Jonathan Freedland: there is no silence on Syria

Picture of an anti-war demonstration in 2003, showing a mass of people in Hyde Park, London, many holding banners saying "Don't attack Iraq".We condemn Israel. So why the silence on Syria? | Jonathan Freedland | Comment is free | The Guardian

This article appeared in the opinion section of yesterday’s Guardian and criticises the public and the anti-war movement in particular for saying nothing about the ongoing slaughter in Syria carried out by Assad and his militias, compared to the widespread outrage at Israeli violence against Palestinians and Lebanese. He repeats an old trope common among Israeli sympathisers: that people complain loudly when Arabs (or other Muslims) are killed by Israelis or westerners, but say nothing when it is their own people doing it. In the case of Syria, it just isn’t true.

He complains that the war in Syria is “rarely on the front page or the TV bulletins”. I have not done a survey (in contrast to coverage of the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006 or Operation Cast Lead), but I find that the war in Syria regularly gets prominent coverage in major newspapers, including the Guardian, and the TV news. There have been no demonstrations organised by the Stop the War Coalition, and that organisation simply issues statements opposing western intervention, which is not going to happen anyway. However, the STWC is a shadow of its old self, because it was formed to oppose the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at a time when there was enormous popular opposition along with much official enthusiasm. The Iraq war in particular was seen as a war fought in the wrong spirit (despite all the talk of ‘Iraqi freedom’), essentially as revenge for 9/11 against any easy Muslim target, and a war we had no reason to get involved in. Today, the occupation of Iraq is over and the war in Afghanistan is something that is expected to end in the next year or so. They have nothing to demonstrate over, and are probably down to their last few activists anyway — most likely the core of hard leftists and CND. There is no public appetite for war anyway; our armed forces are being cut back like the rest of the UK’s public services, and any attempt to involve British forces in Syria will lead to public protest, and also to insider political protest.

I know quite a number of people online who have connections to Syria. The vast majority are anti-Assad, and want to see him gone. They also, however, do not want to end up with another western occupation, as foreign troops stationed on anyone’s territory cause a lot of social disruption and rarely leave as soon as the problem which brought them in has gone away, and because the American record in Iraq in particular was atrocious on many levels. They want the Syrian opposition to get rid of Assad themselves, but for this they need weapons and money. While there is enormous support among Muslims for getting rid of Assad, it would be enormously dangerous for us to contribute money to any such effort, because it could be regarded by the state as terrorist fundraising (there are also laws in the USA banning American citizens from participating in wars overseas). There are several Muslims serving long prison sentences for doing all this. Muslims have raised money for humanitarian purposes, but many of us will not risk raising money for the Free Syrian Army itself.

The reason for the lack of a public movement in response to Syria has nothing to do with regarding Israelis killing Arabs as somehow worse than Arabs doing the same. The fact that the British supported military action in Libya when the people were fighting to get rid of Qaddafi suggests that this is not so — but the overthrow of Qaddafi has not yet produced a peaceful, let alone democratic, country and this may be part of the reason people are reticent about supporting a repeat of the same action in Syria. Assad is also not a popular hate figure here, as Qaddafi has been for decades. On top of this, the Syrian opposition have not sought western (or any other) military intervention; they just want the equipment they need to do it themselves.

As a Muslim who has personal connections in Syria, I feel passionately that Assad has to go — now that a serious uprising against his and his family’s rule has started, he must be defeated or the country faces a return to the highly repressive, mid-1980s post-Hama situation (and a lot of blood shed in revenge). Most Muslims, I believe, feel the same way. However, we also do not want a full-scale invasion on the same lines as Iraq, because of the destruciton it would cause in the country, and we realise it will not happen anyway because there is no unfinished business with Assad as there was with Saddam Hussain. That does not mean nobody cares, or are turning a blind eye just because the British government is not involved in the slaughter (although there will of course be more protest if the British government is involved, because people feel responsible as it is their taxes paying for it). Like most Muslims and many of the British public, I support those who are trying to overthrow Assad, but the Tory government in the 1990s ignored the demands and let the Serbs get on with it for three years, and there is every possibility that the present government will do the same for Assad. As for the STWC, it is even possible that some of its leaders regard Assad as an old Soviet bloc ally and do not want to see him removed, although they will not say so openly.

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