Understanding Trump’s ‘Withdrawal’ From Syria And Advocating For Peace In The Middle East
President Trump recently announced he was withdrawing US troops from northeastern Syria where they had fought and imprisoned ISIS members with the Kurds. This move gave the green light for Turkey to invade and try to push the Kurds out ostensibly to replace them with the three million Syrian refugees from the western region currently living in Turkey. Democrats and Republicans are criticizing Trump for withdrawing and abandoning the Kurds. This has created a dilemma for peace activists – should the troops stay or go? We speak with Ajamu Baraka of Black Alliance for Peace who has spent time in the Middle East, most recently in Syria, to clarify what is going on and how best to advocate for peace in the region.
MF: You’re listening to clearing the fog speaking truth to expose the forces of greed with Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese. Clearing the FOG is a project of PopularResistance.org. You can subscribe to us on iTunes, SoundCloud, Mixcloud, Stitcher, and Google play or you can find us at PopularResistance.org and while you’re there, check out the Popular Resistance store where you’ll find Clearing the FOG t-shirts, bumper stickers, tote bags, and water bottles. Today we interviewed Ajamu Baraka.
KZ: Ajamu Baraka talks to us about Syria, a country he’s looked at very closely, he’s visited and knows a great deal about. Hopefully he’ll bring some clarity to a complicated situation.
MF: That’s right. He’s the national coordinator for Black Alliance for Peace. And he has a very good political analysis. I think we clear some confusion that people have about what’s going on in Syria and the Middle East. So we urge you to stick around for that interview. But before we get to that, why don’t we talk about some things that are in the news. The Chicago teachers strike is now in its third day.
KZ: Amazing. They are really out there again. The Chicago teachers, you remember, were one of the early unions to strike that started a whole wave of strikes that went across the country. This strike is interesting because it’s really very community-based. It’s not just about teachers and schools. This is about housing for people. They really are maybe setting a standard that other unions will follow.
MF: Absolutely. In fact, they were the ones that struck went on strike in 2012. They’re concerned because the conditions that they were fighting for back then have not improved and they call what they’re doing – it’s much more than just improving classroom sizes and teacher salaries and things like that – it’s what they call Bargaining for the Common Good and they’re demanding affordable housing, sanctuary schools. They have put forward something called the Reimagine Chicago Budget Proposal, which would directly tax the wealthy and corporations and then use that money for school improvements. They say this is necessary to counter decades of disinvestment, particularly in black and brown communities. And the strike is involving 25,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union plus 7,500 support staff. They are also fighting for improvements for the support staff in the schools.
KZ: And everything that they’re arguing for, the same arguments could be made in every city across the country because there has been disinvestment in our urban areas, especially in black and brown communities. In Chicago, it is a particularly interesting time because Rahm Emmanuel, a neoliberal Democrat and on conservative spectrum of the corporate Democratic Party, is finally out of office and has been replaced. So there’s a real chance for some movement in a positive direction.
MF: Yeah, the new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, campaigned on a progressive platform. But the Chicago teachers are concerned that she’s not coming through with those campaign promises. The Chicago teachers have gotten the support of the community. So they’ve had very impressive marches and actions – thousands of people coming out. they’re prepared to strike until they win.
KZ: And just like in 2012, the Chicago teachers, maybe the cutting edge and leading the way for many other unions to step forward and uplift their communities. If this strike goes well, I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened. It’s important to remember this strike is happening in the context of two years in a row of record numbers of workers on strike in the United States. It’s a growing movement. People are upset and angry about the wealth divide, their low salaries, their poor treatment and the mistreatment of their communities. So unions are organizing and stepping up and fighting for everybody.
MF: Right and the teachers have been of course at the forefront of a lot of those strikes. The General Motors United Auto Workers have been on strike.
KZ: For quite a while and they seem like they have reached a tentative agreement. Workers have not yet voted on it. It’s not been presented to them completely yet. So we don’t know if this could be resolved but this is one more example of an era of workers stepping out and saying no to unfair treatment.
MF: Right. And of course, that’s necessary if they want to make gains in the workplace. Let’s talk about some things that are going on around the world because it really does feel like there is global protest against corruption, capitalism, neoliberalism and a lack of democracy. And then there’s also some protests that are portraying themselves as these entities. Let’s start first with that first one, which is Hong Kong. This past week, the US House of Congress passed a resolution, “the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.”
KZ: This is basically the Hong Kong Intervention Act. It is basically the Chinese intervention act. What the act requires is for the United States government to monitor Hong Kong, monitor China’s relationship with Hong Kong, monitor whether the Basic Law is being followed and if there are problems in those areas from the US perspective, then the US will sanction China and Hong Kong. So this is a Hong Kong intervention act that really sets the foundation for escalating the conflict between the US and China, which I think will be the relationship that defines this century.
MF: It would also allow the US Congress to decide whether it will trade with Hong Kong. There are currently 85,000 people from the United States living in Hong Kong and there are 1,400 US businesses in Hong Kong that could be impacted if the United States decides to take actions against Hong Kong. But I think the biggest way to look at this is, one, in the bigger picture of the US National Security strategy that’s targeting China and this is a big piece of that strategy to be able to criticize China and continue to build anti-china sentiment, which has existed in the United States for a long time and certainly among the Hong Kong protesters. There is a lot of anti-mainland China racism going on.
KZ: Yeah, I mean just because you see that in the protesters does not mean that’s the view of the Hong Kong community. If you look at polls of people in Hong Kong, they want to remain part of China. The one nation two systems policy is working for the vast majority of people in Hong Kong. That’s not their problem. Their problem really is housing, wealth divide, poverty, low wages – issues that really China has nothing to do with. That’s controlled by the Hong Kong government, which is semi-independent, semi-autonomous. It’s a semi-independent region in fact and so the anti-China sentiment is something the US is feeding, something that some mass media moguls in Hong Kong are feeding because of their previous issues with China. Just because people are protesting for it does not mean that’s the view of the Hong Kong residents.
