Russia’s recent military intervention in Syria doesn’t seem to have provoked the same reaction worldwide as the one the US faced against Assad in retaliation to the chemical gas attacks in Syria in August 2013. While the demonstration against the US airstrikes brought together the left and the right in major world cities, Russia’s intervention hasn’t prompted a strong reaction even from those who are considered ‘friends of Syria.’ This is not the first time that the reactions of anti-war coalitions and peace movements differ on the Syrian conflict, based on the actors calling for them. Iranian support to the Assad regime, for instance, with armed militias, weaponry, money, military experts, etc., has also gone unnoticed.
This selective approach by anti-war movements to foreign military interventions raises many questions about what they consider a war to be. Should we consider all military interventions bad? Does the actor’s identity matter more than the action itself? Can we be selective about acting upon our principles? When is it acceptable to favor someone’s interests over the miseries of others?
Hands off Syria
On 21 August 2013, the Syrian regime launched two attacks using chemical weapons on opposition-controlled areas in the suburbs of Damascus known as the Eastern and Western Ghouta. The attacks killed hundreds of civilians, including a large number of children. The Obama administration, which had previously designated the use of chemical weapons as a red line, considered using limited military action against Assad’s forces to punish Assad and to keep him from making similar attacks in the future.
As Washington was making its case for launching the air strikes in Syria, many anti-war groups across the world protested against any military action. Some protesters opposed any intervention because of the ramifications of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while others questioned the objectives of such actions and the real motivations behind it. And it wasn’t just activists and opinion shapers that opposed this action — religious figures and NGOs did, too. Pope Francis held a five-hour prayer vigil in the Vatican City for peace in Syria, to remind people that violence and war lead only to death.
It’s not clear to what extent those demonstrations were able to pressure the US to decide against airstrikes and to consider other alternatives. What is clear is that the US was able to reach a deal to destroy Assad’s stock of chemical weapons without the use of force. The demonstrators who believed in the substantial influence they played in stopping US airstrikes, however, didn’t seem to be concerned about using the same influence to stop ongoing war crimes in Syria.
The Russian intervention
Russia says its military intervention in Syria is aimed at fighting ISIS and saving the state’s institutions. It’s not yet clear why anti-war coalitions and peace movements aren’t protesting against it, but some might justify it by saying that the US airstrikes were a violation of Syrian sovereignty while Russia is cooperating with the Syrian government. Furthermore, ISIS has been a game-changer and fighting the group will help protect civilians and accelerate the peace process there.
But in the short history of the Russian strikes in Syria, it’s not at all clear that their real impact has been fighting ISIS and protecting civilians. It seems that the majority of Russian airstrikes have targeted moderate rebel groups. John Kirby, US State Department spokesperson, said: “Greater than 90% of the strikes that we’ve seen them take to date have not been against ISIL or Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. They’ve been largely against opposition groups that want a better future for Syria and don’t want to see the Assad regime stay in power.” The contradiction here is not just the fact that Russia is not focusing on targeting ISIS, but also that the targeted groups are fighting against ISIS. Furthermore, ISIS seized five villages in northern Aleppo from rebel groups that have been weakened by Russian airstrikes.
There is a logical contradiction in thinking that providing a regime that has used excessive force against its own citizens with more weapons would help protect civilians and speed up a political solution. The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented 104 civilians, among them 25 children and 15 women, killed directly by Russian airstrikes. On top of that, Assad’s regime is being provided with more sophisticated weapons which he will use against civilians as a collective punishment. Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch, says the greatest threat to Syrians isn’t ISIS but barrel bombs. The Syrian military drops barrel bombs on opposition-held neighborhoods, targeting markets, schools, hospitals and countless residences — sometimes dozens of times in one day.
Ending the Syrian conflict and protecting civilians doesn’t seem to be a priority for anti-war movements. They seem to be more inclined to decide whose war should be stopped, rather than why war should be stopped.
Military interventions should of course be assessed on a case-by-case basis, as sometimes the use of military force or the threat of using it can help protect civilians. The establishment of a no-bombing zone in Syria, to stop the barrel bombing, is one of the cases in which a military intervention, if needed, could be useful.
Haid Haid is a program manager at the Heinrich Böll Stiftung’s office in Beirut. He tweets @HaidHaid22
Syria is the Paris Commune of the 21st Century!