In defence of the Syria Campaign

In defence of the Syria Campaign
8 min read
06 Oct, 2016
Blog: Many journalists in the self-described 'progressive media' have rejected Syrians' calls for freedom due to their inability to look past their own dogmatic ideological lines, writes Christina Abraham.
A multitude of Syrian activists and aid workers have called for a no-fly zone [Anadolu]

We live in interesting times, Max Blumenthal. As much as I understand that the Syria situation is complex, you fail to understand that it is also fundamentally simple. The simple fact is, there is a dictator who has at his disposal world powers, and who is killing innocent civilians. And it is veteran critics such as yourself who have been appropriated by imperial powers to make the situation more complex, on behalf of all the powerful. 

Max Blumenthal, though I address this letter to you, it speaks generally to all of you who have maintained these poorly thought-out ideological positions at the expense of Syrian civilians.

Despite your portrayal of the conflict, Syria is not a conflict about states versus states. Syria is a conflict about people versus states - many states. In your recent article, you maligned The Syria Campaign and the White Helmets as not being an authentic voice for the Syrian people. At the same time, you accused them of being political, and therefore biased, and therefore untrustworthy as a source of information for what is happening in Syria. This is because they, and a multitude of other Syrian activists and aid workers, have long been calling for the international community to impose a no-fly zone that would prevent Syrian and Russian armed forces from conducting indiscriminate bombing campaigns against civilian populations.    

Your article both misrepresents and misses the point.

First, you claim that The Syria Campaign is deceptive in representing itself as an "impartial, non-political voice for ordinary Syrian citizens that is dedicated to civilian protection". Words you - not they - wrote. While The Syria Campaign is not affiliated with any particular political group, it has never shied away from its position that the Syrian people's calls for freedom should be supported and that Syria's current president should be ousted. 

Its own website explicitly states that it is an advocacy group that supports a free and democratic Syria. "The majority of Syrians want neither Assad nor [the Islamic State group].  They want an end to the violence and a democratic Syria," the website boldly states. "What is happening in Syria could be happening to any of us. No one is free until we're all free." To portray them as a group pretending to be something they are not is simply dishonest.

You also accuse the White Helmets of not being impartial. I imagine your purpose is to undermine the credibility of both of these groups when reporting on humanitarian law violations. Your tactic is one used time-and-again by human rights and humanitarian law violators: let's convolute the evidence and attack the credibility of the source.

Sure, they had photographs showing that a UN convoy carrying humanitarian aid was attacked. Sure, the witnesses saw helicopters and found remnants of Russian artillery. Sure, armed opposition factions don't have access to those things, or control over the airspace. But what do facts matter in this world anyway? When something doesn't suit your ideology, when all else fails, attack the messenger. After all, image creates reality in this world, doesn't it?

Your tactic is one used time-and-again by human rights and humanitarian law violators: let's convolute the evidence and attack the credibility of the source.

In so doing, you rob the Syrian people of their agency and of their fundamental right to live in a society where their lives and liberty are respected. You also sacrifice your principles to your ideology. From your privileged position, you turn your nose up and brush aside a people's calls for freedom, all so that you can keep safe your clique's naive notion that only states have agency at the international level, and that some states are perennially good while others perennially evil. No state is good or evil; they merely pursue their interests. 

Also, maybe you're just not that familiar with humanitarian law - it does get complicated when you're talking about it in the context of an armed conflict, I admit. Allow me to elucidate some of this for you, as I have worked in this field. Conflicts do not happen in vacuums, and the individuals often acting as first responders and aid deliverers are not usually internationals with no exposure to a conflict, they tend to be people who form a part of the society embroiled in the conflict.

Humanitarian law does not require a person to be oblivious to context, it does not prohibit them from forming their own opinions on things or even advocating for those opinions. Humanitarian law requires non-discrimination in the administration of programmes and the delivery of aid.

The White Helmets and many other humanitarian aid workers have stayed true to this principle. These brave people who risk their lives to mitigate against the ravages of war on civilians are often in the best position to bear witness and provide insight into the perpetrators of humanitarian law violations, and the obstacles to getting aid delivered to populations in need and to ending the violence. They even have a right to propose solutions.

