We need a powerful movement demanding an end to the war in Syria. The United States and to some extent the global antiwar movements remain largely paralyzed. There are some campaigns responding to specific congressional and other war moves, with some particularly good work against US support for Saudi Arabia. But as a movement, we seem unable to sort through the complexity of the multi-layered wars raging across Syria, and unable to respond to our internal divisions to create the kind of powerful movement we need to challenge the escalating conflict.
It was easier during earlier wars. Transforming public consciousness, changing US policy—those were all hard. But understanding the wars, building movements based on that understanding, that was easier. Our job was to oppose US military interventions, and to support anti-colonial, anti-imperialist challenges to those wars and interventions.
In Vietnam, and later during the Central American wars, that meant we all understood that it was the US side that was wrong, that the proxy armies and militias Washington supported were wrong, and that we wanted US troops and warplanes and Special Forces out. In all those wars, within the core of our movement, many of us not only wanted US troops out but we supported the social program of the other side—we wanted the Vietnamese, led by the North Vietnamese government and the National Liberation Front in the South, to win. In Nicaragua and El Salvador, we wanted US troops and advisers out and also victory for, respectively, the Sandinistas and the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front). In South Africa we wanted an end to US support for apartheid and we also wanted the African National Congress to win.
The solidarity part got much harder in Afghanistan and especially in the Iraq wars. We stood in solidarity with ordinary Afghans and Iraqis suffering through US sanctions and wars, and some of our organizations built powerful ties with counterparts, such as US Labor Against the War’s links with the Iraqi oil workers union. And we recognized the right under international law for an invaded and occupied people to resist. But as to the various militias actually fighting against the United States, there were none we affirmatively supported, no political-military force whose social program we wanted to see victorious. So it was more complicated. Some things remained clear, however—the US war was still wrong and illegal, we still recognized the role of racism and imperialism in those wars, we still demanded that US troops get out.
Now, in Syria, even that is uncertain. Left and progressive forces, antiwar and solidarity activists, Syrian and non-Syrian, are profoundly divided. Among those who consider themselves progressive today, there is a significant though relatively small segment of activists who want their side to “win” the war in Syria. Only a few (thankfully, from my vantage point) support victory for what they often refer to as “Syrian sovereignty,” sometimes adding a reference to international law, and only sometimes acknowledging that that means supporting the current Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. (It should be noted that international recognition does not necessarily equal legitimacy; the South African apartheid regime was internationally recognized for decades.) A larger cohort wants to “win” the war for the Syrian revolution, the description they give to the post–Arab Spring efforts by Syrian activists to continue protesting the regime’s repression and working for a more democratic future. There is a deep divide.