The Limits of Non-Violence: Syria?

by Paul Olson,
NFP President Emeritus

When William Jennings Bryan visited Tolstoy in 1903 to learn about the philosophy of nonviolent resistance from the prophet himself, he asked the great man whether using force to stop an armed man from shooting an innocent child in cold blood would not be in order. Tolstoy replied that he did not believe that such a man existed. On reflection, Bryan agreed.

I have just been listening to an NPR broadcast about an apartment massacre in Homs, Syria, where Alawite Shiite fighters killed a Sunni family—including its children—in cold blood. Apparently such a man does exist. And his existence raises the issue of what we are to say to our leaders and to the world about Syria. The relatively successful and largely nonviolent ‘Arab Spring’ in Tunisia and Egypt, and the less nonviolent and less successful ‘Springs’ in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, have given way to what appear to be endless massacres in Syria.

International efforts to stop the slaughter have been paralyzed by Russian and Chinese vetoes in the UN Security Council—meaning the Syrian people can expect no help from that quarter. For us, in turn, to oppose any action by the U.S. and others, however, because of the West’s colonial past and our own country’s record of oppression in the region is, I think, a dodge. In the face of such violence, we have to act credibly and decisively. And it is important that we understand that we stand on the brink of a great war in which the ‘such a man’ of Tolstoy’s story is not only alive, but flourishing. The peace movement, accordingly, faces a divide.

There is of course a geopolitical history behind Syria’s brutality: the Ottoman occupation, Lawrence of Arabia’s liberation work with the Arab tribes, the brutal French occupation after World War I, the union of all religious elements in Syria that partially liberated the country in the 1930s and achieved full liberation in 1943 when a Nazi-allied Vichy France could no longer exert control from afar. The period following liberation saw the rise of Hafez al-Assad and a Stalinist-style ‘Baath Party’ allied with Saddam Hussein, the termination of this alliance, and the growth of Assad’s Baathism as a one-party state that relied on the ‘Alawite’ patronage network that the dictatorship controlled.

The Alawite religious core of the Baath-Assad party (nominally Shiite in persuasion and sympathetic to Iran) includes only one and a half to two million of the over 20 million Syrian people. This tiny religious minority, led by Bashar al-Assad, maintains a brutal rule over the dominant Sunni Moslem population. Complicating matters even more is that fact that many Moslems do not even regard the Alawite religion as Islamic, being as it is a composite of Islamic Shiite, Ismaeli and Christian doctrines. The Alawite minority, however, views itself as Shiite, and the Shiite republic of Iran has formed a close relationship Syria, similar to its relationship with the Shiite led government of Iraq. From Iranian and Syrian sources, the Shia-oriented forces of Hamas and Hezbollah receive the weapons they use to destabilize the frontiers of Israel from their bases in Lebanon and the Gaza strip. Thus, a ‘Triple Entente’ of a Shiite Iran-Iraq-Syria fighting against a U.S. proxy (Israel) has emerged from the Iraq War as a serious military threat to regional stability that will not abate until Palestine and Israel come to terms.

But this Mideast ‘Triple Entente’ has the support of another far more powerful international Triple Entente—the alliance composed of China, Russia and Iran. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN ambassador Susan Rice appeared outraged in the UN at Sino-Russian failure to condemn Assad and the massacres in Syria. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and John McCain urge us to go to war either overtly or covertly through proxies to change the games in Syria and Iran. What they do not say is that such a war would be devastating to everyone—World War III.

As the consequence of a series of strategic visits between the Russian, Chinese and Iranian military and civilian figures, the three countries have formed a strategic and economic alliance, initially directed against the StratCom-controlled U.S. missile shield proposed for Eastern Europe. But the alliance is ultimately directed against any Israeli-U.S. attack on Iran, against possible U.S efforts to control the flow of petroleum from the joint Russo-Iranian Caspian petroleum basin, and against any U.S. effort to disrupt the Sino-Iranian petroleum connection through which Iran supplies the crude and China the refined fuel.