MF: Well, I think it’s interesting that Congress is housed, of course, in Washington DC. Washington DC is a part of the country that doesn’t have democracy. It doesn’t have representation in Congress. It has one Congress member who’s not allowed to vote. There have been for decades efforts by people within Washington DC to become a state so that they would have rights. The license plates say “taxation without representation”. Imagine if China, you know, passed the Washington DC Human Rights and Democracy Act and used it to decide whether it would you know work with the United States based on whether there was democracy in Washington DC.
KZ: Or would sanction people in the United States, the DC government or the federal government, if they didn’t. And it wouldn’t just be the lack of the vote they would look at. They’d look at mass incarceration, look at racist police practices,
KZ: Economic inequality. That means so many things you can point to in Washington DC that are human rights violations that if a foreign country wanted to have a human rights act and sanction the US for its violation of international human rights standards, there certainly would be reason to do so. So, this is just an intervention. That’s inappropriate. Also, what’s important about this, itis something that part of the Hong Kong protest movement was demanding. Not all Hongkongers are demanding this but there is a portion of the protesters that are funded by National Endowment for Democracy, a US agency, which gets its money from the State Department, that were advocating this Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. So they were working with Marco Rubio and other right-wing legislators to push this act. This is an anti-China act. This is part of the conflict between the US and China and this conflict, which is the two biggest economies in the world, is one that’s going to engulf not just places like Hong Kong. You can see Taiwan. You can see Vietnam. You can see Japan, the Philippines, all the Asia-Pacific, the China Sea, all these areas being brought into this conflict. This is a major conflict that we should be taming down. I find it shameful that we define our national security strategy as great power conflict. The real way to achieve National Security’s not through great power conflict. It is through great power diplomacy. If China, Russia, US, Iran and other large countries work together, they could solve issues like climate change. They could solve issues like global poverty. There’s no reason to define this as conflict. It’s a misdirection right from the definition of our national security strategy.
MF: And of course, just like many of the countries that we target, we would have a lot to learn from them if we actually cooperated with them instead. The Chinese government has taken tremendous strides towards reducing poverty in a country of three billion people, reducing homelessness, making sure people have jobs. Of course, it’s not perfect. Of course, there are criticisms of it. But if you look at the direction it’s going, it’s the opposite of the direction that the United States is going where we have so many homeless, so many people in poverty. And I just want to remind people of a general rule: whatever a bill in Congress is called, it’s usually the opposite of that.
KZ: Like the Patriot Act.
MF: Like the Affordable Care Act
KZ: I just would also say that your point about we could learn from these countries is so important. The United States has very serious flaws. I think most people in the United States are aware of it. Our democracy doesn’t really represent people’s interests or represents a small percentage of the population that funds the two corporate parties. Our economy is unfair, the wealth divide is extreme, poverty is constantly growing, the housing crisis. You see homeless in every city in the United States. We could learn a great deal and instead we put up this blockade. We call Maduro a dictator when in fact he’s in a much more democratic country than ours is. And we could learn a lot about democracy.
MF: Venezuela has built almost 3 million units of social housing for a country of 32 million people. In the United States, we have a total of 1.2 million units, less than half of what Venezuela has, and we have ten times the population.
KZ: Ten times the population. Those three million units are for about one-third of the population of Venezuela. Can you imagine if one-third of the population in the United States had access to social housing? There wouldn’t be a housing crisis. And so yeah, we could learn a lot from Venezuela. We could learn a lot from China. China has a very interesting approach to dealing with problems. They take a kind of scientific approach. A lot of their legislators and officials are scientists and researchers and they are doing all sorts of programs across the country in their urban areas on dealing with poverty, on transportation, on housing, and seeing what works and then when something works they share it and they build on it. We could learn so much from that kind of approach.
MF: Right. Let’s talk about some other areas that have protest going on. Of course last week, we talked about Ecuador, but now in Latin America following the protests in Ecuador, Chile is really in revolt.
KZ: It really is in revolt and it starts out with a transit fare increase. But if you look at what the protesters are saying, there are a whole series of problems in Chile. It’s all the problems that we see in every neoliberal capitalist economy of inequality, housing, poverty, unfair wages. All these issues are in Chile as well. Chile is reacting with using their military against the protesters.
MF: That’s right. President Piñera has called a state of emergency. The military is out in the streets. Protesters are being arrested, injured but that’s not stopping them. In fact, so it started with this metro fare increase and students came out massively to protest that, going across the turnstiles and into the Metro without paying and that seemed to really strike a chord with people. Many more started coming out into the streets. And as you said, their demands are much more than just the metro fare, which in fact the government took that increase away, but people are really upset and have been doing things like actually setting fires. So the energy building, El Enel, their tower office building was lit on fire, buses and Metro stations have been lit on fire as well as a newspaper, El Mercurio, which was known to be supportive of the Pinochet dictatorship, was also set on fire. They are really calling out neoliberalism
KZ: It is interesting both in Ecuador and in Chile, how the government reacted with violence. Militarized police, military, actual military itself, teargas, all sorts of aggressive efforts and we don’t hear anything in the US media criticizing those actions by those neoliberal US allies. But when you see that in Hong Kong, you see police were actually restrained in comparison, I mean, they still make mistakes but in comparison to these neoliberal governments, we hear constant criticism and then the same with France with the yellow vest movement. Macron’s been extremely aggressive and we don’t hear criticism of Macron’s use of the police. So there’s a lot of hypocrisy and how US media covers these protests around the world.
MF: Right. Well, human rights only matter if it’s a country that we’re targeting, is a focus of US imperialism, it seems.
KZ: Well, in fact, that’s what was explained to Donald Trump when he was not understanding how human rights fit into US foreign policy, the State Department explained to him – don’t worry about human rights. We only use it against the countries that we oppose. And so it’s a tool for US domination. It’s not a tool for really putting in place people-centered human rights.
