by R.L. Stephens, DSA National Political Committee
“We have one of the most powerful military forces ever assembled… And if we commit those forces we’re not going to commit them for anything less than a free and democratic Iraq.”
— Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in February 2003, a month before the Iraq War.
“We support the goal of a democratic Syria rid of Assad.”
–Initial Draft of 2018 DSA NPC Resolution on Syria.
Where does DSA stand on the ongoing war in Syria?
Last week, this question came to a head in a discussion within the National Political Committee (NPC), over a proposed resolution that declared our “support” for “the goal of a democratic Syria rid of Assad.” This resolution was proposed against the background of the United States, along with France and the U.K., launching missile strikes on targets in Syria in response to what appears to have been a chemical weapons attack, presumably by the Syrian Army, on the town of Douma, which was under the control of the Saudi-supported rebel group, Jaysh al-Islam.
Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is a multi-tendency organization, and there is no consensus among the National Political Committee (NPC)—much less the broader membership—on what is happening in Syria or how we should respond to it. This is too important a discussion to ram through over the heads of the membership without first having a full democratic and open discussion of the political differences that exist among us.
While the particular circumstances in Syria are new, the question before us is an old one: whether or not socialists should take sides in conflicts between imperial powers. This is the question that split the international socialist movement down the middle when the First World War broke out in 1914 and many European socialist parties lined up with the ruling classes of their respective countries. I hope that a century later we have learned enough not to repeat that mistake.
We are in the midst of an illegal, undeclared, and seemingly endless war in which the United States and its partners and proxies have been tearing apart societies across the Middle East and around the world. Syria is just one front in this horrific onslaught. The rationales for particular interventions may shift from “fighting terrorism” to “establishing democracy” to responding to “humanitarian crises” but the real objective of the United States remains constant, the maintenance of its own position of dominance within an increasingly unstable global capitalist order.
The butchery of the civil war inside Syria, while driven by real antagonisms within Syrian society, has also been fueled significantly by competition between larger powers hoping to maintain or disrupt the previously established balance of forces within the region. As such it needs to be seen as a product of the same sort of imperialist activities that have resulted in death squads and civic collapse in Honduras, Libya, Congo, Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere.
As people living in the United States we need to be aware of our particular location within the hierarchical organization of global capitalism. While it is facing increasing challenges from other powers, the United States remains the dominant imperialist power in the world. That position is maintained by a variety of means. These include demands for austerity and privatization by the International Monetary Fund but also regime change operations ranging from support for “color revolutions” to proxy wars to direct military intervention under United States leadership.
Our duty as socialists, is not to take sides in conflicts between competing imperialist powers, least of all with the one we live in. On the contrary, our responsibility is to oppose all forms of imperialist war-making, starting with the efforts of our own ruling class. Our position must be unequivocal. As socialists we are opposed to imperialism and imperialist wars, and as socialists living in the United States we have a special responsibility to oppose any form of military intervention, overt or covert, by the United States in the internal affairs of other countries.
It is in this light that we need to evaluate the resolution that DSA declare its support for “the goal of a democratic Syria rid of Assad.” This is a call for regime change. It is not the responsibility of socialists in the United States to set as their goal the removal of a foreign head of state from power. That is a decision, in this case, for the Syrian people to make. Let us not forget: There are at least 2,000 U.S. military personnel already in Syria. With the assistance of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, the United States has been arming, funding, and training various rebel groups in Syria since at least 2012. The U.S. has also repeatedly carried out missile strikes and aerial bombardment in Syria, most recently last week. In such a context, for a socialist organization in the United States to call for regime change in Syria is to place itself on the side of U.S. imperialism and in favor of U.S. war-making in Syria.
Fifteen years ago the U.S. invaded Iraq. The National Security Council’s “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq” spoke of the “goal” of a “democratic Iraq” as the justification for that disastrous war. Before the war even started, the New York Times ran an op-ed titled “How to Build a Democratic Iraq,” which noted that “for many” the goal of a “democratic Iraq” would “justify the entire operation.” It would have been indefensible for a socialist organization to declare itself for the goal of a “democratic Iraq rid of Sadaam Hussein” in early 2003. Those who pushed regime change rhetoric in the buildup to the invasion of Iraq were horribly wrong, and we must not repeat their error. Likewise, it would be unconscionable for a U.S.-based socialist organization to take the exact same position on Syria today. It is not for this organization—Democratic Socialists of America—to support regime change operations in Syria nor anywhere else in the world.
Domestic left-wing opposition to the Syrian government under both Bashar al-Assad and his father has existed for decades, though it is not the driving factor in the present imperial war. The major principal actors in the Syrian war have all committed war crimes. These include the Syrian government and its allies, Russia and Iran, but also the rebels, which have received illegal foreign support from the U.S., U.K., France, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other states. According to the United Nations, both the rebels and the Syrian government have used chemical weapons in the conflict.
The repressive methods of the Syrian government under both Bashar al-Assad and his father go back to the the Cold War, as well as its time as a U.S. ally of the War on Terror. We have not forgotten how in 2002, under program of “extraordinary rendition”, the U.S. government sent Canadian citizen Maher Arar to Syria in order to be tortured by the Syrian government. We know that the Syrian government has committed crimes against humanity and that Bashar al-Assad, like his father before him, has repeatedly shown his willingness to use extreme violence to quash dissent.
But the war in Syria can not be reduced to the crimes of Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. government has been performing regime change operations on and off in Syria since at least 1956. The U.S. and other powers engaging in anti-socialist sabotage and interventionism in Syria and the broader region helped set the stage for Bashar al-Assad’s revisionist and repressive father to rise to power in the first place. The current CIA program to arm and train Syrian rebels is one of the largest covert operations since the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. It should be completely uncontroversial in a U.S.-based socialist organization to firmly demand an end to any and all such meddling. Promoting regime change rhetoric undermines that demand.
As a civic organization based in the United States, we need to understand that our ruling class relies on propaganda and manufactured consensus among its citizenry to achieve its imperial ends. According to the very first U.S. national security strategy document, the NSC 68, realizing the “full capabilities” of this country depends on forming “popular opinion” that helps “the American people and the American government to arrive at a consensus.” This consensus is the “national will,” and to create it, “the initiative in this process lies with the government.”
Civic organizations, like DSA, are crucial instruments in the shaping of “popular opinion” and determining the “national will,” which the U.S. government can and will rely upon to justify its agenda. The choice before us on the question of Syria and any number of political positions is whether we perpetuate or reject the imperial agenda.
Socialist solidarity should not follow U.S. State Department talking points, nor should it follow President Trump and the House of Saud into regime change operations in Syria. Socialist international solidarity manifests itself through support of the migrant caravan of Central Americans headed to the U.S.-Mexico border this week, seeking asylum. Socialist international solidarity is Jeremy Corbyn condemning the Syria missile strikes and calling for an end to U.K. arms deals with Saudi Arabia; it is U.S. political groups protesting Saudi Prince Salman as he toured the U.S. securing agreements for weapons and other economic ventures.
We should support the struggle of people to live freely in democratic, socialist, and non-sectarian societies in Syria, the Middle East, around the world, and in our own country. Imperialist regime change operations, however, do nothing to advance the socialist cause anywhere, and it must be a matter of first principle to oppose them. Socialism is life after empire—all empire—and we cannot settle for anything less.