Syria serves up the Kool-Aid for sympathizers
UNITED NATIONS (Talk Media News) – As the U.N. Security Council hashed out how to secure humanitarian access to the besieged city of Aleppo, a group of U.S. peace activists fresh off a Syrian government-sponsored tour of Damascus used a U.N. podium on Tuesday to tout the popularity of President Bashar al-Assad and praise the country’s social services.
“The Assad government provides free healthcare, free universal healthcare to everyone. It’s part of the government’s mission – free education for everyone, from primary school all the way even to university and medical school,” said Madelyn Hoffman, executive director of New Jersey Peace Action and a member of the delegation to Syria. “These are the kinds of policies our citizens here in the United States are calling for.”
The seven-member delegation to Syria was led by the U.S. Peace Council, a group founded in 1979 as an “anti-imperialist organization committed to peace, economic and social justice.” The formerly Soviet-backed council has long called for the dismantling of the NATO alliance and condemned Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan revolution as a coup d’etat.
But an independent analyst warned that the group was fed a bill of goods by the Syrian regime.
“These groups that are going to go to talk to Assad, obvious Assad is trying to play them, and get some news and get his story out,” Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma who was not affiliated with the delegation, said.
Throughout their six-day visit, the delegation visited Damascus and two government-controlled villages, and met with President Assad and other government ministers, NGO’s and business people. The Syrian government covered part of the cost of the delegation’s accommodations.
“What we saw goes against everything we read in the United States,” said Henry Lowendorf, a member of the Executive Board of the U.S. Peace Council and the head of the American delegation, who brushed off a suggestion that life in Damascus was hardly representative of the plight of those in Syria’s besieged cities.
In a colorful account of her experience in Damascus, delegation member Judith Bello of the United National Antiwar Coalition detailed one memorable lunch hosted by the Syrian business community on her blog:
“The members of the chamber of industry took us to a great restaurant this afternoon with a live singer and dancing Sufi,” she said. “Awesome!”
More than 80,000 civilians are estimated to have died in fighting since the Syrian war began in 2011, prompting the worst refugee crisis since World War II, according to the European Union.
Lowendorf said of Syria’s 4.8 million refugees, “they could afford to leave.”
A recent U.N. humanitarian appeal warned that more than 250,000 civilians in Aleppo are cut off aid deliveries after being engulfed by fighting. An estimated 2 million people in Aleppo have “little to no access to running water” amid ongoing fighting, according to the U.N. Children’s Fund.
The members of the Syria delegation spent little time dwelling on humanitarian topics, and Lowendorf flatly rejected the existence of improvised “barrel bombs” used by the Assad government.
Instead, Lowendorf and others praised Assad for “[withstanding] an invasion by the most powerful country in the world and its most powerful allies in Europe.”
In their view, Assad had not only succeeded in rebuffing outside military intervention in Syria, but had orchestrated a political feat in unifying the country.
“Even the non-violent opposition parties who had issues with democracy or corruption prior to 2011, everyone has thrown themselves in behind the Assad government because that’s the best hope, the best bet for the Syrian people,” Hoffman said.
But the assumption that Assad speaks for all Syrians is too simplistic, Landis said.
“Anybody who claims to talk for the Syrian people is blowing a lot of hot air,” he said. “The Syrian people are not one. Ten percent of the country are Kurds, and they want their own nation. There are 1,500 different militias in Syria, and each of them has a leader who would like to be the leader of Syria.”
Landis said peace delegations and academic groups are occasionally granted permission to tour Damascus and speak to Assad, but that the occasion is increasing reserved for those willing to listen to the president reiterate his talking points about the conflict.
“He’s repeating the same thing,” Landis said. “Which is: ‘I’m the rightful ruler, these people are insurgents who are being funded by outside governments and they are traitors to the government and should be killed.’”
A top official at another American anti-war advocacy group, Peace Action, openly questioned if findings from a trip sponsored by Assad could be objective.
“Peace Action was invited, and we had declined to go,” said Paul Kawika Martin, the Senior Director for Policy and Political Affairs at Peace Action, noting that, “the trip might be a little bit too close to the Assad government and might make it difficult to have a fair assessment of what’s going on there.”
Hoffman, a member of a local chapter of the same organization, accepted the invite from the U.S. Peace Council after the national executive declined.
For Martin, though, achieving anti-war goals means turning down invitations from foreign governments with their own agendas and staying focused on the topics he knows best.
“I think the way for us that we stay balanced is that we’re focused on U.S. foreign policy, cause that’s what we have any – if any – influence on. We’re a grassroots organization, we lobby Congress, we lobby the Administration, we’re focused on U.S. foreign policy because that’s where we can try to make an impact.”