The Russians and Chinese have behaved as they have because they believe that the extension of Shiite-Alawite power in the Middle East counters: 1) the effects of the extension of Saudi-Israeli power in the area; and 2) the power of Israel’s two aces-in-the-hole—its nuclear weapons arsenal and the coalition of conservative Jews and evangelical Christians who believe that Israel, as God’s Chosen, can do no wrong—that control much of U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

It is important that Americans understand what is happening equally in Syria and in the recent UN Security Council confrontation—both the religious and the geopolitical elements. The U.S. must relate better to the Shiites and Alawites at the intercultural level. And if we wish to serve the Syrian people, we would do well to exercise real pressure on the Palestinians, the Israelis and their neighbors to achieve a real detente, that includes the withdrawal of American and other outsider arms from the region. We would also do well to guarantee the routes of Caspian Sea oil from Iran and Russia to the Mediterranean (and so to the outside world) without a confrontation. And we ought to offer to abandon the veto power that we demanded when we created the UN and to expand the circle of permanent members in the Security Council to include such nations as India, South Africa and Brazil. If we advocated for a level playing field rather than realpolitik, if we condemned Sunni and Israeli massacres as vigorously as we condemn Alawite and Shiite ones, we might be more in a position to moralize to the world about the massacres in Syria. We might be in a position to admit that ‘such a man’ might kill the innocent, but then immediately call for a rule of international law that would bring him to the bar of justice.

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February 16th 2012

Bruce - The tone throughout the beginning of the article seems like you are war-mongering for us to go over to liberate Syria from their dictatorial oppression. This kind of scares me coming from Nebraska for PEACE. haha maybe I read it wrong, I won't unsubscribe right away but I wonder if anyone else knows what I'm talking about.

February 17th 2012

Kevin - Bruce - that was my initial impression as well, but it does moderate towards the end. I am personally torn on Syria. There is no doubt that suffering is happening there, but i am very reluctant to say the solution is the US military, especially when there are reports such as this: Have no doubt that Power will attempt to use the 'arab spring' to its benefit. Perhaps the US has turned over a new leaf, but I'm not convinced, especially given the US tepid stance towards the responses that ally nations have had towards their own uprisings. But... I've definitely have been wrong before. Maybe I am wrong now. In these days of propaganda it is hard to get at the truth - the irony of the so-called 'information age.' Perceived reality can so easily be manipulated now. So what is the 'truth'? I don't know for sure, but personally I'm not going to rely on the military and state to give it to me until they can be shown to be trustworthy.

March 16th 2012

Nate - You can't be for "peace" if you actually support "humanitarian" imperialist wars of aggression! "Humanitarian" imperialist propaganda is endlessly spouted by Wall Street's mass media and government whenever they want to launch a new aggressive war. It was "Save the Kosovo Albanians" in 1999. "Liberate the Afghan women" in 2001. "Protect the Iraqi Kurds" in 2003. And "Prevent a massacre in Benghazi" in 2011. In actuality, the real massacres always begin when the NATO bombs start falling. Like the 100,000 Libyans killed just last year by the "humanitarian" imperialists.

March 26th 2012

Geri Henderson - This article is a reasoned approach. Yes, the opening is a feint to the right but that's all it is, piquing my interest because I know full well that Paul Olson would never advocate war. So, exactly what is he advocating? I like the proposals he suggests because they would result in real truth telling in this (Lebanon) and that (US) part of the world rather than the highly hypocritical stance in which the US often finds itself, a stance by the way, not lost on people here. For all of the "Conservative Christians for Israel" groups, I have one thing to say: No one ever mentions the brutality visited on Palestinian Arab Christians caught in the Israeli dragnet of expansion and "appropriation" of land for settlers. The core question, as Olson clearly states, is that between Israelis and Palestinians with the rest of the Middle East lined up (mostly) on the side of Palestine. That is why a match to the area (as in armed interference next door to us here in Lebanon) is to light the fire of WW III. The complexity of the problem bedevils brilliant diplomatic minds everywhere--hawks and doves--and Olson's suggestion that veto power in the Security Council be revoked and important world powers added is a good one. India, a case in point has the balancing act of being friends of the United States and trading for oil with Iran. To say there are no easy solutions is to give up easily, to walk away, to be intellectually lazy. Now, who's listening?