MF: And let’s look at some other Latin American countries in the news. Tony Hernandez, the President of Honduras’ brother, was found guilty in a Manhattan court last week of US drug trafficking charges.
KZ: And he’s facing many years in jail, decades in jail, probably most of the rest of his life in jail, and his brother was implicated. during that trial
MF: That’s right. He hasn’t been charged yet, but there was testimony during the trial that there were members of the drug cartels who were paying bribes to his brother Juan Orlando Hernandez. Tony Hernandez is going to be sentenced on January 17th. No charges have been drawn against the President yet. But he is of course very unpopular in Honduras. He was the President installed by a US coup and there have been a lot of protests against him and also a lot of repression of those protesters in Honduras.
KZ: There have been protests in Honduras ever since the last election, which everyone pretty much recognized was a fraudulent election, pretty overtly fraudulent. It was amazing they got away with it. And there been escalating protests in recent months and with this conviction of his brother, there were more escalations of protest. So things are really – the effort to remove Hernandez from office is increasing. The effort to call for new elections is increasing and these drug charges are just the next step. If the US wants to get rid of him, now they have a tool they can get rid of Hernandez and if they want to control him, now they have a tool – We can put you in jail for life if you don’t behave.
MF: It was like the US has been controlling him all along. But yes, now they have a stronger tool. And there were protesters in New York last week outside of the courthouse where the hearing was going on with big signs that said “Fuera JOH.” That’s what they call Juan Orlando Hernandez, JOH, they call them “JOH” and fuera means get out. Let’s also talk about Bolivia. They had their presidential election yesterday, October 20th, and the result is still not completely clear.
KZ: It seems like there’ll be a runoff election in December. In Bolivia, you need to win by over 40% but also over 10% of the next candidate. And while Morales has got over forty percent, he didn’t get more than 10% over the second candidate. The second candidate, Carlos Mesa, was a previous president who didn’t finish out his term in office because – he was the president in fact right before Morales won election for the first time and the interesting thing about this previous president is that he didn’t finish his term in office because of mass protests against him because of neoliberal policies, especially around the privatization of gas and giving favored contracts to US companies. People demanded nationalization of the gas industry in Bolivia. That’s something that Morales promised and in fact, actually put in place and so he was forced from office. Morales was part of those protests and then Morales won the election and has been in office ever since. And it’s a controversial term for Morales. He’s going into his fourth term, which exceeds the limit allowed by Bolivian law, but the court said that this law was put in place after he was in office and so he has the right to continue to run for a fourth term.
MF: Right. So they’re still waiting for the final votes to be counted. A lot of the rural votes still need to come in so it hasn’t been declared yet. But as you said, with Morales at 45% and Carlos Mesa at 38% with about ninety percent of votes counted, it looks like there will be a runoff election in December. Now the United States-backed groups, it looks like, were causing some mischief leading up to the election. There was some violence against Morales’ political party and perhaps some intimidation. The United States does not want Morales to win a fourth term in office.
KZ: And there are threats that if he does win a fourth term, there will be an attempted coup against him. The real challenge, saying this is undermined democracy, he is a dictator, the usual kind of arguments we hear when the US wants to go after someone who is challenging the neoliberal approach to governance.
MF: Speaking of challenging Washington, let’s talk about Julian Assange. He had his extradition hearing in London today. There was a very large turnout of supporters as he was brought in and as he left, he was able to see the supporters out there advocating on his behalf and saying to stop the extradition. He needs to be freed from jail.
KZ: He needs to be freed from jail. And this extradition is a going to be a slow process, even though the judge did not allow it to be delayed. It’s still going to be a slow process. It is a multi-year effort to extradite Assange and bring him to the United States to stand trial, which will probably be a very unfair trial in Alexandria, Virginia. The rocket docket known for its handling of National Security cases almost always getting a conviction. I can’t recall an acquittal in the rocket docket in a national security case. I’d be shocked if you had a fair trial. So this extradition fight is critical for Assange’s future.
MF: Yes, and his mother tweeted out her concern as Assange was in the courthouse and asked to say his name, he had difficulty doing that and said that he was having trouble thinking. There are a lot of people that have big concerns about Julian Assange’s health. And of course, he was supposed to be released in September. That was when he could have been released for his bail bond violation, but the judge decided not to release him and people are concerned that the strategy is to let his health fail in jail and that he might die there.
KZ: Assange has challenged the system, not just the US Empire, the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the Guantanamo Bay prison, the treatment of the State Department controlled by corporate interests, but he’s challenged governments around the world, many of them allied with the United States including the United Kingdom. And so he’s offended a lot of the power structure and he’s done incredible work as a publisher and editor putting out material that no other publication would put out and really setting the agenda of coverage of war crimes and misbehavior by the United States in other countries. So he’s offended a lot of people, people who have the power are now out to punish him for doing so.
MF: Right, but he also, materials that Wikileaks published were used by major publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post so really they’re in the same boat as Julian Assange is. And I don’t think they’re speaking out enough and recognizing that this use of the Espionage Act against a publisher like Julian Assange really puts all publishers and journalists at risk.
KZ: It’s the first time the Espionage Act has been used against a publisher. So it’s a major step in the wrong direction and it does put everybody in the media at risk, but the corporate media is afraid of Julian Assange because Julius Assange has created a new form of media that goes around the corporate media, a people’s media that allows for people to anonymously create news by providing documents to WikiLeaks or something like Wikileaks and that means that a reporter is not needed. That means that the New York Times doesn’t get the scoop. That means that the people get the scoop and it doesn’t get manipulated by a New York Times or the Guardian, which you know publications that used Assange’s work, but which are also very much in bed with the National Security State of both the UK and the United States.
