Readings in Nonviolence' features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)
How do you begin to try to understand the atrocities and barbarities of the war in Syria? There is suffering almost beyond belief, certainly beyond direct comprehension if you want to retain some sanity, the situation is cataclysmic. The ‘interests’ of outside parties are quite clear, they want their ‘side’ to win and obliterate the others to give them more geopolitical clout; shame on them. But when these states and parties have no shame, have no compunction to contribute to the massive humanitarian disaster that the whole Syrian situation has turned into, the power of other more benign people in the outside world to attempt to deal with the situation, to bring it to an end or at least mitigate it, has so little traction as to be invisible at times.
So this statement is a brave attempt to make sense of the outwardly senseless, and pick out where a nonviolent approach can begin, or continue. There are always those who believe they should pick a side to root for and support, seeing who are the enemies of our enemies and therefore our friends. Those who believe in nonviolence do not have that simplistic luxury, of choosing a warring side. Our furrow may at times be a lonely one but in all situations, even of extreme violence, there are always those who refuse to join the fight or to fight on the terms expected by their side, who resist violence and look to a better, less bitter and violent way to progress, even if the light at the end of that tunnel is so dim as to be almost imperceptible. These are the people who war resisters should look to support.
Arriving at this statement was not easy for the WRI. However if it is taken as a statement of an approach and areas of concern for us to take up and not as a party line we should follow, then it will repay our attention.
War Resisters' International (WRI) statement on the conflict in Syria
This statement was adopted, with concerns, by WRI Council on 25th November 2016.
Since the breakdown of the truce agreed between Russia and the USA in September 2016, and more than a year since the beginning of Russian military intervention in support of the Syrian regime, the atrocities of the military actions of the Syrian and Russian forces during October and November 2016 have reached unprecedented levels of severity in the country in these five years of war. Various cities have been under siege for several months, above all in the Eastern neighbourhoods of Aleppo. As activists, humanitarian organisations and those in defence of global human rights explain, the attack on Aleppo is a conscious, deliberate and systematic military strategy of indiscriminate bombings, as well as the use of particularly harmful weapons which are causing hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries. The bombing is also causing the total destruction of sanitation and civil protection infrastructure, which more than 250,000 people (100,000 of which are children) depend on. As well as the unfortunately common TNT “barrel” bombs, the Syrian and Russian air forces are launching various classes of bombs of prohibited use (cluster bombs, incendiaries, thermobaric weapons and bunker buster bombs) against residential neighbourhoods and vital civilian facilities, including hospitals. More than 300 civilians have been killed, more than 1000 injured and all of the hospitals now out of action as a result of the bombings in the last week of intensified attacks alone.
War Resisters' International (WRI) objects to the horror caused by the intensification of continuing aerial attacks on the civilian population in Syria. WRI strongly condemns these actions: the Syrian government and its ally Russia inflicting premeditated suffering on the civilian population. These attacks against, as well as all of those being carried out by other armies and militias operating on Syrian soil, must cease immediately.
WRI equally condemns the International Coalition attacks in Northern Syria and Northern Iraq. In northern Syria alone, these attacks have killed no less than 900 civilians in the last 26 months, when the coalition's military intervention began.
The end of the truce in Aleppo is the latest chapter in a complex conflict without a military solution, lasting more than five years in which more and more armed parties are involved. More than 250 different militias, among them Daesh/ISIS, former Al-Nusra, and loyalist Shabeeha, are fighting in Syria, against or alongside the Syrian regime. The war is internationalised to a high degree; among the external parties are Russia, Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, USA, France as well as the rest of the International Coalition and Turkey (who are taking advantage of the situation to extend to Northern Syria its military attacks against Kurds), as well as thousands of mercenaries fighting with Daesh/ISIS and other militias. Many countries are economically and militarily supporting different armed groups to differing extents. For example the petro-monarchies of the Gulf are supporting Islamist militias such as the former al-Nusra, Russia, Iran and China support the Syrian regime and its many irregular associated militias, and the USA support certain militias of the Free Syrian Army and the Kurds in the YPG. Syria has become the battleground on which global and regional powers resolve their interests with the excuse of the "war against terrorism", at the expense of Syrian lives.
