Why the Refugee Acceptance Movement Must Become an Anti-Imperialist Movement

The corporate media have been filled with news about the growing crisis of Syrian refugees. Politicians and journalists alike ask what the United States ought to do about it. An increasing number of governors declare their intent on rejecting refugees. In a brazen attempt to stand strong against defenseless people fleeing terror, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie harshly bragged that he would not even admit “orphans under five.” This is nothing but political posturing for a dysfunctional party that must appeal to fears of racists to stay relevant as governors do not have the constitutional power to refuse to accept refugees.

The Democrats aren’t much better. President Obama’s pathetic plan would accept merely 10,000 Syrian refugees. As the New York Times reports, some Democrats in Congress urge Obama to increase that number by 65,000. This would still be far fewer than the 800,000 Germany is considering or the nearly 1 million refugees currently residing in Lebanon. It seems the “greatest country on Earth” has no room to spare.

Bigotry contributes to the reluctance of Americans to accept refugees. Perhaps an even larger factor is the widespread historical ignorance at the role the United States plays in creating the refugee crisis. Politicians and obedient journalists rarely explain the cause of crises. Instead, they prefer to view events as isolated historical phenomena that just happen independent of the actions the United States does in the world. The truth tells a different story.

The Syrian refugee crisis begins not in Syria but in Iraq. For decades, the United States has waged war against the people of Iraq systematically destroying Iraqi society. While the war on Iraq begins with George H. W. Bush, it was under the Clinton administration that the war reached a new level of cruelty. The Clinton era economic sanctions deprived Iraqis of food, medical supplies and the much-needed chlorine for water purification. As a result, about 576,000 Iraqis, mostly children, died.

In 2003, the Bush II administration violated international law and invaded Iraq under false pretenses. The ‘shock and awe campaign’ and subsequent occupation devastated Iraqi life and society. The American military targeted Iraqi infrastructure destroying schools, hospitals, electric power plants and other facilities necessary for a functioning society. As César Chelala writes,

Iraqis health status is a reflection of the deterioration of the country’s health system. Medical facilities, which in the 1980s were among the best in the Middle East, have deteriorated significantly after the 2003 invasion. It is estimated that during the war 12 percent of hospitals and the country’s two main public health laboratories were destroyed.

In an effort to control the growing resistance to the American occupation, the United States fomented sectarian divisions between Shia and Sunni Iraqis – the so-called El Salvador option referring to the US-backed death squads that terrorized El Salvador.  Contrary to popular belief, this sectarian divide was not a thousand year old conflict. Musa al-Gharbi correctly notes that prior to the invasion,

Sunnis and Shias led a fairly well-integrated existence in Iraq, especially in the larger cities. For example, nearly a third of marriages were between members of different sects. Iraq also had thriving populations of Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities.

The Bush administration searched for the right man for the job.  They turned to John Negroponte to be ambassador to Iraq. As ambassador to Honduras during the 1980s, he transformed the country into a military base from which the United States armed, trained and supported the Contra death squads in their murderous rampage against the popular Sandinistas in Nicaragua. History repeated itself and Shia death squads soon roamed Iraq. As an article in the Guardian commented, “The consequences for Iraqi society would be catastrophic. At the height of the civil war two years later 3,000 bodies a month were turning up on the streets of Iraq – many of them innocent civilians of sectarian war.”

The de-Ba’athification policy further continued the erosion of Iraqi society. Paul Bremer, then the United States’ “pro-consul” of Iraq, effectively blacklisted from employment all those affiliated with Saddam Hussein’s ruling Ba’ath Party. Over 400,000 members of the Iraqi army “were barred from government employment, denied pensions — and also allowed to keep their guns.”

Conservative estimates place the death toll of the American invasion and occupation at around 500,000, although it is likely far higher. This means that at least 1 million Iraqis died between 1991 and 2011, some 4% of the population. In addition, since the 2003 invasion, between 3.5 and 5 million Iraqis became refugees.

At around the same time the United States was forming death squads and torture chambers in Iraq, the Bush administration plotted the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Leaked documents made available by Wikileaks show that the United States planned, once again, to deploy the El Salvador option in Syria. The plan “was to use a number of different factors to create paranoia within the Syrian government; to push it to overreact, to make it fear there’s a coup” including “foster[ing] tensions between Shiites and Sunnis. In particular, to take rumors that are known to be false… or exaggerations and promote them – that Iran is trying to convert poor Sunnis, and to work with Saudi and Egypt to foster that perception in order to make it harder for Iran to have influence, and also harder for the government to have influence in the population.”

The plan did not end with the election of Barack Obama. In a remarkable display of continuity of foreign policy, the United States continued with its goal of regime change in Syria. There are key differences however. Obama does not look to the Bush doctrine of combining El Salvador style death squads with a full-blown ‘shock and awe’ invasion like in Iraq.  Rather, he prefers to combine subversive, covert support for death squads with the example of regime change in Libya.