MF: That’s right, and we should mention that we because we were out recently as part of Cindy Sheehan’s Rage Against the War Machine, we were protesting at the Washington Post. We were a calling out the owner Jeff Bezos who gets multi-hundred million dollar yearly contracts for cloud service for the CIA but now it looks like he might also have a huge contract with the Pentagon.
KZ: A multi-billion dollar contract. Amazon will become the largest defense contractor in the United States and that means a lot, we’re talking about a ten billion dollar contract for cloud services for the Pentagon. So it will become the Pentagon post working with the CIA as well. And certainly not the people’s post.
MF: Let’s talk about just a couple of more areas that are in revolt right now. In Lebanon, what started out as a protest against a new tax for using the WhatsApp app on people’s phones brought people out and has turned into a much larger demonstration against really the whole conditions in Lebanon. It has one of the highest debts of all countries and they’re complaining about corruption and austerity there. And now they’ve been in protest for four days, massive amounts of people coming out in the streets.
KZ: And some people are already resigning from the government as a result of the pressure from the protesters but they’re not giving up. Again, it’s very much like the situation in Chile, a small issue there, it was transi, this one,it’s a tax on using Whatsapp, a small issue opens up a much larger issue. People who are feeling abused on many levels by governments that don’t represent them, but put the interests of the wealthiest ahead of the people.
MF: The president there is, prime minister, sorry, Hariri is calling for the Congress to meet today put together a new budget. People are saying they don’t want any more taxes, they need the austerity measures to be ended. They need investment in education and health care and much more. So we’ll see what happens with that. Massive protests continue in Catalonia, a region of Spain, following last a week ago actually from today when the judges sentenced nine members of the government to prison for 9 to 13 years for helping to organize a referendum, an independence referendum in 2017.
KZ: So let’s just stop and think about it, these political leaders who were elected organize a referendum that the people pass by a supermajority large margin and then they get punished for putting forward a referendum the people support and talking about a 13-year sentence and every day since that sentence, now, there have been protests. The end is not in sight. People want their leaders released and resentenced. They want to continue to move toward independence and Spain is not listening. Spain is trying to making an example of these political leaders. It’s having the reverse effect. It’s backfiring against Spain. It’s actually increasing the support for the independence movement. It’s a mistaken approach to try to abuse your power in such a way, punishing people for putting forward a referendum that the people support.
MF: People are protesting. There’s a major general strike. Factories are closed. Students are walking out of school. Over the weekend there were over half a million people that marched in Barcelona and then sitting peacefully in in the city streets and they’re saying that they’re going to continue protesting. It’s continuing to go on.
KZ: These are really mass protests. You see the videos of these protests and they are gigantic. They are stopping the country from working and that kind of protest, at a certain point the government cannot withstand any longer. I suspect in the end if they keep this up, they will win some victory for their political leaders.
MF: Right and part of the reason they were protesting is because over the past two years since the referendum, they don’t feel like Spain has taken any concrete measures to engage in dialogue with them about what it is that they want for their region of the country. Before we go into our interview with Ajamu Baraka, let’s talk a little bit about the newsletter that we wrote this week in Popular Resistance. The title was “US Out of Syria and the Middle East.”
KZ: Well, one of those serious problems with the way this is being debated in the United States is, there is such opposition to Trump moving the troops out of the Kurdish region, that it’s making Trump look like he’s actually a peacenik when he’s really not removing the troops from Syria or the Middle East. He’s removing troops from that part of Syria to another part of Syria where the oil is and also moving troops into Iraq on the border with Syria where they could continue to attack in Syria, and he’s added troops to Saudi Arabia. He’s added 14,000 troops to the Middle East. This is not a peace president, this is someone who recognizes that this Kurdish area, defending this Kurdish area against Turkey is something the United States is not capable of doing and we need to get, our newsletter’s point was, we’ve done tremendous damage in that region of the world, the Middle East, the so-called Middle East since 2001 damage in country after country. Mass migrant problems. Mass deaths. Mass destruction and chaos. It’s time for the US to get out of the Middle East. We are just doing negative, having negative effects there, nothing positive for our country. It’s costing us trillions of dollars, thousands of lives have been lost of US soldiers. It’s undermining the US’ respect in the world. We need to get out and focus on the United States.
MF: Right, and in that newsletter we go through a history of the US’ involvement in Syria with lots of links there for people to read as well as a section on the Kurds, their history as well as what’s going on with the Kurds and Rojava. So I encourage people to check that out at PopularResistance.org and you can sign up for our newsletter when you’re there. You can also sign up for the daily digest. If you do that, every morning, you’ll get a summary in your email of all the articles that we posted the day before, usually around a dozen or so articles that we post every day. So that will keep you up-to-date on what’s happening in resistance in the United States and around the world.
KZ: I’m glad we talked about Rojava in this newsletter because that’s one of the most interesting developments in the world as far as grassroots democracy goes. They have developed a system of governance and economy that really rejects the capitalist model and representative democracy and instead moved toward direct democracy where people’s assemblies are the foundation of how decisions are made, where cooperatives where people own their means of production own the workplace are the method of the economy to build on. So that’s a very grassroots beginning – cooperatives and assemblies, then they go to district assemblies and regional assemblies. They call it a people’s rule without a government. It’s based on the model of the Zapatistas, based on the work of anarchist Murray Bookchin and it’s really something we all should support and learn from and it’s not up to us what works out between Syria and the Kurds but we hope that the Syrians and Kurds can negotiate some kind of autonomous region, semi-autonomous region, that allows this experiment to continue.
MF: Yes. It’s also very tolerant, people of all ethnicities because of course, there are Kurds, there’s Persians, there’s Arabs…
KZ: and others
MF: and others in the region and you know,it’s a very diverse region and this is a society that’s modeling how all these different ethnicities can live together. It’s also a very feminist society, a lot of women in leadership positions. So this is something that could be a blueprint for a future because if you look at a lot of these struggles around the world, it is a struggle for people to want to be involved be able to have input into the decisions that affect their lives as part of what the Yellow Vests in France are calling for, more direct democracy. It’s part of what the whole Extinction Rebellion is calling for – one of their demands. You know they have a demand that the government recognize there’s a climate emergency, but they also have a demand that the people have an input into how that emergency is addressed.
