In 2011, the Arab Spring came to Syria. It was non-violent for the first six to eight months and involved people of diverse political, ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Like the other uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, the protesters’ ideals were political freedom, social justice and dignity. From the beginning, the response of the Assad regime was uniquely horrific. By the first anniversary of the revolution, the leading human rights organizations — Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Syria Commission of Inquiry — unanimously and unambiguously charged the Syrian regime with a statesanctioned policy of “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.”
Assad has targeted schools and hospitals and “all of those things which make life livable,” said Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch. In April, a respected human rights group in Syria, the Violations Documentation Center, put the approximate death count at more than 150,000. Most of them are civilians and about 100,000 were killed by regime forces.
Last fall, President Obama was talking about bombing Syria but backed down under pressure. The American peace movement celebrated. Danny Postel, associate director of the Center for Middle East Studies (CMES) at the University of Denver, told me he had mixed feelings. He was against the proposed military strike on Syria but “didn’t share the jubilation.”
Postel says he has “spent the last quarter century on the radical left as an anti-war, anti-imperialist and labor activist,” but feels too many American progressives have become “U.S.-centric” with positions similar to “libertarian isolationists like Rand Paul, paleocon America-Firsters like Pat Buchanan, and Realpolitik Tories of the sort who long dominated the Republican Party’s foreign policy apparatus.” He says the U.S. peace movement and left has lost “the spirit of internationalism” and been silent about “the bloodiest conflict on planet Earth,” citing U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s statement that “Syria is now the biggest humanitarian and peace and security crisis facing the world.”
In January, three former war crimes prosecutors released 55,000 photos provided by a Syrian military police photographer showing the systematic torture and killing of about 11,000 detainees. As one prosecutor put it, this is “industrialscale killing” reminiscent of the World War II concentration camps of Belsen and Auschwitz.
In February, The New York Times published an opinion piece by Postel and Nader Hashemi, director of CMES, titled “Use Force to Save Starving Syrians.”
They said that, according to the U.N., about 800,000 civilians were under siege in Homs, Aleppo, Deir Ezzor and parts of Damascus. No food, medical supplies or humanitarian aid could get in and people couldn’t get out.
“This is not a famine. Food is abundant just a few miles away from these besieged areas,” they said. Military forces — mainly Assad’s army “but in some cases extremist anti-Assad militias” — were preventing food and medicine from reaching trapped civilians.
They said, “This moral obscenity demands action by the international community. Any armed group that prevents humanitarian access — whether the Syrian regime’s forces or rebel militias — should be subject to coercive measures.”
Postel and Hashemi called for a multinational force to intervene for the specific purpose of delivering food and medicine.
This op-ed provoked vigorous debate on the left. However, Postel says he is hopeful because there is “a small but growing group of progressives who embrace the goals of the Syrian revolution. There are several shades within this camp — it includes Marxists, pacifists, feminists, Third Worldists and leftists of various sorts. Some support the armed struggle in Syria, others do not, standing instead with the nonviolence activists in Syria. But what unites this camp is its solidarity with the Syrian struggle for dignity, justice and self-determination.”
Recently the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center and the Unitarians sponsored a talk in Boulder by Syrian civil society activist Qusai Zakarya, recognized internationally for his hunger strike during the Assad regime’s starvation siege of his hometown, Moadamiya.
Zakarya spoke of how he survived a poison gas attack by Assad’s military. He denounced Russia and Iran for giving “unlimited” military aid to Assad.
Now growing allegations of poison gas attacks by Assad portend a crisis. Is a peaceful resolution possible?
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.