This article appeared in the Winter 2016 Massachusetts Peace Action newsletter
As the war in Syria enters its sixth year, hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions have been forced to become refugees. It is now more important than ever to recognize the decisive role of outside forces in fueling the conflict. And it’s not just in the bombings by the US and its allies or the introduction of Russian air power on behalf of the Syrian government. Foreign intervention was involved from the very beginning of the conflict.
This is not to deny that Syrians had ample reason to resent the decades-old authoritarian state whose leadership Bashir al-Assad had inherited from his father Hafiz. When the currents of the Arab Spring reached Syria in 2011, there was already a volatile mix of discontent, especially in Syria’s provincial cities, where the population swelled with impoverished and unemployed migrants – most of them religiously conservative — from a countryside devastated by a multi-year drought.
But outside interests were also active in fomenting unrest. Documents which have come to light through WikiLeaks and other sources illustrate efforts by the US and its allies to destabilize the Syrian regime long before the internal opposition broke out in 2011. The simple mainstream narrative of peaceful protests violently suppressed by the Syrian government overlooks the years of organizing by armed religious extremists financed and supported by the Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia.
These efforts had little to do with “promoting democracy” in a region where the US had no difficulty in backing other dictatorial regimes. Rather it was Syria’s independence from US interests and its coalition with Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah in a “resistance front” opposing US-Israeli-Saudi hegemony which made it a target. The sectarian conflagration unleashed by the US invasion of Iraq, financed by the Saudi and Qatari regimes and enabled by Syria’s NATO neighbor Turkey have especially fueled the violence that is tearing Syria apart.
If foreign intervention is at the root of the Syrian conflict, then international action will be necessary to bring the fighting to a close. However, there are serious obstacles to progress on the diplomatic front. Russian military intervention may have staved off battlefield defeat of the Syrian government, but the rebel forces are far from being beaten and can still rely on massive financial and military support from their Gulf allies. Meanwhile, heightened tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran make inclusive negotiations more difficult – which may have been the aim of the provocative execution of a Shi’a cleric by the Saudi regime.
As for the US peace movement, our principles should be to oppose the illegal bombing of Syria by the US and its allies; stop all outside military and financial support for rebel groups; pressure US allies, especially Turkey and the Gulf States, to halt their funding and arming of opposition factions within Syria; pursue diplomatic efforts — including with Russia and Iran — conforming with International Law and the UN Charter, to stop the fighting and advance a peaceful political solution; increase funding for refugee relief, preferably through UN agencies.
The future of Syria is for Syrians to decide, but we should support, in principle, an outcome that protects the rights and safety of all Syrians, including women and ethnic/religious minorities.