KZ: That’s right. I think, so it’s amazing to have a governance system that’s anti-hierarchical, and anti-patriarchy, anti-capitalist and very much pro-people power and is involving people at every level in decision-making, moving away from representative democracy, which is not working well. Representative democracy across the world was a nice 1700s or 1800s era experiment but now we see the flaws of it, the corruption of it. And so moving toward more of a direct democracy approach and you can see that the Rojava experience is affecting people in Latin America and other continents because everyone can learn from this and they’ll adapt it to their own culture and their own environment, but there are lessons to be learned from this and it seems to be working well. And they defended themselves incredibly against ISIS. They allied with the United States, which some say was a mistake, but really they didn’t have much choice and ever since the US left, they’ve escalated their relationship with Syria with Damascus. They’re now working with Damascus to repel the Turks and Russia is backing that up. And so it looks like Rojava is going to survive and that Syria and the Kurds will negotiate some kind of relationship for the future.
MF: Well, that’s the hopeful outcome. But let’s get to our interview with Ajamu Baraka where we get deeper into these issues and he really provides some guidance for what people in the US peace movement need to be advocating for. So we’ll take a short musical break and we’ll be right back.
MF: You’re listening to Clearing the FOG, speaking truth to expose the forces of greed with Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese. And now we’re joined by our guest Ajamu Baraka. He is currently the national organizer and national spokesperson for the Black Alliance For Peace. Thank you for taking time to join us, Ajamu.
AB: Always my pleasure. Thank you.
KZ: All right. Well, we’re going to talk about Syria and there’s a lot going on with Syria right now. There’s a great political debate in Washington DC where everybody seems to be against Donald Trump, except for Ron Paul, everyone’s against Donald Trump’s desire to get US troops out of Northeast Syria. And in Syria itself, the Turkish incursion into the Kurdish area. Lots of violence. Lots of confusion. Got to figure this out. Can you kind of give us a sense of how you see the Syria situation right now?
AB: Well, I think you hit on the right term. It can be very confusing because it’s very complex. This latest incursion or invasion if you will by Turkey, it took place and it’s taking place in a context related to the general war in that country and informed by the shifting and complicated relationships between a number of states – Russia. Of course, Iran, and of course Syria, the Turks the US, Isreal and of course the Kurdish independent forces. So it’s a very very complex situation. So, you know, but what appears to be quite obvious to me is that with the long-awaited incursion or invasion by Turkey to try to create a so-called buffer zone in Northern Syria, that there was a general agreement, it appears, at least between Turkey and the US and maybe even the Russians that was going to allow this to happen, very similar to what happened when the Turks invaded Afrin some months ago or a year or so ago. There was a general agreement that resulted in the Russians basically letting the Turks know that there was going to be no response in terms of air protection from Russia, which gave them a free hand to go in and take province back and to allow the forces to engage in what was characterized as ethnic cleansing of the Kurds. And so this situation now that the Turks have been advocating for for quite some time is connected to that invasion. It is their attempt to try to reconfigure facts on the ground to push back the Kurds but also to engage in their own brand of taking territory to dismember and to weaken Damascus. So it is a very fluid and complicated situation that requires more than just a sort of a pedestrian understanding of that part of the world and Syria specifically.
MF: And of course, this isn’t the first time that this kind of situation has happened. Brian Terrell of Voices for Creative Nonviolence has an excellent article writing about in the 1990s and early 2000s when the US was inhabiting a base in Turkey. Sometimes they said it was Turkey’s base and sometimes they said it was the US base and they were supposed to be there to defend a no-fly zone in that region. But he reports that when it came to Turkey wanting to go in and bomb the Kurds in that region, the US would just completely stand down. The Kurds have a long history of defending their right to self-determination. Can you talk a little bit about the situation that they’re in right now allying with the US, now starting to talk with Syria. Can you comment on that?
AB: I can but let me first comment again on the context. I mean because we are talking about a global context and a regional context. You know, the late Samir Amin said, I think he was correct, that the US, EU, what we call the axis of domination were not going to allow for any independent states to be able to assert their independence and to resist the global hegemony of the US and that policy was reflected in US policy, primarily the full-spectrum dominance approach. They said that they were not going to allow any regional power to emerge to challenge US hegemony. What this meant was that any state and any region was going to be in the crosshairs of US aggression if they appear to be attempting to be independent and also to expand their influence in the region. So for the so-called Middle East or Western Asia, that became Iraq and when they destroyed Iraq, it shifted power to Iran and they quickly realized that they had made a mistake. And that now they had to deal with Iran and the consequence of that was also noticing that they had to disrupt the so-called axis of resistance that included also Syria. So this is the context within that part of the world and here we look at the Kurds. The Kurds who have been involved in a war of national liberation against Turkey and for their attempts to try to carve out some degree of autonomy and Iraq and even in Syria, they found themselves often at the receiving end of state aggression. When the US moved into the region more aggressively and specifically into Syria, it provided an opportunity for the Kurds in Syria to, well I wouldn’t even say opportunity, the reality of that invasion of Syria put the Kurds into a very difficult position. They had carved out some degree of autonomy with Damascus. Damascus was providing some degree of protection if you will while at the same time agreeing with the Turks to contain Kurdish nationalism, but when the jihadist forces begin to invade Syria, it required that the Syrian government had to consolidate its military forces, which meant they had to pull back the military forces and they pulled away from Northeast Syria where the Kurds were located. They provided some degree of arms to the Kurds, but everyone understood that the Kurds were targeted for genocide and that basically they were on their own and so they appeared to have made what some people argue was a practical decision to align themselves temporarily with the US in order to have the means to in fact protect themselves. This is where it gets really complicated. And you know, we talked about trying to avoid the weeds but you know, we know that there are some many left forces in the US that see the Kurds only in terms of some divisive force aligned with the US and Israel to dismember Syria, but it’s important to point out that in all of these years of conflict, the Kurds continued their relationship with the central government of Syria. In fact, and they have not engaged in military operations against the Damascus government. We know that the Syrian forces attacked the Kurds in 2016, but you know, there was no retaliation if you will so, you know, the principles of self-determination on the part of oppressed people come into play, you know, that people see the Kurds as an occupation force that they are attempting to engage in ethnic cleansing with Arabs, but many of the Arabs that have been complaining about the Kurds were also communities that were in alignment with some of the jihadist forces. So it becomes a very very complicated situation. Now, this agreement between the US and the Turks for the US to withdraw their forces to allow the Turks to move in, you know, it created a situation again where the Kurds had to make a decision because again, they were being targeted for elimination and it forced them into an accelerated negotiation with Damascus in order to make sure that they were not going to be militarily wiped out.
