America’s responsibility toward Syrian refugees

Men, women and children walk along railroad tracks while carrying their belongings

US policy has played a role in creating the mass flight of refugees from Syria.

Oren Ziv ActiveStills

President Donald Trump’s second major executive order on immigration bans people from six countries with Muslim majorities from entering the United States: Iran, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Syria. The new order, scheduled to take effect on 16 March but frozen at the 11th hour by a federal judge, bars travelers from these six countries for 90 days and refugees for 120 days. Certain waivers could be applied.

Both The New York Times and The Washington Post denounced the new order. The New York Times called it a “Muslim Ban Lite,” in reference to the first and now retracted executive order on immigration that Trump issued in January.

Yet neither newspaper mentions the role that the US has played in creating these refugee flows.

The Syrian case is particularly notable, both because it is the world’s single largest refugee crisis and because of the key role the US, along with allies such as Israel, has played in the disaster there, which has long been suppressed in the American consciousness.

Indeed, the lie that the US failed to “Do Something” in Syria is remarkably widespread. This approach perpetuates the myth that Americans are innocent in the Syrian catastrophe. This could scarcely be less true: the US, Israel and other regional components in the US empire have fueled the conflict by derailing negotiations, levying sanctions, bombing the country and arming, funding and training fighters including murderous sectarians.

As scholar Bassam Haddad writes: “The [Syrian] government – with much help from its regional and international allies – has brutalized the Syrian population since 2011. This fact, however, does not absolve its regional and international opponents from responsibility for significantly contributing to the mayhem.”

He describes a consensus among Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United States “centered around the notion that Syria and its allies needed to be cut down to size because they impede domination of the region by those players along with their allies, notably Israel.”

“These very powers almost tripped over themselves as they rushed to fuel and hijack the Syrian uprising for their own purposes.”

Israeli strikes in Syria

One example of what Haddad describes as cutting Syria and its allies “down to size” is hostile Israeli military action in Syria of which there have been several reported instances over the past few years. (It is standard Israeli policy never to confirm or deny such attacks in foreign countries.)

In December 2012, Israeli forces in the occupied Golan Heights, counter-attacking against mortar fire, struck a Syrian artillery unit. In January 2013, American officials said Israel carried out airstrikes on the outskirts of Damascus against what they claim were antiaircraft weapons being transferred to Hizballah.

Less than five months later, Israeli jets “devastated” targets near Damascus that Western and Israeli officials allege were connected to a shipment of Iranian weapons to Hizballah.

Between July 2013 and January 2014, Israel is understood to have bombed Latakia three times. The July attack reportedly saw the Israeli navy strike a shipment of Russian-made anti-ship missiles; that October, a US official said Israel’s air force bombed Russian missiles that the US believed were bound for Hizballah; in January, Israeli planes were said to have targeted a warehouse that apparently held Russian missiles.

A January 2015 bombing in Syria, attributed to Israel killed six members of Hizballah and six Iranians, including a general.

What such attacks show is that Israel is engaged in direct military interventions in Syria that target the Syrian government and thus favor the opposition. In no cases did the US criticize the Israeli bombing of Syria. That the US has only increased the degree to which it arms Israel since these incidents demonstrates at least tacit approval of them and makes the US a party to the acts.

During the Syrian war, Israel has hastened its colonization of the Syrian territory it occupies, the Golan Heights. Israeli planners have oscillated between wanting all sides in Syria to bleed indefinitely, which would render the country too weak to challenge Israel and would bog down Iran and Hizballah, the Syrian government’s allies, and wanting the non-Islamic State group elements of Syria’s opposition to oust the Syrian government because of the blow that would be to Iran and Hizballah. Israel has provided medical care to Syrian opposition fighters and the Israeli military has been in regular contact with Syrian armed groups.

Furthermore, a US-led coalition has bombed Syria more than 7,100 times since the fall of 2014 in the name of defeating the Islamic State, killing between 914 and 1,361 civilians in the process. Earlier this month, the US sent hundreds of troops into northern Syria as part of the effort against the Islamic State.

It’s possible that the Syrian government will benefit from a campaign that rids the country of the Islamic State. However, it is a mistake to see the US-led war on the group as designed to keep the Syrian government in power.

For example, the Americans have armed the Syrian opposition in the period since the US began bombing the Islamic State. The American effort against the group and the more general regional war is about the American ruling class seeking to enrich itself via the military industrial complex while simultaneously deepening the American capacity to influence what happens in Syria in both the short and long term by, for example, building military bases in the country.

The notion that the US has been an innocent observer of the war is pure fiction. The US and Israel have participated in the destruction of Syria and, accordingly, have a share in the responsibility for its disastrous consequences, one of which is the mass dispersion of Syrians.

Keeping the war going

The Washington Post reports that, from at least 2013 to 2015, the CIA spent $1 billion per year – or about one-fifteenth of its budget – to train and equip “nearly 10,000 fighters sent into Syria,” combatants the paper describes as “anti-Assad rebels.”

Similarly, the US and its allies repeatedly derailed diplomatic efforts that might have ended the war years ago when the number of people killed and made refugees was much smaller.

The entirely predictable consequence of hindering negotiations while increasing the volume of weapons in a war-torn country and teaching fighters there how to kill is that there has been an increase in the number of casualties. By taking these steps in Syria, the US took actions that they had to have known would plunge Syria deeper into war and make people have to leave their homes in the resulting violence.

There are also grounds for concluding that the US knowingly enabled, and in some cases directly supported, anti-government forces in Syria that committed war crimes against minorities.

