Bertolt Brecht reputedly asked,”If the government doesn’t trust the people, why doesn’t it dissolve them and elect a new people?” While Robert Anton Wilson may have been the only person who knows where and under what circumstances Brecht coined this cynical bon mot, and Brecht certainly saw plenty of efforts by Nazi and Communist governments alike to put it into practice, word that a government is undertaking this program never loses its appall, and the latest place where this practice appalls me is Syria, where the government has so far killed around 6,000 people in an attempt to “continue the beatings until morale improves,” and the UN has said things are so chaotic that it is not going to even attempt to keep track of the number of dead.
Syria, like the rest of the Middle East, is no stranger to such campaigns. When the Ottomans wanted to kill mass numbers of Armenians without having to work too hard, they just sent them out into the Syrian desert to starve. The population of Syria’s neighbor, Palestine, has been the subject of slow-motion strangulation by the Israelis for over sixty years, and plenty of Middle Easterners would be only too happy to see that karma rebound onto the Israelis. In classical times, the Romans crucified Maccabean rebels by the thousands, ultimately killing somewhere between a quarter-million and a million Jewish Palestinians–and now the survivors’ descendants, osmosed into Muslims through the years, are now under the heel of their brethren who remained Jewish. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today.
More recently, in Syria’s neighbor Iraq, ten years of American sanctions in the 90’s resulted in the deaths of over half a million Iraqis, mostly children, termed “an acceptable cost” by Democrat Secretary of State Madeline Albright, whose own children were not among the victims. Our government’s 2003 invasion is responsible for the deaths of a million and a quarter more Iraqi civilians. So, from a certain perspective, a mere six thousand casualties is chump change. Meanwhile, the U.S. won’t fund abortions because so many people in our Congress and our country profess a “respect for life.” Do I detect a disconnect here? “Protect the unborn, but once you’re out of your momma, tough nuggies”? But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today, either.
Perhaps a more apt comparison, at least for the time being, can be found in the situation in Libya last Spring, when rebels there, with the eventual help of NATO, threw out Col. Qadhafi, at the cost of 5-10,000 lives. By that standard, the six thousand known deaths in Syria could almost be called par for the course, but there are important internal and external differences between the two situations. There are four times more Syrians than Libyans, in a country only 1/9 the size of Libya. The populated part of Libya is the long, narrow coastal strip, which made it easier for the initial protesters to have some territorial integrity and create an alternative government in the far east of the country right from the beginning. The Libyan rebels were able, in effect, to barricade one end of the hall and fight with their backs to the wall of the Egyptian border. In little, triangular Syria, the population is in the situation of a hapless amateur trapped in the wrestling ring with Hulk Hogan, who keeps attacking again and again, from any and all angles, at any time. It’s enough to get a person nervous, ya know?
Another big difference is the two countries’ standing in the international community. Qadhafi had gone his own way, using Libya’s oil wealth to maintain its political independence. For this reason, and because he did in fact spend a fair amount of money on social programs that actually did improve the lives of most Libyans, as long as they were willing to kowtow to him, Qadhafi had a certain cachet in international radical political circles, especially when he proposed to start asking for gold, rather than dollars, as payment for his country’s oil. But that made him a major pariah in the West. Threatening to deny the dollar was a far more unforgivable sin than the Lockerbie bombing or murdering his own people, and with no major power to watch his back, his fall was inevitable.
Syria, on the other hand, enjoys a fairly close relationship with several world powers. Its relationship with Russia dates back to Soviet days, when the current dictator’s father cultivated close ties. Many Syrians go to Russia for advanced studies, but most importantly, the Syrian army uses Russian-made weapons, purchased with their oil cash, and Russia has continued to supply Syria with killing devices even as the rest of the civilized world has attempted an arms embargo on Syria. (Just for the record, Syria’s oil production is declining sharply.) Russia’s only military base outside the borders of the former Soviet Union is on the Syrian coast. The Russians do not want to see this relationship upset, if at all possible, especially since they gave their Chechen population similar treatment. If they have to do something similar to some other would-be breakaway republic, they don’t want to help set the precedent of international intervention.