The fact is that an estimated 95 percent of those killed in Syria were killed by Syrian or Russian armed forces, mostly through aerial bombardments. Likewise, an overwhelming majority of refugees and internally displaced persons resulting from the conflict fled their homes because of aerial bombardment. As Syrian and Russian armed forces misuse airspace to commit humanitarian law violations, a no-fly zone would be a logical solution, and this is all these Syrian groups have called for.     

The fact is that an estimated 95 percent of those killed in Syria were killed by Syrian or Russian armed forces, mostly through aerial bombardments.

I don't know who your undisclosed source is in Damascus.  Supposedly this person is a Westerner (does that make them more credible?) who works with a "politically neutral humanitarian" NGO. Since you're vague on the details of that person, it's difficult to understand how you, from your position of privilege, judge who is impartial from who is not.

I've consulted a number of Syrian humanitarian organisations, I've met with international humanitarian organisations, government officials, and UN agencies that are actively involved in delivering aid in Syria, and what I know is this: No operation works out of Damascus that is not under heavy control or scrutiny by the Syrian government. I also know that organisations and UN agencies operating from Damascus have conveyed frustration at not being allowed to get to populations in need because the Syrian government does not allow them to go to those places.

Having participated in many conversations through official meetings and roundtables regarding problems that international and Syrian NGOs collectively face with the UN's Whole of Syria Programme, I can tell you first-hand their concerns are real.

The notion that "international intervention" is a pretext to imperialism is not applicable to the Syrian case. The international community has a mandate and an obligation to prevent humanitarian crisis, let alone one as large and as adversely influential in the world as the Syrian one. The reason for this should be abundantly clear to any morally thinking person.

I would urge you, Max Blumenthal, to walk through the streets of Aleppo today. Help pull some bodies out from rubble created by barrel bombs raining down from Russian or Syrian warplanes.

Now, the United States' involvement in the Syrian conflict is a by-product of the unfortunate way within which the UN was created, and when the US and Russia can exercise disproportionate influence. But folks such as yourself should be engaged with fellow activists in trying to talk through this problem together, rather than lecture the other half of the left to defend another imperial regime, namely Russia.

Obviously, you have made your position clear on intervention. Because intervention is always inherently political, you think we should avoid it (incidentally, peace processes are also inherently political). So where is your outrage on Russia's military intervention in Syria? You know, the intervention that has actually facilitated these atrocities? That intervention has contributed to the death of over 400,000 people, an estimated 25 percent of which are children. It has also assisted in the uprooting of approximately 12 million people.

You've spent a lot of time talking about the possibility of a US intervention that has not happened and is not likely to happen, but your article says nothing about the destructive military intervention that has already taken place by another world power. And your ideological arguments fail to provide a solution for when a foreign power has militarily intervened in order to help a government in power to suppress, oppress, and outright strangle legitimate calls for freedom by its people.

When groups like The Syria Campaign and the White Helmets call for international action, it is because they understand that international powers have already been involved in Syria. They just want involvement that will counteract the type of involvement that has led to the destruction of their country. And they don't do so because they're eager to see more armed forces on their soil. Their calls for the international community to stop the atrocities being committed by Syrian and Russian armed forces are desperate pleas to address gross violations of humanitarian law. While you and your clique encourage the world to continue looking away, civilians are dying.

I would urge you, Max Blumenthal, to walk through the streets of Aleppo today. Help pull some bodies out from rubble created by barrel bombs raining down from Russian or Syrian warplanes. Meet some of the kids that will grow up with missing limbs or no parents, and tell them they're lucky because they're still alive. Tell them there's hope, even though you know there isn't much hope left for them. And while you're there, be sure to explain to those kids that although it seems like things are bad now, things would be so much worse for them if someone made their government and another foreign power stop bombing them.  

Christina Abraham is an attorney that focuses on civil rights, human rights, immigration/migration, and labour rights.  Follow her on Twitter: @christinaabe

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.