What should NZ do about Syria?

On 7 April, the US launched 59 cruise missiles into Syrian territory to bomb Shayrat airforce base in response to a chemical weapons attack by Bashar al-Assad on the Syria village of Khan Shaykun. The public and international response to this has been overwhelming from all sides.

Many of the US’s closest allies and friends have congratulated the US on its response. On the day of the missile launch, New Zealand, Bill English defended it as a “proportionate” response by the US. Many Syrian people have also applauded the US’s use of force, but lamented it as “too little, too late.”

On the contrary, the Russians, Syrians and their friends have condemned the US attack. Russia called it, “an act of aggression against a sovereign country violating the norms of international law under a trumped-up pretext”. Syria now denies any chemical attack occurred, with Assad calling it a “100% fabrication.”

The conversation with the NZ public has mirrored and mimicked the debates and arguments taking place on the global stage. Many people are supportive of US intervention based on the idea that the humanitarian carnage is so enormous, and Assad’s crimes so heinous, that he must be brought to task and regime change must ensue. This position is understandable given the circumstances.

On the other side, many defend Assad as the elected leader of Syria and point to US imperialism in the Middle East, and its orgy of horror in Iraq under the false pretext of weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, they point to the chaos and political vacuum left in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s overthrow that has been the incubator for much of the current conflict in Syria. The horror of the regime could well be outdone by the horror post-regime. This position is also understandable given the circumstances.

One of the difficulties in the Syrian crisis is trying to determine what is actually going on amidst the haze of war and propaganda from all sides. It is not surprising that many progressive people are skeptical of the US’s claims, particularly in light of the war in Iraq. It is more surprising that many progressive people are not more skeptical of the Russian claims, instead buying into Russian propaganda simply because it is anti-US.

Auckland Peace Action absolutely believes that grotesque war crimes have been committed by Bashar al-Assad. We absolutely believe that chemical weapons have been used against the domestic population of Syria. We also believe that the Russians and the US have committed war crimes.

There are no good guys in Syria. All three of the major players are operating entirely in their own self-interest. Assad is interested in maintaining power at any cost, the Russians (and Putin, in particular) are interested in maintaining a client state in the Middle East and countering US power, and the US, of course, is committed to global military domination and unfettered resource extraction. None of the three are acting with regard to the health and well being of the Syrian people

As a group founded on the principles of peace with justice and self-determination, Auckland Peace Action cannot support any of these actors or their respective positions. Just because there is a war, does not mean that there is a good guy or that a victory for either side is a good thing.

Some respond to this position by suggesting that this is appeasing a war criminal or that the Syrian people can’t free themselves without help.

Tyrants and dictators maintain power by both internal and external forces, usually in a complex interplay. In this respect, Assad is no different from Abdel Fattah al Sisi, the military dictator in Egypt except that al Sisi’s support is from the Americans, not the Russians. Despite being a military dictator, al Sisi was elected by Egyptians to counter the threat of political Islam. There are similar kinds of internal forces operating in Syria that benefit from and keep Assad in place along with his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah backers.

Without that domestic and foreign support, the regime would have been gone long ago. It is a regime of terror. This is well documented and long pre-dates the war. Assad has been committing crimes against his own people, particularly political dissidents, for a very long time. Until very recently, no one in the US was the slightest bit concerned by his human rights violations. When the US did get interested in 2011, it began funneling money and guns into the country via the CIA. Such clandestine operations by the CIA have a long, ugly history of brutal terror – and failure, usually spinning out tragic political consequences unforeseen by these covert agents with their over-simplified, gung-ho arrogance and smug righteousness of American superiority. Most pertinent in this respect is the CIA orchestrated coup in Iran, Syria’s neighbor, in 1953.

The complexity of factors in operation in Syria is not reason for us to throw our hands up and say, “We cannot do anything.” Equally well, however, bombing Syria or supporting the Russian/Asssad alliance are also not the answers. The answer to what we can do is twofold.

First, it must be to resist any invitation by the US to get involved in a war in Syria. No New Zealand troops, military material or intelligence should be deployed or provided in support of regime change in Syria.

The second part of what we can do is to open the door to Syrian refugees. The NZ government has been utterly parsimonious in allowing the resettlement of Syrian people. We should open the doors, and prepare to change our society to accommodate a sizeable Syrian population.

These two responses are simple. The first requires us to do nothing: just don’t go to war. The second only requires us to say “yes” and open the door. Of course, we will need to allocate resources, money and people, to major resettlement. This is something New Zealand has the capacity to do – and can do – if indeed our desire is to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.

We believe that it is the desire of the vast majority of New Zealanders to end the horror for the people of Syria. In order to do that, we must recognise two very important things. First is to follow the dictum of the medical profession: “Do no harm”. Let us not engage in military action that is certain to exacerbate that horror.

The second is that the situation inside Syria is really complex, and the ability of New Zealand to influence that is limited. It is not going to be solved by 59 cruise missiles or a round of talks. It isn’t going to be solved by assassinating Assad. The war there is already six years old. It may take twice that long to resolve the superficial chaos, and lifetimes to heal the underlying wounds.

The work we can do right now is obvious and urgent. Let’s stand up and say, “No NZ troops to Syria”, and demand NZ opens the door to Syrian refugees. These are the answers to what we should do about Syria.


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