With the U.S. government keeping both massive bombing and regime change “on the table” for Syria in mid-September, we from the International Action Center and others among the anti-war forces in the U.S. believed it important to organize a delegation to visit this small country now facing imperialist attack.
Washington has coordinated a destabilization campaign against Syria for the last 30 months. The U.S., its NATO allies and the Gulf monarchies have flooded Syria with arms and mercenary fighters, while cultivating a vicious climate of sectarian violence.
The IAC, together with Syrian Americans, organized a delegation as part of a continuing campaign to build resistance at home to the U.S. war against Syria. All participants plan to continue organizing mass protests and educational campaigns in the U.S. that counter the demonization of Syria and expose all the fraudulent war propaganda, as well as explain to the movement here what is at stake in Syria today.
Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and former six-term Congressperson Cynthia McKinney led the delegation, which included Dedon Kamathi, of the All-African Peoples Revolutionary Party, and the two writers of this article. Johnny Achi, of the Los Angeles-based Arab Americans 4 Syria, met the group in Damascus.
The trip took place at a turning point in the war. In the U.N. Security Council, at the G-20 meeting in Moscow, and even within the NATO countries and the British Parliament, U.S. imperialism’s most effective and persuasive representative, President Barack Obama, had failed to win support for another U.S. war. With a Congressional vote authorizing war looking shaky and the U.S. population massively opposing a new war, the attack was put on hold.
Yet Secretary of State Kerry has said that the U.S. will increase arms deliveries to the more than 1,200 marauding bands of mercenaries that make up the opposition to the Syrian government. It was a crucial time to intensifying the global struggle movement opposing a new imperialist war.
Following an international forum in Beirut, Lebanon, on Sept. 16, the delegation drove along the narrow, winding, two-or-three-lane highway through the mountains to Damascus. The road on the Lebanese side showed the impact of many past wars in Lebanon. On the Syrian side it became a well-lit, six-lane highway leading into Damascus. Except for the occasional thud of mortars, everything seemed calm and well functioning in a very modern urban center.
But that is only part of a complex reality.
A third of Syrians displaced
Even a short visit to Syria revealed how the society has responded to the social crisis and mass displacement created by the war. More than one third of Syria’s 22.5 million people have been displaced by war. More than 5 million have been internally displaced, and another 2 million plus have fled to surrounding countries.
A visit to a center for displaced people at a Damascus school showed the scale of the disruption of family life. Most classrooms throughout the building were divided in two to accommodate families of sometimes eight or ten members. Conditions were orderly and clean, but crowded. Placing displaced families in schools meant that students have to be relocated and doubled up.
The proudest achievement of Syria is that schools reopened across the country in September, despite the war. In addition to offering emergency housing, the facility we visited provided a secure food source and medical care, plus classes so the children’s lives had structure and continuity. There were playgrounds and common areas.
Syria has full literacy and the highest educational level in the region. Free education is guaranteed, including graduate studies and medical schools.
We visited a classroom in the school’s basement where children were receiving new backpacks with school supplies. Printed on each bag was the slogan in Arabic: “Everyone has a right to education.” The children sat quietly and attentively at their desks. When their names were called, they came up and proudly received their gift.
One shy child could hardly look at us without giggling and hiding her eyes, while another little girl looked us straight in the eye as if to demand we change this situation.
Parents, teachers and many volunteers participate in running the center. They told us that despite the war the government remains committed to maintaining free health care and free education for all.
U.S.-led sanctions against Syria have prevented deliveries of essential medicine for children. One father told us that his child, who was only knee-high, suffered from a growth-hormone deficiency that was treated with a drug provided free by the government, but it is now in short supply due to sanctions.
The father said he had been displaced, with his whole family, in 1967 when the Israeli regime first occupied the Golan Heights.
Families told us of the trauma created when the mercenary bands of “rebels” kidnap and hold family members for ransom. While some kidnappings have a political goal, others are because family members are working abroad, especially in the Gulf region, the U.S. or Europe, and the goal is to extort money.
Conditions in Aleppo
Several Syrians described the horrendous conditions in the major industrial city of Aleppo near the Turkish border in the north. The “rebels” have held half of Aleppo for months. Both Aleppo and Damascus are considered among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Large parts of Old Aleppo, even sites 4,000 years old, have been destroyed in car bombings and lootings.
Most of Aleppo’s population — nearly 3 million people before the war — are without electricity and means of communication. Potable water is in a crisis, and food has been scarce for months.
Government forces hold the western part of the city. But even essential food convoys have faced sniper fire from opposition forces, which have proved unwilling to provide or incapable of organizing even the most basic social needs in the areas they hold, people told us. These gangs’ main activity is looting whole factories, communication towers, trucks, cars, museums, antiquities and anything else that can be quickly taken over the border to Turkey and sold. These mercenary bands even battle each other for plunder, equipment and funding.
‘Over our dead bodies’
“Over Our Dead Bodies”
Syrian flags fly everywhere in Damascus, and they are sewn on clothing and headbands and appear as car decals. Women and men are trained to back up their patriotism in neighborhood defense units that patrol streets and marketplaces.
At a military hospital we spoke to one retired man from a neighborhood defense unit recovering from a sniper wound. Most of the wounded were recovering from sniper attacks, a daily reality. The sophisticated weapons the U.S. supplies through Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan make sniper attacks a growing problem.
