BY BILL WEINBERG | Most “anti-war” folks in the U.S. (like nearly everyone else) are in the dangerous habit of referring to the government with the pronoun “we.” This rhetorical convention fosters the illusion that “we” commoners have any voice in Washington’s foreign policy (beyond assenting with our silence or, optimistically, restraining somewhat through protest). It betrays more naiveté than cynicism about the nature of power in this country. There is no area where the U.S. behaves more like an empire and less like a democracy than in waging war. Even Congress is rarely consulted — much less its lowly constituents.
This pronoun also burdens the question of U.S. military involvements with a personal sense of (for the anti-war crowd) guilt or (for their jingo opposites) pride, barring a more distanced and objective view. For both the peaceniks and the jingos, the use of “we” constitutes an imperial narcissism — an identification with the empire that makes the question about “us.”
So when Ted Rall in The Villager recently asked, “Why are we at war with ISIS?” (talking point, Feb. 19) — my reply is, “Who is asking, and what is your stake in the question?”
A question more rooted in human solidarity is: What can we (meaning progressives in the U.S., not our government) do to assist the secular and democratic forces actually resisting ISIS on the ground in Syria and Iraq?
And contrary to much nonsense from the “anti-war” crowd, these forces exist. First and foremost, these are the Syrian Kurds.
The Kurds of Rojava, as they call their territory in Syria’s north, took power there in 2012, when the rule of the Bashar Assad dictatorship collapsed in the region. They are militantly secular and democratic, with something of an anarchist ethic, power devolving to local assemblies. Their constitution recognizes the equal rights of women, and this is taken very seriously. There are woman commanders in Rojava’s territorial militia, the People’s Protection Units, and an all-female counterpart, the Women’s Protection Units. When ISIS invaded Rojava last year, these women warriors mobilized to great effect.
The Rojava Kurds are now allied with the Free Syrian Army, the main military force of the Syrian resistance, fighting both Assad and ISIS. While the F.S.A. is an amalgam of former regime commanders and angry but non-ideological foot soldiers, the civilian opposition that started the Syrian revolution in March 2011 still exists. (The F.S.A. only emerged after the Assad regime repeatedly massacred peaceful protesters.) These activists have kept alive a civilian resistance, even under regime bombardment. They even organized courageous protests demanding the return of their disappeared comrades in Raqqa, the ISIS de facto captial.
The U.S. has long backed the military forces of the more conservative and pro-West Kurdish autonomous zone in Iraq, now also fighting ISIS. But Washington aid to the Syrian resistance is limited — again, contrary to much malarkey from “anti-war” circles.
The U.S. came to aid of Syrian Kurds only belatedly. The Rojava town of Kobani was besieged by ISIS last September, and the defenders issued urgent appeals for aid. The U.S. took its bombing campaign against ISIS to Syria, but targeted Raqqa — not the ISIS forces closing the ring on Kobani. It was only in late October, after the vastly outgunned and outnumbered defenders of Kobani began to turn the tide against ISIS, that the U.S. began dropping them arms and supplies, and targeting the ISIS positions outside Kobani with air strikes. In January, the siege of Kobani was broken, and the Kurds have since been pushing ISIS back toward Raqqa.
Obama was backing (or at least talking about backing) the F.S.A. before he began coordinating with the Syrian Kurds — but even this aid was never very significant. One reason may be that the White House anticipated a tilt back to Assad (previously enough of a de facto ally in the “war on terrorism” that the C.I.A. “renditioned” suspects to his torture chambers). Indeed, Raqqa has for the past months alternatively come under bombardment by the Pentagon’s and Assad’s warplanes.
Some U.S. State Department money may have found its way to Syria’s civil activists. But those who jump on such connections as evidence that the recipients are “astroturf” imperialist creations are unserious. The Syrian resistance was born of popular struggle, and whatever aid it may have received from the U.S. has been little and late.
There are two related fallacies in nearly everything “anti-war” voices have to say about Syria.
