Earlier this month, I traveled with seven other westerners to Syria where we joined with thirty plus activists, journalists and politicians from Asia, Africa and South America to observe the Syria Presidential election. Bashar. Assad won 88% of the vote. Though some people in opposition areas boycotted the election, and others could not get to a polling station, 73% of the entire population of Syria eligible to vote did vote. The 73% turnout was more significant than the votes for Assad. I had heard a detailed report back from the electoral commission, and spent voting day touring voting sites, so I wasn’t entirely surprised by this outcome.
Looking at the election as a referendum on the current government, the result was an expression of unity across Syrian society, the unity of a people who came forward to support the sovereignty and independence of their country. When Bashar Assad was declared the winner of the Syrian election, people celebrated in the streets late into the night. in central Damascus, and other cities around Syria. Even in Homs, people danced all night in celebration. The slogan of the President was ‘Unity’ and that is what the people wanted to hear.
There were those who gushed in their affection and support of the President. And I have at least one recorded on video. However, there were many more people who are tired of war and suffering and hoping to begin rebuilding under a government that could support their basic needs. And there were those who were ready to cut their losses and return to a life that wasn’t so bad. Whatever softness there was in the connection between the very well thought out process and the villagers who loosely followed it, there is no doubt that the majority of Syrians want Assad to continue to govern.
U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry dismissed the Syrian election as a fraud several days before it took place, and many Western countries, including the US, Canada and members of the EU joined Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Monarchies in denying Syrian expat voters the opportunity to participate in the election at a local Embassy. The Western press largely dismissed the election, though a massive outpouring of Syrian voters in Lebanon surprised everyone including, we later learned, the Syrian Election Board.
However, it seems clear, as the current events in Iraq unfold, that somebody took the results of the Syrian election along with the successes of the Syrian Arab Army in liberating the towns along the Lebanese border, and throughout most of the populated areas of the country (except for Aleppo) quite seriously. Suddenly, a week after the election, the most militant, brutal fighting force in Syria moved much of its forces to Iraq where, with the support of a well organized Sunni defection, they brazenly swarmed across the north west area of the country taking over one city after another. Iraq is seriously shaken. It has already been through a terrible bloodbath within this decade and the healing has not seriously begun. Now a new sectarian war has appeared to be on the horizon.
ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), a violent, fanatical organization of religious extremists, supposedly a breakaway from al-Qaeda, is not new to Iraq. It was born there during the US occupation. The man who currently leads ISIS spent several years in the US prison camp at Bucca. After spending another year in an Iraqi prison, he was released, and shortly after that he took charge of ISIS. Wealthy Saudis have consistently funded ISIS, while Turkey has facilitated delivery of arms and other supplies to ISIS across their border. ISIS has been dismantling the factories in Aleppo, transporting them across the Turkish border and then setting them up for business there. This could not be done without the tolerance of the Turkish government. Members of ISIS were trained by US Special Ops forces in Jordan last year. When ISIS took over the oil well at Raqqa in Syria, the EU dropped its sanctions against Syrian oil production so that they could provide parts to repair the old broken down wells so ISIS could start pumping the oil, which I assume European countries are now buying.
During the last year Syria had, with the help of Iran and Hebollah, begun to beat back the insurgency and recover the territories lost to war. It is true that thousands of Syrian refugees are in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, but many times more are in refugee camps in the government held areas of Syria where they are supplied with food and shelter, and basic medical care, and schools for the children. The Syrian Arab Army is mostly Sunni. It reflects the population demographics of the country as does the government bureaucracy. Iraq does not have the resources, the political integrity or the stable social structures to fight a war like this. It is already fractured in all directions. There are no resources left for refugees in Iraq. A sectarian war is a real possibility.
Iraqi President al Maliki has requested the United States to provide assistance. US President Obama has sent a few Special Ops forces and promised more. There is a lot of talk about whether the US should put ‘boots on the ground’; whether the US should use air strikes against ISIS in Iraq. While the American people stood fast against bombing or sending troops to Syria, they are wavering on Iraq. Once there are boots on the ground in Iraq, there will be boots crossing the border into Syria. If drones strike Iraq, they will soon be striking Syria. It will be open season on Iraq and Syria.
There is talk of dividing the country. I’m hearing the “We broke it – now we own it” line again. This is a serious distortion of reality. We aren’t talking about accidentally knocking a pot off the shelf in a department store. We didn’t ‘break Iraq’. We deliberately invaded the country and smashed it. We had another 7 or 8 years after that to try to ‘fix it’, but instead we presided over the destruction of what remained of the society. We should not be given control over any process that might affect the integrity of Iraq or Syria. Who governs these countries is not our business and we have no right to choose for them. Creating mayhem with fanatical militias capable of obscene acts of violence is not the way to ‘free’ people. Dividing people and power according to ethnic and religious affiliations destroys the fabric of ancient societies and benefits only foreign overlords who find it easier to control a weak and unempowered society.
No matter how bad it looks for Iraq, we must not forget that it is most likely that US officals at some level, at least the CIA, had something to do with the redeployment of ISIS to Iraq. Therefore the last thing they need is ‘help’ from us. Let us send them our prayers. Let us send food and medical aid for refugees. Let us respect their elections be they ever so fragile and flawed. Let us respect their sovereignty and their right ot solve their own problems. AND, let us pressure our government to stay out of the fray and to demand that our allies cease to support and facilitate blood thirsty fanatical militant forces in this region.
Let the Iraqis and the Syrians have a chance to restore their countries and their lives. We don’t own them. We haven’t earned even the privilege to call ourselves their friends. Let us give them the freedom to make their own choices and solve their own problems. Cede to them their right to self determination. That is what we really owe them.