Solidarity is not a Crime. Response to Rowley Sarfehjooy Article


 As members of an organization committed to peace and justice, the Minnesota Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria (CISPOS), it was disheartening for us to see an article in Huffington Post that falsely alleges that we are working “in sync with neocon warhawks to produce and sustain a perpetual state of U.S. war.” Coleen Rowley and Margaret Sarfehjooy’s article “Selling ‘Peace Groups’ on US-Led Wars” does not provide insightful analysis and is constructed on unfounded claims.

The article is fallout from the widespread controversy in the peace movement over how to respond to the brutal war in Syria.

Many anti-war pundits and activists have bought into U.S. propaganda that the U.S. is actively supporting the Syrian rebels to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria. They point to the 1997 Project for a New American Century plan for regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. They believed Hillary Clinton in 2012 when she said the Assad regime must go and that the international community stands with the Syrian people.  In fact…the U.S. has given very little training, small weapons, and funds to very few rebel groups.  Congress recently dropped $300 million for the Syrian rebels from the defense bill, almost completely cutting what the Syrian opposition already saw as paltry support from the U.S.  On the other hand, the CIA has long had a working relationship with Assad, sending him numerous terrorist suspects to torture as part of their rendition program. Assad has provided Israel with a secure border.

Talk with Syrians and you’ll learn that U.S. aid was never enough to counter Assad’s MiGs, attack helicopters, Scud missiles, heavy tanks, chemical weapons. They repeatedly state that the U.S. bombing of ISIS has helped Assad – the bombing has sometimes targeted groups aligned with anti-Assad forces and never hit the regime. Syrians too initially believed Clinton’s promises but have been repeatedly disappointed in the support from the U.S. and the international community.

Syrians will tell you that the people who rose up against Assad in early 2011 were not the traditional opposition leaders that the U.S. had met with. The uprising was indigenous – not foreign terrorists as Assad has claimed.

In the 1980s, peace organizations worked in solidarity with Central Americans who struggled to rid their countries of repressive regimes. We LISTENED to their voices.  Today too many activists have NOT listened to Syrians. They have gotten their information from pro-Assad propaganda sites like Global Research, Consortium News, Mint Press, RT (Russian TV), Press TV (Iranian TV). Like Rowley and Sarfehjooy, many in the peace movement interpret the Syrian conflict as the U.S. trying to overthrow the “anti-imperialist” Assad regime. Most Syrians will tell you that is not true.

Rowley and Sarfehjooy disparagingly refer to local Syrian Americans as “expatriates”, dismissing their authority to speak on Syria. Rowley and Sarfehjooy have attacked our Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria (CISPOS) and Friends for a NonViolent World (FNVW) for hosting events with local Syrian Americans. They claim that FNVW and CISPOS are promoting war by hosting speakers who “demonize” the Syrian government of Bashar Assad and thereby justify U.S. intervention. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Eighteen other Twin Cities church, peace and university groups have hosted the very same local Syrian American speakers as FNVW and CISPOS. These include:

Amnesty International (Minneapolis chapter), Arab American Cultural Institute, Human Rights Program at the University of Minnesota, Al Madinah Cultural Center, French Culture and Language Association, Global Solutions, Northwest Neighbors for Peace, the Carleton community, Minnesota Peace Project, Presbyterian Church of the Apostles, Yale School of Public Health, Arab Film Fest, University of Minnesota’s Human Rights Program, Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota,  Middle East Peace Now,  St. Luke Presbyterian Church, Minnesota Independent Scholars Program, Mizna.

Are those organizations also complicit in promoting U.S. military intervention? Of course not.

Rowley and Sarfehjooy’s organization, Women Against Military Madness, and their frequent co-sponsor, the Anti-War Committee, are the only Twin Cities organizations to hold Syria events without local Syrian Americans. Instead, WAMM’s Syria events have featured their own members (who have no Syria expertise), Assad apologist Mother Agnes, and Matar Matar from the pro-Assad Syrian American Forum. They have refused to include any Syria events on their calendar from the above eighteen organizations.

Recently thirteen local Syrian Americans sent a letter to WAMM politely requesting that their November event on Syria (WAMM’s fifth event) include a Syrian. They did not receive a response.

U.S. military intervention is NOT the only response to Assad’s brutal police state and his monstrous war crimes. FNVW and CISPOS helped organize an International Solidarity Hunger Strike to pressure the UN to allow unhampered access for humanitarian agencies to deliver food to besieged areas of Syria. Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Medea Benjamin, Kathy Kelley, Bill Fletcher, Jr. and many other activists endorsed the hunger strike.

These two groups (CISPOS and FNVW) have organized fundraising events for medical aid to Syria. FNVW held an Olives & Herbs lunch in solidarity with starving Syrians who have subsisted on only those foods for months. CISPOS members have gone to anti-U.S. intervention demonstrations with signs that say, “No to U.S. Bombing!  Stop Assad’s Bombing!” and “No Drones! No Barrel Bombs!” Their recent forum featured Syrian American Mohja Kahf’s important, well-researched presentation on nonviolent activism in Syria from the beginnings of the revolution to the present.

The source of the problem is familiar to those with knowledge of the history of sectarian disagreements on the left. The strong condemnations from Rowley and Sarfehjooy’s article did not come from a vacuum. For the last three years, the presence of members of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, a dogmatic Stalinist sect, on WAMM’s board and the influence of their ideology has resulted in increased intolerance from the WAMM board towards anyone with a differing viewpoint.

Freedom Road has publicly taken a position in support of the Assad government in Syria. FRSO leader Joe Iosbaker has stated that “the Syrian government ought to be defended”. He traveled to Syria in June as part of a delegation to certify Assad’s fraudulent re-election in the midst of the bloodiest war on the planet. Iosbaker returned to claim that he had witnessed democratic elections where Assad was “given the mandate by the people of Syria”.

While WAMM for decades was a respected democratic, feminist organization, its recent actions have abandoned those roots and generated discord within the Twin Cities peace community.

After four years of the Syrian conflict, it is unacceptable for us to say “it’s too complicated.” We must not be complicit with the war crimes of the Assad regime by our silence. Listen to Syrians. Learn the facts. We can stand in solidarity with their epic struggle for freedom and dignity AND, at the same time, oppose U.S. military intervention.