Syria and Silence

By Jesse Crall

This week, new sanctions imposed by the U.S. government took effect in Syria. With a poverty rate above 80% and years of civil war provoking devastation across the country, Syria hardly needs further impediments to its economic security. And yet…

The sanctions are part of the Caesar Act, which passed through Congress last year via voice vote and were signed into law by President Trump in December. As reports detail the catastrophic effects these sanctions are sure to have on civilians, we’ve witnessed only silence from the American left. Democrats in Congress have yet to speak on the sanctions, either to condemn them or mobilize citizen support in their opposition. Only a handful of left-wing journalists including Rania Khalek have taken any sustained initiative in detailing the existing horrors in Syria and what’s sure to come.

Sanctions are economic warfare. Because they don’t involve bombs and drones and troop invasions, they’re often deployed with little dissent even from “progressive” sources. Sanctions currently crippling Iran’s economy were passed in 2017 almost unanimously, with Bernie Sanders & Rand Paul proving the only dissenters in the Senate. Economist Jeffrey Sachs estimated that our sanctions against Venezuela killed over 40,000 civilians by 2019 as politicians in both parties overwhelmingly supported at least tacit regime change efforts against the Maduro government. In an interview with Pod Save America last year, Elizabeth Warren approved of the Venezuela sanctions while lamenting the resulting humanitarian crises. Whether she was selling listeners an easy line or genuinely doesn’t understand that sanctions are employed specifically to cause pain on civilians is unclear. We do know that one of Warren’s foreign policy advisors is Richard Nephew, who literally wrote the book on modern sanctions and how civilian suffering can make governments malleable to American interests. These sentiments are both cruel and misguided; sanctions have not demonstrated an ability to provoke regime change in targeting governments.

Syria’s witnessed immense chaos over the last decade, with various groups warring against the government. The United States supported some of these rebels, enabling the CIA to spend hundreds of millions of dollars training them via a program known as Operation Timber Sycamore. I’m opposed to these interventions in general but even an observer accepting the justification of Sycamore’s initial efforts has to recognize its failure. The rebels we trained ended up aligned with Al-Qaeda affiliates.

By most accounts, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a weak leader, someone more comfortable in his previous role as a London-based ophthalmologist. But his government is more legitimate than any of the warring factions looking to topple him. Some of these factions include ISIS groups. To weaken Assad is to embolden the most vicious terror groups in the world. If the United States’ efforts via bombings, Obama’s training programs or these sanctions sound counter intuitive, understand that Russia has become an ally of Assad’s against terrorism. And no matter Putin’s objective, he apparently must be opposed at all costs by an American government hellbent on reliving the Cold War over and over and over again.

Syria doesn’t present the United States with any good options. The overwhelming suffering, death and mass poverty can provoke well-intentioned Americans into demanding action. Too often, that action takes on a military cast, promoted by warhawks in government looking to exploit weak countries to suit corporate interests. Joe Biden’s longtime foreign policy advisor Tony Blinken recently insisted that a Biden Administration would leave U.S. forces guarding Syrian oil in an effort to bring Assad to his knees. This sort of occupation isn’t legal (or ethical) but America’s supremacy in might and economic power makes countering arguments recede.

Imperialism proves the overriding theme of American policy toward Syria and much of the world. The Syrian government offers no threat to American security and its failings can’t be alleviated via bombings or sanctions. The United Nations investigated the U.S. military for war crimes committed in Syria. Trump’s 2018 bombings occurred following reports that Assad used chemical weapons against civilians; subsequent investigations and whistleblowers from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons cast doubt on those initial reports. Meaning we launched retaliatory attacks on government buildings (in violation of international law) based on potentially false evidence. The United States bombs first, justifies later. And after relentless failures and horrors perpetrated in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela and Pakistan in this young century alone, the justifications used for imperial objectives don’t hold any water. The claims about national security and humanitarian objectives give way to mass chaos, suffering and death. The only clear winners from our sustained wars? Weapons contractors.

Reporter Matt Taibbi published a recent piece on the groupthink prevailing throughout American media outlets. Plenty on the left have lambasted or dismissed his claims, arguing that he should focus his attention on more pressing subjects (ignoring his past and present work on police brutality). But the world’s foremost economic power further impoverishing an already-decimated populace is a massive story and no member of Congress has offered a single word of objection. Following the professional left’s almost-unanimous embrace of baseless claims of Russian influence & collaboration during the 2016 election, this new silence clearly suggests a media unwilling to challenge status quos and the Democrats upholding them. Which frustrates me, undermines discourse and devastates Syrians.

If so inclined, please sign this petition calling on leaders in the Democratic Party to take a stand against the Caesar Act. And consider making a donation to Save the Children.

Jesse Crall

A Los Angeles native, Jesse Crall graduated from UCLA’s English Department before working as a copywriter, script reader and project manager for an engineering firm.

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