One is that U.S. aid to the Syrian rebels helped create ISIS, with arms leaking to the jihadists. Arguably, the opposite is true. The failure of the U.S. (or anyone else) to meaningfully come to the aid of Syria’s democratic resistance abetted the emergence of ISIS — creating a vacuum filled by the jihadists, with their own financial and arms-smuggling networks.
The other is the more ambitious theory that the U.S. has directly aided ISIS. That line is Orwellian — conflating the very people heroically resisting ISIS with ISIS!
The U.S. does bear much responsibility for ISIS — through the destabilization of Iraq, and playing the Shi’ites against Sunnis. But that is only half the equation. The other is Assad’s relentless war on Syria’s people — escalating toward genocide with use of poison gas and incendiary “barrel bombs.” This is comfortably invisible to the imperial narcissists.
And contrary to the “anti-war” logic, if the U.S. helped create ISIS, it is pretty unacceptable to tell the people now dealing with this monster, “Tough luck, shift for yourselves.”
Rall’s minimization of ISIS is particularly distressing. The construction that it is “not run by nice people” is an insult to the victims of its genocidal campaigns.
Ironically, Rall does not mention the most persuasive argument against the U.S. bombardment: its counterproductive element, the propaganda assistance loaned to ISIS with every bomb that falls. Being on the receiving end of U.S. firepower gives ISIS anti-imperialist cachet, and each civilian casualty brings ISIS new recruits. This factor is worth weighing, but there are countervailing ones. (That said, Rall’s unsourced “guesstimate” of “tens of thousands” of casualties far outstrips informed estimates by human-rights groups.)
Rall also minimizes ISIS by equating Saudi Arabia with the “Islamic State.” The beheadings carried out by Saudi Arabia over the past year are atrocious, but do not approach the ISIS campaigns of massacre, mass rape and slavery. Rall also throws in Saudi “crucifixions,” without telling us that these mean public display of corpses after execution — not actual death by crucifixion. The practice is barbaric, but inaccuracy does not serve the cause of opposing it.
Senator Barbara Boxer is closer to the truth than Rall, who derisively quotes her assessment that the rights abuses of ISIS “are in a class of their own.”
But again, more to the point… In World War II, getting the common people on board the fight against fascism meant the Popular Front and a New Deal for the working class. The gains of this era were only reversed with the Reagan “revolution.” Washington was even forced to accept the overthrow of a few odious U.S.-backed dictators in Latin America — such as El Salvador’s Maximiliano Hernández and Guatemala’s Jorge Ubico, both toppled in 1944 uprisings — because continuing to back them too obviously contradicted anti-fascist and pro-democratic rhetoric. Similarly, the cost of an alliance against ISIS could (if progressives unite and press for this) be an end to Washington’s blank check for Saudi Arabia and the oppressive Gulf States. The secular-democratic upsurge of the Arab Revolution could find new life in a regional campaign against ISIS.
The worst example of Rall’s imperial narcissism is his admonition against “starting another war” — as if Syria were at peace! The war in Syria is a fact: the world’s greatest refugee crisis, over 100,000 dead. The U.S. did not start this war — Bashar Assad did, four years ago. The ubiquity of this error is why I put “anti-war” in quotes. By abetting Bashar Assad’s propaganda, many of those who see themselves as “anti-war” are objectively pro -war.
I have no illusions about U.S. imperial interests in the Middle East. But the most critical thing is solidarity with the indigenous forces fighting ISIS, in first place, the Syrian Kurds. And the Syrian Kurds were (and are) desperately appealing for U.S. air support — if not bombardment of towns like Raqqa, where the strikes may be counterproductive — at least targeting ISIS military positions around besieged enclaves that remain free.
When I say the fight against ISIS is my fight, I hope not to sound glib. I by no means equate myself with those fighting in Syria and Iraq. But I salute their courage. And I will do all I can from New York City to give a voice to the Syrian Kurds and their allies, and let them know they are not alone.