KZ: Wow. So one part of the Kurdish region, Rojava, the three cantons of Rojava about the size of Connecticut, that has gotten a lot of attention as a kind of an experiment in local democracy and municipalization, Bookchin-style, socialism. Do you know much about Rojava and what’s your impression of whether that’s a model that needs to be protected or supported or in solidarity by people from around the world?
AB: Well, you know, Kevin, it is already a model that many people are studying very closely. Many people support it and it has some real potential in terms of how one can reorganize society in such a way where political power really is being exercised from the bottom up, where you can incorporate various communities and peoples into one political project. And so we’ve seen that that is in fact happening in that part of Syria. But again, there is those broader questions of what does all of this mean in terms of the relationship of that project to the broader Syrian State. Should the Syrians allow for that to continue? What should be the relationship of those parts of the region that have an Arab majority? Well, for the Kurds and for the project itself, there are cantons there that are a majority Arab. It’s important for people to understand that this is a political project and that the idea of it being a ethnic project, you know, it’s questionable. There are some things that people have talked about and looked at that can be suggestive of some type of ethnic project. But many people argue that if you look at how things are organized, how things are organized politically, how the various groups are relating to one another, that the ethnic character of this is subordinate to its political objective. So, you know, it’s something to take a look at very closely but its ability to survive is really dependent on what is resolved with this current invasion by Turkey and the new configuration of relations between itself and Damascus.
MF: Right. So much to digest here. Let’s pull back briefly to the United States. Donald Trump announced he was removing troops, turns out it’s a very small amount of troops and they’re not actually leaving Syria so much as moving to another area. He’s also shifting more troops into Saudi Arabia. We understand that this year an additional I think 14 or 16,000 troops were sent to the region of the Middle East. We have the Democrats all up in arms that Trump has announced that he’s removing some troops. What should be..
KZ: And Republicans up in arms. It’s bipartisan attacks.
MF: Yeah, that’s true. I think people are confused about the politics of this from the US standpoint. What do you recommend for folks in the United States that are trying to look at this and what should they be advocating for?
AB: I think that we have to suggest to them that they have to remain consistent in terms of advocating for solutions to Syria to be arrived at by Syrians themselves. The idea that the US should not move out of Syria to end its illegal occupation because of the situation with Kurds is one of which we have to be very very careful with. On one hand, of course, we know that real live human beings are going to suffer and are suffering as a consequence of allowing for the Turks to invade that territory, but on the other hand, we have to point out the fact that it was the decision by the Trump Administration to give the green light to the Turks to move into this country. But even more, we have to remind everyone that this whole situation we will not even be talking about if the US had not engaged in quote-unquote regime change politics and war in Syria. So it says that we’ve got to be consistent. That we should demand that the US, in fact ,pull out its troops. That the United Nations can play a role in terms of working with the Syrian government to come to a decision on how that process in Northeast Syria is going to be resolved so that there’s no additional suffering and death from this incursion or this invasion. So, you know, we have to advocate that there has to be a peaceful solution to this and that parties need to adhere to the international law, that all parties not invited into the region or into the state by the internationally-recognized government of Syria should depart and in fact the Russians for example have indicated that if they were invited to leave by Syria, they, in fact, would do that. So this notion of US exceptionalism, lawlessness has to be combated because if it is allowed to continue with Syria then we’re going to see a continuation of this argument for humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect to be used as a weapon to give cover to the US imperialist adventures. We’ve got to stop. This process is very destructive not only to the people who are in the crosshairs of US imperialism, but it’s destructive to US society also who are being manipulated into supporting the permanent war agenda of the ruling class. And the result of this in terms of the general morality, we find in the US.
KZ: You know, it’s interesting how in the last presidential debate of the Democrats, Tulsi Gabbard described Syria as a regime change war, a pretty apt description, and Pete Buttigieg took the other side arguing that the US should stay and not abandon the Kurds, keep our forces there, otherwise we’re unreliable allies. It is interesting to see that debate unfold that kind of plays out in your answer there. Now Pepe Escobar had a really interesting article where he described the US defeat in Syria as the biggest CIA failure since Vietnam, that it’s a geopolitical game changer. Syria’s regaining Northeast Syria, Russia’s continuing to play a role as Syria’s protector, Turkey’s getting its buffer zone. The US is being pushed out and the Kurds are pretty much losing their hope for a homeland, although maybe something can be worked out as we talked about earlier. How do you see this as a geopolitical game-changer or as a defeat for the US, biggest since Vietnam?
AB: Well, I would question whether or not this is the biggest defeat for the US since Vietnam. I would think that the biggest defeat took place in Iraq, but you know that’s something that could be debated. I would also question…
KZ: So many defeats of the US to choose from. It’s pretty pitiful. Afghanistan was a big defeat.