The Syrian youth at the “Over Our Dead Bodies” encampment on Mount Qasioun outside Damascus brought the intense atmosphere of resistance to life. Mount Qasioun has a panoramic view of the entire sprawling city. On its peak are the city’s TV and communication towers.
Israeli planes bombed Mount Qasioun in January and May, killing more than 100 people in May. When a massive U.S. bombardment seemed imminent in early September, hundreds of youths set up a human shield there, erecting tents and pledging to resist any imperialist attack on Syria. Hundreds of young people come every day to join the encampment.
These youths posted pictures of our visit on Facebook before we had even left the mountain.
Everywhere there was enormous interest in meeting anti-war activists from the U.S. The Syrians we met, whether in hospitals, displaced centers, markets or the mountain encampment, acted with enormous confidence that they would succeed in their efforts to defy U.S. domination and ruin. People from all walks of life explained what is at stake for them.
They are confident that Syria is not isolated in the world or even in the U.S. Many people had contacts with the Syrian-American community and had heard first hand of the demonstrations in New York’s Times Square, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and in large Syrian-American communities in Allentown, Pa., and Dearborn, Mich.
Meeting President Bashar al-Assad
For more than two years U.S. imperialism’s main demand is that President Bashar al-Assad’s government must step down. While Washington has had no problem backing the corrupt absolute monarchies in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates; the monarchies in Jordan and Morocco; or the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, they claim President Assad lacks legitimacy and must step down.
Washington has stopped every attempt to open negotiations by first demanding the Syrian government resign or be barred from participating. The focus of its attack on Syrian sovereinty is on the Assad government. The U.S. proposes instead a coalition cobbled together of U.S. and Saudi-funded mercenaries and sectarians.
The anti-war movement must accept the responsibility of standing up to this U.S. assault on Syrian sovereignty. By having an opportunity to hear President Assad present his position, the delegation demonstrated resistance to imperialist demands that he leave office.
Meeting with the delegation Sept. 18, President Assad said it was futile to try to push ideas through war. Instead, he said that if the U.S. would have spent just a tiny portion of its war funding on social or cultural programs in Syria, it would be far more persuasive.
Assad called the opposition forces in Syria “paid mercenaries and sectarian religious jihadist forces,” who don’t want a secular Syria but a broken, divided country with one exclusive religious viewpoint. This would push Syria back into ancient history.
President Assad said he was committed to keeping the progress being made in Syria and the secular nature of Syria that respects all religions and ethnicities. He emphasized that only through ideas, culture and education can you stop terrorism. Although Syria is committed to defending itself, he said that civilian deaths must be minimized and ideas cannot be changed through violence.
Assad also said Syria was committed to the Russian-Syrian agreement to remove chemical weapons. He said it is important to remind the world that it was Syria that introduced a proposal to make the Middle East a chemical-free and weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in 2003, but the United States opposed the proposal.
Assad made it clear that Syria has never used chemical weapons but warned of the danger that the U.S. could still find a pretext for bombing and disrupt the present agreement. He said there is a lot of forgery on the Internet, and accusations made through social media can be easily doctored and falsehoods manufactured.
In 2012 the Syrian constitution was changed, Assad said, to allow seven additional political parties to participate in elections. These parties will all receive guaranteed television time to campaign. The next elections are set for 2014 when he will also stand for election.
Former Congressperson Dennis Kucinich conducted an interview with President Assad for Fox News on the previous day
Meetings with religious leaders
Our delegation met with the Grand Mufti of Syria, Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, the highest Sunni Muslim religious leader, who stressed the importance of preserving the non-sectarian unity that has long been part of Syria’s tradition and history. He said he seeks to represent the interests of everyone in Syria: both Sunni and Shiite Muslim, Christian, Alawite, etc., and atheists. He said his goal is to promote unity of all nationalities and religions and to oppose Islamic forces that are exclusive to themselves.
The Grand Mufti’s role, he stressed, is not to promote a religious state but to make sure society remains moral in terms of benefiting all humanity. He described how Washington refused to give him a visa to visit the U.S. to meet with religious leaders there and discuss the importance of non-sectarian unity. He also told us his son was assassinated because he would not join the sectarian religious forces.
The Grand Mufti said he felt that President Assad’s government offers the best possibility of maintaining a secular state and of promoting ideas through culture and respect for education rather than violence, which he avoids as much as possible in this war to defend Syria.
During our visit to the oldest Christian church in Damascus, dating from the 2nd century, senior clerics underscored this message of unity and opposition to those who fight to exclude all religious groupings from Syria except their own.
There are more than 2 million Christians in Syria, or 10 percent of the population, from many different denominations. The terrorist “rebel” forces have particularly targeted Christian churches and communities. In front of the Virgin Mary Cathedral hung a banner urging prayers for two archbishops, the Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo and the Greek Archbishop of Aleppo, who were kidnapped in April somewhere between Aleppo and Antioch.
International conference in Beirut
Before entering Syria, the delegation participated in the Arab International Forum Against U.S. Aggression on Syria and for Resistance in Beirut. The forum aimed to demonstrate that many political movements and countries stand with Syria. Member of Parliment George Galloway from Britain, Ramsey Clark from the U.S., and ambassadors from Russia, Iran, Nicaragua, Syria and Lebanon addressed the opening session. Organizations in Lebanon and from across the Middle East and Europe also participated.
View Sara Flounders’ talk in two parts on her trip to Syria presented at a Sept. 20 Workers World forum below.
John Parker is the West Coast coordinator of the IAC and Sara Flounders is co-director of the IAC.