China, too, is more inclined to support Syria, where it has major oil interests. Like Russia, China also has a strong interest in discouraging internal revolts in China, where the Uyghurs and Tibetans have suffered fates similar to what Russia visited on the Chechens. Like Russia, China does not want to give the U.N. any precedent for poking around in what it regards as its internal business, nossir.
Iran is yet a third country that is watching Assad’s back. Iran and Syria have a longstanding close relationship, going back to Biblical days, really, but most lately renewed over the Iran-Iraq war, and Syria’s provision of a refuge for Hezbollah, which both countries employ as a proxy to keep pressure on Israel. While the Russians provide diplomatic support, the Iranians have “boots on the ground,” providing support, training, and reputedly troops to help the Assad government kill dissenters, or anybody who lives in the same neighborhood as somebody who might be a dissenter.
Add to this the fact that Russia is the source of much of Western Europe’s fuel supply, and that China is a source of just about everything for everybody, and that makes the Europeans (and Americans) shy about jumping into a situation that might turn out to involve tightening a noose around their own necks. Now, throw in the many similar pogroms the U.S. has countenanced–the slaughter of half a million alleged “communists” in Indonesia in the mid-sixties and the elimination of around a hundred thousand citizens of East Timor who happened to object to the seizure of their country by Indonesia are just two further examples of U.S. government-approved mass murder, in addition to the ones I mentioned above, that deny our leaders any ability to claim the moral high ground on this issue. There are many, many more. There is blood on Uncle Sam’s hands, and it ain’t “the blood of the lamb.”
OK, just one more example of mass deaths caused by U.S. government policy–it is now estimated that about thirty thousand Mexicans have been killed in just the last four years due to the “war on drugs” (or, in this case, the war over drug profits)–that’s a kill rate similar to what we are seeing in Syria, albeit in a country with five times Syria’s population. The war over drug profits would be over tomorrow if marijuana were legalized and thus inexpensive enough to out-compete crack and meth. Coca? Talk to the Bolivians–they’ve got a plan. But, I digress.
What the Syrian situation adds up to is a dangerous pile of kindling with the potential to spark something like World War III if it is dealt with crudely. It looks to me like the U.S. couldn’t go in there with guns blazing to protect the civilian population without our blazing guns setting fires that cause far more damage than the intervention might prevent. Mere hand wringing is not an acceptable alternative, either. What would a Green foreign policy on this issue look like?
I need to preface what I am about to say by remarking that it is a very easy for me, sitting here in the safety of America, to proclaim, and not necessarily so easy for a citizen of Homs or Damascus.
First and foremost, I believe, a Green foreign policy would support the essential nonviolence of the Syrian movement. Bashir Assad’s brutal response to his people’s peaceful protests will, ultimately, undermine him, but only if the protestors can maintain the moral high ground. This is where the rubber meets the road for nonviolent resistance, the place where the bombs and artillery shells start to fall–and yet fail to instill fear in the people at whom they are aimed. Non-violent resistance is not easy, and it is carried out with no guarantee of the personal safety, much less the success, of those who undertake it. But if we are going to create an alternative to mass murder as a government policy, we have got to start by rejecting mass murder as a way to change governments. That is the great challenge, and the great hope, of the situation in Syria. A non-violent revolution there will take the wind out of the sails of Russian, Chinese, Iranian, American, Israeli and Palestinian peddlers of repression alike, and mark a new, peaceful direction for unraveling the tangled knot of Mideast tension. Violent intervention, at best, will fuel more old scores than it settles, and at worst create a regional or even global conflagration that we can ill afford at this time of planetary environmental peril. If the essence of the Syrian uprising can remain nonviolent, and replace Assad with a truly populist movement, it would mark a major turning point in world politics. We need a major turning point much more than we need more violence. It’s time for a change.
music: Judy Collins, “Carry It On”