AB: Yes. It’s really, you know, and I would say that the and I hate putting it in these kinds of broad geopolitical terms in terms of these very states, but from the point of view of the Russians, it’s sort of a win-win. You see, I don’t think that there’s going to be a buffer zone in Northern Syria. I think that the Turks made a severe miscalculation in moving into Northern Syria because I think it played right into what the Russians saw as the only viable solution to Syria, which was to regain and re-establish the territorial integrity of the state by Damascus and that that was not going to happen very easily with an armed Kurdish movement and that with the invasion of Northern Syria and the degrading of the Kurdish military capacity by being abandoned by the US, it had the effect of accelerating the stalled negotiations between the Kurds and Damascus so that now we have a new configuration with the Syrian Arab Army fighting alongside the Kurdish military forces to try to repel components of the invasion. And with now the Syrian State regaining control or in the process of regaining control of that part of their state. The real losers are the Turks, who going to be pushed back, and the US. Now the question you raised earlier about the so-called withdrawal of US forces, you know, they’ve been redeployed and it’s interesting to note that even though Trump claimed that they’re going to be withdrawing forces, it appears that elements of a deep state seem to be dragging their feet on that process. In fact, the Secretary of Defense said that there was no plan to withdraw troops from Syria. In fact, it seems like they have redeployed most of the troops to the Deir ezZor area to you know, protect the oil fields and to continue to act as a blocker for the so-called Tehran to Beirut land corridor. So, you know, it seems like there’s some powerful elements in the US state that are resisting the demands or the orders from the Commander in Chief to in fact pullback US forces, so it’s a very very interesting process to watch to see this struggle even within the context of the US State around the policies in Syria.
KZ: So our movement for peace will need to be advocating for US out of Syria, if not the whole Middle East. The one thing I wanted to comment on with you, your response there on Turkey. I think Turkey is paying a big political price for this. They’ve been criticized pretty roundly and I agree that it seems like they’re being pushed back by Russia and Syria. Pushback is maybe the wrong word. Maybe they’re agreeing to withdraw as Russia urges them and what’s going to happen though, they may not have a buffer zone but they will have the Syrian government with Russia backing it up keeping Kurds from going into Turkey. So they’ll get their protection, but it may not be a buffer zone.
AB: Well, yeah that remains to be seen and yeah, we got to be very careful about the role of the Russians for the Russians are not going to have any kind of direct military confrontation with Turkey and it is even questionable to what extent the Syrians are going to be engaging directly with those Turkish forces even though there’s some engagement. Everybody’s trying to avoid this escalating out of complete control and that’s what makes it so incredibly dangerous. But again, I think that what appears to be the real winners will be the Syrian State. I do believe that there’s going to be an agreement to allow for some degree of at minimum re-establishing the autonomy of the Kurds. The Kurds would probably end up having to disarm because the state is not going to allow an armed force within these territories, but whatever the final agreements will be, it will be among Syrians themselves. And I think that is a good thing. For the peace movement, again, we have to be consistent. We’ve got to call for a peaceful resolution in Syria. We have to call for adherence to international law and we have to continue to call for a role, an effective role, by the United Nations and remind people of the United Nations Charter, that this is the only established entity even with all of its flaws and contradictions that we have in place that is committed to trying to maintain international peace. And that we’ve got to demand that these various states adhere to the Charter that they are in fact a part of and that’s important because there seems to be a real commitment on the part of these states to jettison international law and to ignore the United Nations. If that is allowed to continue, it will only be to the detriment of the smaller and weaker states on the planet. So you’ve got to advocate for those elements and we’ve got to begin to move toward a real understanding that even our pro-peace position, while they are morally sound ,we’ve got to understand that if we don’t take a more resolute anti-imperialist position then in some ways we are continuing to fail the peoples of the global South who will continue to find themselves in the crosshairs of Western aggression because it is imperialism that is driving these wars. It is the reluctance, as I said at the top of this interview, on the part of the western states, the US and Western Europe, to allow states to really develop along independent lines. And so their commitment to maintaining capitalist domination and imperialist control is pushing a logic of aggression and war and we’ve got to recognize that and be in a place to resist it.
MF: Absolutely. Those are excellent points and you know, we’ve talked about this before, I know Kevin and I have talked about it, how the US Empire is fading, global power is shifting. The US is no longer the dominant force in the world and as part of that period, that transition, what typically happens is that a country starts to engage in these projects that fail and we’re seeing this over and over again with the United States and Afghanistan not having control there, you know the failure in Syria and in Iraq, the most recent coup attempt by the United States in Iraq that was discovered and failed. It’s really time for the US to pull out. And of course, when you talk about violators of the United Nations Charter, the United States is probably one of the biggest violators of that UN Charter. Can we talk a little bit about how power is shifting in the Middle East? The United States has been waging its maximum pressure against Iran and Iran has been able to resist that and it seems like that, the failures of the US and Iran’s strengths, are starting to create some shifts in power where even Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are starting to negotiate with Iran as a significant power in that region.
AB: I think it’s quite clear that US policies that resulted in weakening of the US’s ability to influence events in that part of the world. And that’s why it is a very dangerous situation because the US is still relying on military force to try to compensate for the loss of its political influence. For example, we see that the US is now shifting forces or more forces into Saudi Arabia. This is happening. Even though they understand that this is a change in policy that is going to continue to give support to those jihadist right-wing Islamic elements that see the US involved in a crusader a mission to take over their most holy sites. And remember it was the stationing of US equipment and forces in Saudi Arabia that helped to spark the Al Qaeda resistance against the US. But they are shifting these forces, Margaret and Kevin, because of their loss of influence and the fragile nature of the regime in Saudi Arabia. So, you know, they are trying to bring some degree of coherence to a incoherent policy in which they are systematically being jettisoned from the region, but they’re not going to leave quietly. That’s where we come in. We’ve got to demand that there are peaceful solutions to these various conflicts. We have to demand that the Saudis cease their illegal and immoral war in Yemen, and we have to demand that the US stop providing support to that illegal war in Yemen. And we have to again remind people of the absolute necessity for supporting national sovereignty and supporting the resolution of these ongoing conflicts in places like Afghanistan and to support sovereignty in Iran, in Iraq. So we have a lot of work to do in that part of the world as we do in other parts of the world, especially now that the US has a moving toward using economic sanctions and economic seizures as part of the strategy of destabilization.