Andrew Cockburn writes in Harper’s Magazine that “according to several sources, a US-Turkish-Saudi ‘coordination room’ in southern Turkey had also ordered the rebel groups it was supplying to cooperate with Jaish al-Fatah. The groups, in other words, would be embedded within the al-Qaida coalition.”

A Financial Times report also describes the covert operations center, the Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi (MOM), which the US formed with Britain, France, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in early 2014. An opposition figure close to MOM-backed commanders says that MOM commanders inflated weapons requests to hoard or sell on the black market, some of which wound up going to the Islamic State group or al-Nusra. He told the newspaper: “The CIA knew about this, of course, everyone in MOM did. It was the price of doing business.”

Jaish al-Fatah was a coalition of opposition groups led by Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s branch in Syria. The brutal, sectarian nature of this group was public knowledge. It was reportedly behind the massacre of 60 minority Shia villagers in June 2013.

There is also reason to believe that al-Nusra was involved in the January 2014 butchering of 32 Alawi, Christians and Druze, all of whom are minorities in Syria. In June 2015, the group reportedly massacred at least 20 Druze villagers.

Nour al-Din al-Zinki, a CIA-vetted group that received TOW anti-tank missiles from the US, has now formally joined forces with al-Nusra, which has changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

A July 2016 report from Amnesty International accuses al-Zinki and other opposition groups in Aleppo and Idlib of being involved in 24 cases of civilian abductions, including children and human rights activists, and minorities “abducted solely on account of their religion or ethnicity.”

Moreover, the United States supports the remnants of the Free Syrian Army, though many of these fighters have vowed vengeance against Syria’s Shiites and other minorities, and also armed a CIA-vetted group called al-Rahman Corps that in East Ghouta has allied with the organization formerly known as al-Nusra.

There is also reason to believe that the US government did not particularly object to its allies helping bring the Islamic State to power. In an August 2014 email released by Wikileaks, Hillary Clinton says that the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia “are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL [Islamic State] and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”

As the Financial Times story shows, the US was working with both countries at the MOM joint operations center at the time of Clinton’s email. The American government then kept selling weapons to the Saudis and Qatar after the point that Clinton acknowledged that the US was aware those two governments were supporting the Islamic State.

Before these events it was well known that the Islamic State specifically targeted minorities for violence. For instance, in 2013, in Syria the group carried out “attacks on family members of Kurdish fighters and kidnappings of hundreds of civilians on the basis of their ethnic identity.”

Yet a leaked tape of Secretary of State John Kerry from last September suggests that the US government saw the Islamic State group as an opportunity to weaken the Syrian government and its allies. “We were watching,” he says. “We saw that Daesh [Islamic State] was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened. We thought, however, we could probably manage, you know, that Assad might then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got Putin to support him.”

A share of the responsibility for refugees

A nonprofit group based in Syria called the Syrian Centre for Policy Research has thoroughly documented the economics of the war. The center’s reports have been supported by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, and the United Nations Development Program. The Syrian Centre for Policy Research study “Confronting Fragmentation” identifies “unbearable economic conditions and hardship” as being, along with security concerns, a central force driving Syrians from their homes.

The Syrian Centre for Policy Research also points to sanctions, which the US and its allies have in place against Syria, as a source of this economic pain. The 2015 report describes steep declines in electricity production throughout the war and attributes this in part to how maintenance is undermined by “the sanction that prohibits the government from importing necessary parts and equipment for generating stations.”

Because of the war, Syria is now heavily dependent on imports and these face barriers “including sanctions on institutions, firms and financial transactions and insurance among other things,” which has made it harder to import basic goods.

An earlier report from the same group, entitled “The Syrian Catastrophe”, finds that “international sanctions blocking the import of lifesaving drugs, specialized modern medical equipment and spare parts” has contributed to the collapse of Syria’s healthcare system. The report also notes that sanctions on finance helped bring about declines in manufacturing, real estate, mining and exports.

None of this is to exculpate the Syrian government and its partners for their role in forcing millions of Syrians from their homes. The scholar Omar Dahi, while critical of the war crimes and human rights abuses committed by opposition groups, recounts the “systematic and wholesale destruction of entire towns and cities” by the Syrian government and its allies.

The point, however, is that narratives about Syrian refugees that omit the role played by the US and its proxies are incomplete.

Today, the US has been consigned to the sidelines of the ongoing Syria negotiations. These talks are unlikely to bring an end to the war in Syria on their own because they do not involve crucial armed groups such as the Islamic State and Fatah al-Sham, the al-Nusra rebrand. Accordingly, the violence will almost certainly continue, leaving more Syrians dead and perhaps making more Syrians refugees.

In America, the absolutely necessary actions being taken to oppose Trump’s restrictions on refugees need to be coupled with demands that his administration lift the sanctions on Syria, withdraw US soldiers and marines, stop bombing the country, ensure that Israel does not do so again, dismantle the bases the US has set up in Syria and refrain from measures that might jeopardize the negotiations for peace in Syria.

Solidarity with Syrian refugees involves pushing for them to be allowed into Western countries. It also has to involve political organizing within the US and states allied with it to enable conditions for peace and self-determination to take place in Syria so that the refugees can eventually return home if they so choose. For that to happen, the widespread notion that the US has sat on the sidelines of the Syria war has to be quashed.

Dr. Greg Shupak is a writer and activist who teaches Media Studies at the University of Guelph. He lives in Toronto, Canada.