Weapon sales have also had a multiplying effect on the war. The constant flow of arms and ammunition from Russia, Iran and China to the Syrian government has provoked the arrival of arms produced mainly in plants in Eastern Europe towards the Gulf countries and finally into the hands of some sectarian militias. As for Daesh/ISIS, it has made use mostly of US arms abandoned during the disbanding of the Iraqi army in 2014, and of those later looted in its rapid advance in Syria. Additionally, weapons handed by the International Coalition to the Peshmerga (the military forces of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan) and other allies of the West are reported to have found their way to the black market and into the hands of extremist groups.
The magnitude of the human tragedy caused by these five years of war has few precedents since the Second World War. Today, Syria is a country where at least 250,000 people have died as victims of the war, half of its population has been displaced, thirteen million people need humanitarian aid, between five and six million refugees have abandoned the country, a fair part of those risking or losing their lives crossing the Mediterranean to end up crashing into the walls of the European Fortress, confined to refugee camps or deportation camps and exposed to the growing Islamophobia of European societies. Between seven and eight million people have been forced to abandon their homes, moving within their own country. Entire cities have been destroyed, others besieged and/or withstanding constant bombing on civilian facilities, etc.
All of the armed parties operating in Syria have contributed in varying degrees to this very serious situation, but the UN as much as other local and international humanitarian and human rights organisations highlight again and again in their reports on Syria that the government presided over by Bashar al-Assad is responsible for the vast majority of the victims. The list of atrocities perpetrated by the Syrian government is long. Among them is the use of cruise missiles and indiscriminate aerial bombing of barrels of TNT (around 40,000 recorded since 2012) on residential areas and vital infrastructure, chemical attacks with Sarin gas in Ghouta in 2013 leaving hundreds dead; chemical bombings with chlorine; the military strategy of "surrender or starvation," which the Syrian government has maintained throughout the conflict, with partial or total sieges of around two million people in various Syrian cities and localities, that can't receive food or medicine; or the tens of thousands of detainees in inhumane conditions who have been subjected to torture.
The peaceful revolution – which occupied the streets of Syria in February 2011, demanding justice and democracy and received a merciless, militarised response from the Syrian regime – crystallised into a myriad of alternative forms of activism, projects, media, and institutions. Over the years this opposition has been progressively decimated by the intensification of violence, forced disappearances, bombings or exile, and by the appearance of new armed parties who want to impose their own agenda, which has nothing to do with the Syrian democracy or self-government. However, there are still thousands of nonviolent activists who resist the Assad dictatorship, as well as the militaristic and sectarian groups. A small truce in February was enough for the opposition to return to the streets, to protest against the regime, against the Daesh/ISIS, and against Jahbat Al-Nusra in the Idlib province, revealing a movement which still persists.
Syria is no longer simply a regional conflict, but a problem for all of humanity, and not just because of the internationalisation of the conflict, or the appearance of terrorist actions inspired by Daesh/ISIS in Europe and the US, or because of the thousands of people who have left the country to flee from the war, or because of the scale of the catastrophe. The atrocities we tolerate in Syria today will be likely reproduced elsewhere in the future. In a deeper sense, as the manifesto signed in the middle of September by 150 Syrian artists and writers stated, "the world today is a Syrian issue, as Syria today is a global issue.”
Because of all of the above, War Resisters' International:
stands in solidarity with the Syrian civilian population who are victims of the war.
makes a call for international mobilisation to break the silence and demand the end of bombings on the civilian population and an immediate ceasefire. Although the global peace movement doesn't agree on the share of the responsibility of the actors in the war, we do agree that only a truce and negotiations can stop the suffering of the civilian population. With Syria we find ourselves with the same grounds, or if not greater, as those that led millions of people to protest against the war in Iraq.
rejects all military action currently in place in Syria: Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, the US and the International Coalition, Turkey, Daesh/ISIS and the Syrian and Iraqi militias must lay down their weapons and turn to nonviolent means of conflict transformation, e.g. come to the negotiating table. WRI also rejects the possibility of new military interventions which only intensify the armed violence and increase chaos in the region, provoked in large part by the military intervention of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.
demands the freeing of the tens of thousands of prisoners held in inhumane conditions in the prisons of the Syrian regime.
- demands that the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria answer for them, as part of a process of peace, justice, reconciliation and reparation of the victims.
- promises to support the activist individuals and grassroots' groups who, in the midst of violence, continue to resist militarisation and war, persist in the nonviolent struggle against the dictatorship and for democracy in Syria, and show the way to peace.