KZ: Let’s finish up with some comments regarding your recent trip to Damascus. You were there for a labor conference. Whenever we travel, we’ve traveled with you before as well, whenever we travel outside the US we always are starkly reminded about how many lies we are told in the United States. So what was your impression of Syria going there and did you get a sense from people in Syria where they see their government going now?
AB: I got a sense that the Syrians have gone through a very traumatic experience and they feel that they have come out of the side of it a much stronger people and much stronger nation. I was struck by the level of regard that the people have for their military forces. I had a chance to also talk with people who are in Lebanon who predicted the intensification of the situation there in Lebanon with the people rising up and demanding some real fundamental changes in that country. There’s optimism. There may be a real possibility of peace in the region. That’s what makes this think this invasion by Turkey so much more criminal because it appears that one of the objectives of the invasion was to keep the conflict going. It wasn’t just to establish a buffer zone and to forcefully insert Arabs into Northeast Syria who aren’t from that part of Syria, but it was also to liberate if you will the prisoners and their families under guard there in north, these ISIS prisoners, in order to make sure that they’re still a military capability, an open one on the part of ISIS. So it is to keep the conflict going on. It is to try to manage the chaos of that kind of conflict. And that’s what makes it so incredibly criminal. Hopefully, this is going to be beaten back. The evidence suggests that it’s already happening. But again, these policies are allowed to occur because in the US and in the west, there’s not sufficient pressure being put on these states by the public to put a brake on these imperialist misadventures and that is a real failure on our part.
MF: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for taking time to speak with us and clarify some of this and I think that our listeners have gotten their direction. We need to be calling for the United States to get out of that region. We need to call for a peaceful solution, for respect for the self-determination of all peoples and that countries respect the international law. So thank you so much for taking time with us.
Ajamu Baraka is a human rights defender whose experience spans four decades of domestic and international education and activism, Ajamu Baraka is a veteran grassroots organizer whose roots are in the Black Liberation Movement and anti-apartheid and Central American solidarity struggles. He is currently the national organizer and national spokesperson for The Black Alliance for Peace.
Baraka is an internationally recognized leader of the emerging human rights movement in the U.S. and has been at the forefront of efforts to apply the international human rights framework to social justice advocacy in the U.S. for more than 25 years. As such, he has provided human rights trainings for grassroots activists across the country, briefings on human rights to the U.S. Congress, and appeared before and provided statements to various United Nations agencies, including the UN Human Rights Commission (precursor to the current UN Human Rights Council).
As a co-convener with Jaribu Hill of the Mississippi Worker Center for Human Rights, Baraka played an instrumental role in developing the series of bi-annual Southern Human Rights Organizers’ conferences (SHROC) that began in 1996. These gatherings represented some of the first post-Cold War human rights training opportunities for grassroots activists in the country.
Baraka played an important role in bringing a human rights perspective to the preparatory meetings for the World Conference on Racism (WCAR) that took place in Geneva and in Santiago, Chile as part of the Latin American Preparatory process, as well as the actual conference that he attended as a delegate in Durban, South Africa in 2001.
Ajamu Baraka was the Founding Executive Director of the US Human Rights Network (USHRN) from July 2004 until June 2011. The USHRN was the first domestic human rights formation in the United States explicitly committed to the application of international human rights standards to the U.S. Under Baraka, the Network grew from a core membership of 60 organizations to more than 300 U.S.-based member organizations and 1,500 individual members who worked on the full spectrum of human rights concerns in the U.S. During Baraka’s tenure, the Network initiated the Katrina Campaign on Internal Displacement, after Baraka was the first to formally identify the victims of Hurricane Katrina as internally displaced people (IDPs).
Also while at the Network, Baraka ensured that the Network spearheaded efforts to raise human rights abuses taking place in the U.S. with United Nations human rights processes and structures, including the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Human Rights Council, through its Universal Periodic Review process. By coordinating the production of non-governmental reports on human rights and organizing activist delegations to UN sites in Geneva and New York, the Network gave voice to victims of human rights abuses and provided opportunities for activists to engage in direct advocacy. These efforts resulted in specific criticisms of the U.S. human rights record and recommendations for corrective actions.
Prior to leading the USHRN, Baraka served in various leadership capacities with Amnesty International USA (AIUSA). As AIUSA’s Southern Regional Director, he played a key role in developing the organization’s 1998 campaign to expose human rights violations in the U.S. Baraka also directed Amnesty’s National Program to Abolish the Death Penalty, during which time he was involved in most of the major death penalty cases in the U.S.
In 1998, Baraka was one of 300 human rights defenders from around the world who were brought together at the first International Summit of Human Rights Defenders commemorating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 2001, Baraka received the “Abolitionist of the Year” award from the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. The following year, Baraka received the “Human Rights Guardian” award from the National Center for Human Rights Education.
Baraka has also served on the boards of various national and international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International (USA), the Center for Constitutional Rights, Africa Action, and the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights.
Baraka has taught political science at various universities and has been a guest lecturer at academic institutions in the U.S. and abroad. A commentator on a number of criminal justice and international human rights issues, Baraka has appeared on and been covered in a wide-range of print, broadcast, and digital media outlets such as CNN, BBC, the Tavis Smiley Show, Telemundo, ABC’s World News Tonight, Black Commentator, Russia Today, the Washington Post and the New York Times. He is also a contributing writer for various publications including Black Commentator, Commondreams, Pambazaka, and Dissident Voice.
He is currently an editor and contributing columnist for the Black Agenda Report and a writer for Counterpunch.