Largely considered a “success” by Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the 2011 NATO invasion of Libya violated international law under the phony doctrine of “responsibility to protect” and the constitution with Obama ignoring his lack of Congressional authorization for bombing Libya. In their bloodlust to punish Qaddafi for the crime of having nationalized oil resources, the US-backed opposition targeted Black Libyans, lynching them and putting Blacks into zoo-like cages force-feeding them the Libyan flag, yelling “Eat the flag, you dog.”  It’s unclear how many people died in the NATO bombings and at the hands of their genocidal “freedom fighters.” Estimates of the total casualties range between 30,000 and 50,000. In other words, a “success” for freedom and democracy.

The Obama administration seeks to combine the Libyan model of regime change with classical El Salvador-style death squads. However, it has run into two problems. First, Russia is involved directly in the bombing of ISIS and does not want to see Assad out of power. Second, the major opposition to Assad is ISIS who the US openly opposes. This has led to foreign policy decisions incoherent from the standpoint of the United States’ expressed goal of stability and defeat of ISIS.

For example, consider the United States’ allies in the region. It is widely known that Saudi Arabia provides crucial economic and ideological support for ISIS. Saudi Arabia officially promotes Wahhabism, a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. Patrick Cockburn correctly writes,

The ideology of al-Qa’ida and ISIS draws a great deal from Wahhabism. …A striking development in the Islamic world in recent decades is the way in which Wahhabism is taking over mainstream Sunni Islam.  In one country after another Saudi Arabia is putting up the money for the training of preachers and the building of mosques (The Jihadis Return, 10-11).

Turkey also provides crucial support for ISIS. ISIS is able to cross the Turkey-Syria border essentially uninhibited while that same border is closed for Kurds fighting ISIS. ISIS uses this border to smuggle oil. The revenues from the smuggling operation are used to pay its soldiers and buy supplies. After Turkey shot down a Russian jet, Russia presented evidence of what many people have long suspected: Turkey is complicit in ISIS’s oil smuggling operations.

It is obvious that Turkey fears that the expansion and victory of Kurds in Syria might pose a problem to Turkey’s discrimination and slow genocide of Kurds within its own borders. Because of this, Turkey would rather see ISIS defeat the Kurds of Rojava than allow the existence of a successful, democratic, secular and predominantly Kurdish society.

The corporate media repeat the claim from the Obama administration that the United States supports a “moderate opposition” against ISIS. These media pundits rarely say who that opposition is. Patrick Cockburn explains, “Jihadi groups ideologically close to al-Qa’ida have been relabeled as moderate if their actions are deemed supportive of US policy aims” (ibid, 19-20). This includes terrorist groups like the al-Nusra Front who are affiliated with al-Qaida. Like the Contras in El Salvador and the Shia death squads in Iraq, al-Nusra will likely carry out a path of destruction against the Syrian people.

The bloodbath that will follow US-backed “moderate” opposition is basically assured.  A prominent member of the so-called moderate opposition openly called for the ethnic cleansing of Alawites saying, “exterminating Nusayri [derogatory term for Alawites] villages is more important than liberating the Syrian capital.”

While the United States makes a big deal about collateral damage from Russia’s bombing of terrorists, an informed citizen can safely dismiss this as nothing more than imperial hypocrisy.  The Clinton-Bush-Obama administrations cared little about the lives of Iraqis, Afghanis, Yemenis, Somalis and Libyans that died as a direct result of sanctions, aerial bombardment campaigns and support for murderous opposition groups.  For a while, the US refused to even bomb trucks carrying smuggled oil for ISIS.  The purported reason was out of a concern for environmental damage.  This too can be safely dismissed, as the US has not made a serious effort to tackle the threat of climate change or environmental damage in its own borders.

There is one group who the Obama administration has showed unusual amount of humanitarian concern.  The United States didn’t start bombing ISIS trucks carrying smuggled oil until well after the Russian bombing campaign started.  But once it did, the US dropped leaflets warning the drivers to abandon their trucks.  Obama has given no such kindness to any other “enemy” in the war on terror, including the dozen of people killed at a wedding in Yemen from a drone strike.

It is worth repeating that the United States’ actions are incoherent from standpoint of the official and repeatedly expressed goal of defeating ISIS.  However, the incoherence evaporates once we realize that the US’s true goal has nothing to do with defeating ISIS.  It’s about regime change in Syria.  It’s securing profits for major Western oil corporations.  It’s about containing and isolating Russia by removing its allies in the world.  It’s about strangling the Russian economy by lowering European reliance on Russian natural gas and oil.  US intervention in Syria has nothing to do with any of our expressed benevolent goals of ending terrorism and spreading democracy.

The pattern is clear. The United States, far from being a force for global stability, contributes greatly to the violence and destruction that causes refugee crises. There are about 9 million Syrians who fled their homes and became refugees either internally or externally in neighboring countries and the European Union.  Considering its role in creating the chaos in Syria, the least the United States could do is provide humanitarian support for refugees, including but not limited to opening its borders to them.

It is not enough for the United States to simply accept more refugees. Although this will go a long way to improving the immediate conditions of the Syrian refugees, it will not fundamentally alter the conditions that spawn such crises. To do so requires the dismantling of the war machine that perpetuates terror from El Salvador to Syria. Therefore, it is imperative that the refugee acceptance movement becomes an anti-imperialist movement. Otherwise, every few years we will fight to accept the next victims of the empire.

Michael Perino is an independent researcher and political writer. He manages a blog on current events and political economy. Read other articles by Michael.