spanish Civil War in a painting and Pablo Neruda wrote poems about it.
“Now imagine a different response to Guernica,” Amad said. “Imagine people applauding the bombings, reproaching the victims, and slandering the witnesses. If you can imagine that, then you know Aleppo.”
He wasn’t referring to the neo-Nazis and far right parties of Europe or the American hipster “alt-right” white supremacist fans of Donald Trump. Those people do indeed support the devastation of Aleppo. They are allies of Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad and Russian president Vladimir Putin.
No, he was referring to prominent liberals and leftists who consider Assad to be the lesser evil in a conflict with opposition rebels who they believe are all Islamist fanatics. That is how Assad has portrayed the war from the beginning. This is a lie.
In 2011, an Arab Spring rebellion began in Syria as a non-violent movement involving people of diverse political, ethnic and religious backgrounds. They called for political freedom, social justice and dignity. This was after the Assad regime introduced severe “free market” reforms, which produced widespread economic misery with 48 percent youth unemployment in 2011. Sixty percent of the population was below the age of 24.
When people went into the streets demanding a better life, the regime denounced all of the protesters as Al Qaeda terrorists and responded with horrific violence. In a Machiaveillian move, the regime released the worst Islamist extremists from jail while going after the non-violent and non-sectarian protesters with ferocity. Later, a study showed that the regime and ISIS avoided fighting each other. Recently, Britain’s Sky News published leaked ISIS documents that show that ISIS is closely collaborating with the Assad regime.
The notion that Assad is the lesser evil is an obscenity. This is a brutal dictatorship which, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, is responsible for 95 percent of the civilian deaths, and which the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria has indicted for “the crimes against humanity of extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts.” The regime uses rape systematically as policy; and a report by a team of war crimes investigators documented “industrial scale killing,” with up to 11,000 killed “systematically” in detention.
The regime’s main ally, Russia, has been accused by Amnesty International of “egregious” war crimes, including the deliberate targeting of civilians and aid workers. The UN Commission of Inquiry has also accused the regime of using starvation as a weapon of war and for the “deliberate destruction of health care infrastructure.”
The Berlin Social Science Center conducted a survey of Syrian refugees who have fled to Europe. A majority of the Syrians think Assad is a greater threat than ISIS and said they won’t go back to Syria while Assad is still in power.
A majority said a no-fly zone would allow more people to stay in the country. The vast majority said they feared Assad’s barrel bombs (improvised metal barrels packed with explosives and scrap metal), which Amnesty International has said are responsible for large numbers of civilian deaths.
The majority of Syrians said Assad’s military response to peaceful demonstrations was the leading cause of the conflict.
Isn’t it time we listened to the people of Syria? The revolutionaries haven’t given up within Syria. Ahmad writes — in an article in Dissent magazine — that in Syria, “society has shown remarkable resilience, despite the constant attrition of barrel bombs, starvation sieges, mass detention, torture, and rape. In liberated areas across the country (and, secretly, in regime and Islamic State–controlled areas) close to 400 local councils have been established, appointed through a form of direct democracy, functioning in practical, non-ideological terms, catering to basic needs such as water, electricity, waste disposal, and healthcare.”
Meanwhile, the United States and Russia are drafting a new constitution for Syria, in consultation with the Assad regime. The Syrian people aren’t at the table. This seems reminiscent of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement by the British and French imperialists to divide up the newly defunct Ottoman Empire.
Where is the U.S. left and the peace movement? Strangely enough, some people are actually giving tacit (even overt) support to the Assad regime. Fortunately, there is a growing movement to support the Syrian people’s struggle. The Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria helped organize the “International Solidarity Hunger Strike” for Syria’ to pressure the U.N. to allow humanitarian groups to bring food to besieged areas. Solidarity activists in the U.K. and Code Pink in the U.S. gathered thousands of signatures on petitions to “Drop Food, Not Bombs.”
We need a movement for a peaceful and just end to the conflict.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.