The Democratic Party’s silence on Syria


Kim Ghattas writes: Syria cannot be made to fit a clear pattern of injustice, with an occupier and an occupied, like with Israel and the Palestinians, or an oppressed and an oppressor, like with South Africa’s apartheid. Any meaningful U.S. action in Syria would require more military force, a no-no for the left. And rather inconveniently, Assad belongs to the so-called axis of resistance against Israel that includes Hezbollah — and for which the American left has a tendency to voice support with little questioning, because it has the luxury of geographical distance from the consequences of life under its rule.

American political scientist and Israel critic Norman Finkelstein exemplified that attitude when he visited Lebanon in 2008 to show his support for Hezbollah, which he lauded for its courage and discipline in its 2006 war with Israel. A local interviewer pointed out that the widespread support Hezbollah enjoyed among Lebanese after it forced Israel to withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000 had dissipated in the wake of the costly 2006 war that had wrecked much of the country’s infrastructure — a war which many Lebanese blamed on Hezbollah. “I am not telling you what to do with your lives, and if you’d rather live crawling on your feet, I could respect that,” Finkelstein replied, evoking Spanish Civil War heroine Dolores Ibárruri, who said “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”

When the interviewer pressed that support for Hezbollah should be a choice left to the Lebanese who have to live with the consequences of the group’s actions, Finkelstein’s answer was again that it was always better to resist and die with honor, adding dismissively that he doesn’t live in Lebanon, so the internal political divisions were irrelevant to him.

Such thinking is prevalent on the left when it comes to Syria, and its adherents are unwilling to vocalize any criticism of Assad’s use of force, lest it indicate support for removing him from power. Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which supports the opposition, told me Assad’s positions on the Palestinian cause means that “a large segment of the left has completely ignored Syria, and turned a blind eye to what is going on, or even subscribed to conspiracy theories” that the war was manufactured by the West to weaken Assad.

“They believe that U.S. power and military can never be used for good, and somehow they believe Russia provides a balance in the world, but they don’t realize that the Russians are much more brutal,” he said, a pertinent point as President Vladimir Putin’s influence or interference in this election cycle has become a point of debate.

Mustafa said he believed that Sanders’s silence reflected a lack of understanding of both Syria’s geopolitical complexities and the horror of a war where the overwhelming majority of civilian victims have been killed by government forces. “He should go to the Syrian border in Turkey. He should see for himself what is happening and then see if that shifts his position in the right direction,” Mustafa said. “This is our ‘never again’ moment. He needs to clarify his stance, not just keep repeating: We can’t depose dictators, we can’t use force, we can’t have no-fly zones.”

But if the left opposes military action, what about humanitarian action? Even if the United States does not impose a no-fly zone, it could still ramp up funding for overwhelmed and underfunded U.N. agencies and refugee organizations.

This is where [running mate Tim] Kaine’s views are closer to Clinton’s than even some of her own advisors, and those of President Barack Obama himself. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Middle East, he traveled to the region often, speaking passionately about the refugee crisis — including in March 2014, when he said that he refused to accept that “there’s nothing more we can do to end the suffering.” He spearheaded an effort to pass a Senate resolution to press the administration to beef up its humanitarian assistance.

There are two key components to Kaine’s thinking on Syria: First, he believes that the United States should push for a humanitarian zone to deliver aid. In November, he said the zone would be “principally a tool for delivering humanitarian aid pursuant to the U.N. Security Council resolution that even Russia voted for. I think, done correctly, it could also accelerate a path to a negotiated end to the Syrian Civil War.” In other words, this creates space to push back against Assad.

Secondly, Kaine believes the challenge of the Islamic State and the issue of Assad are connected, and Washington’s single-minded focus on the jihadi group means its Syria strategy is nonexistent or a mess. “These are two problems that are connected, and you can’t have a strategy that’s just about one,” he told NPR in October. [Continue reading…]

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