Ah, 2003: When opposing imperialism meant opposing imperialism, not simply denying the existence of evil in the world or, worse yet, defending it as good and just. The warmongers’ claim that opponents of invading and destroying Iraq were mere apologists for Saddam Hussein? Oh, grow up, you neocon creep. Where were you when Ronald Reagan was arming the guy? These “apologists” you speak of, George Galloway perhaps excepted, are not actually a thing, pal.
To be young again . . .
These days, most anti-imperialists still hold to the idea that opposing the dropping of bombs does not require simply ignoring or excusing the crimes of any nation-state that is not currently allied with the criminal regime in Washington. Being against war does not, actually, require that one reflexively defend war criminals – a word justly applied to those who would bomb and starve Palestinians, for instance, be they in Gaza or Yarmouk – under the infantile reasoning that raising awareness complicates the antiwar cause. Moral credibility is the anti-imperialist’s strongest card and it’s lost forever when dead children in one place demands all of our outrage while in another conspicuous silence is seen as the only way to be effectively antiwar, or the only way to not be an imperialist, even, which can get confusing: Is this sectarian death squad backed by America or Iran? Both? Damn, this is hard.
If you’re an American, it makes sense to focus on American war crimes and support for them, but it also strikes me as increasingly indefensible to simply ignore the humanitarian crisis in Syria, to name one glaring example, where nearly a quarter million are dead and millions more living in destitution as refugees, because the man most responsible for the killing, hereditary dictator Bashar Assad, is not on good terms with the White House that feeds him intelligence on its bombing campaign against the Islamic State. What’s become clear is that some who were the biggest critics of George W. Bush are some of the biggest defenders of Assad’s “war on terror,” every atrocity at worst the regrettable consequence of fighting “imperialism” and “jihadists,” though the vast majority of victims are civilians and not all Sunnis with guns are members of ISIS.
To these sorts, the war in Syria is but an abstraction — the West vs. a perhaps unsavory (though secular and moderate!) dictator — but let’s take a look at what is actually being defended by amoral “anti-imperialists”:
What’s seen in this video is what happened on March 16, 2015, in the town of Sarmin, where eyewitnesses report that “Syrian armed forces helicopters dropped four barrels containing [chlorine] gas,” as noted by Amnesty International. A hundred people were exposed: “a small number of fighters from the Free Syrian Army armed group, but the vast majority . . . civilians,” including a an entire family with three small children that suffocated to death. As in every war, those who suffer the most are not the imperialists or the butchers who justify their butchery in the name of anti-imperialism, but innocent men, women and children. This sort of incident is no anomaly in Syria, though typically the atrocity is carried out the humane and enlightened way: with conventional weapons that tear people limb from limb.
“I saw body parts everywhere,” one resident of Raqqa told Amnesty after the Syrian military bombed a crowded marketplace there. “I carried 40 bodies to cars, ambulances and pick-ups that transferred them to [hospitals].” In the span of two weeks last November, regime airstrikes on the Islamic State-occupied city, in “most cases” on non-military targets, killed up to 115 civilians, including 14 children – more than the U.S.-led airstrikes on ISIS have killed in over six months (Syria’s state news agency hasn’t reported on civilians killed by either U.S. or Syrian bombs).
Again, even if one were to believe all that is claimed from Assad’s apologists and the vulgar reductionists of the reactionary “left,” the vast majority of people the Syrian government is killing aren’t “jihadists” or “imperial proxies” or “Contras,” but Syrian civilians: 176,000 of them, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, on which the United Nations relies for such statistics; though the Islamic State boats of its crimes, more people have allegedly been killed by the regime snipers (5,761) than the social media-savvy terrorists. And according to Physicians for Human Rights, “The Syrian government is responsible for 88 percent of the recorded hospital attacks and 97 percent of medical personnel killings, with 139 deaths directly attributed to torture or execution.”
If one takes these numbers with an iceberg of salt – which would be fair enough given the fog of war in a country where journalists are denied access by the government and killed by ISIS – the overall picture is fairly clear and the idea that this picture is the product of a State Department fabulist is more than just an absurdity, it’s an insult. Rather than denial, anti-imperialists ought to own the fact that a lot of evil can be perpetrated without the direct support of the U.S. empire — and that the only thing that could make Syria even worse at this point would be a imperial “liberation” by way of airstrikes on the regime or Marines on the ground.
Skepticism is certainly warranted when allegations are made about a state the American empire doesn’t like, but one can be skeptical without being an apologist who white-washes war crimes and baits as an “imperialist” anyone who doesn’t believe every dead baby is the product of a rebel false flag. If I were a young intelligence officer (let me stress that: if) trying to come up with a PsyOp to discredit the anti-war left, though? I would suggest doing just that. There’s no better way to tar anti-imperialists as rank apologists than having anti-imperialists become rank apologists.