Sending Weapons to Syria Is a Tried and True Mistake

On November 29, 1981, an ordinary day in the bustling Damascus neighborhood of Azbakiyah, droves of Syrian pedestrians on Baghdad Street moved in and out of their apartments and offices.   Some were children visiting their friends.  Many were high-ranking intelligence functionaries working to foil subversive plots against the state.

It was a tense time. The Muslim Brotherhood was at war with the Syrian government and had been detonating car bombs all over Damascus.  In August, Brotherhood agents leveled an attack near the Prime Minister’s office and, in September, leveled another one near a government agency. Indoctrinated in Islamist dogma and trained at camps in the region, these terrorist bandits were slick, ruthless, and determined to wreak havoc.   At the time, their jihad was against the non-believers of Hafez Al-Assad’s Ba’ath Party and its military cronies spread throughout the country.

Suddenly, all at once, the city shook, and a bomb left Baghdad Street in bloody shambles. With this attack, Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood murdered and injured hundreds of civilians, causing more casualties than ever before.  If there was any reason left for the world to ignore this appalling threat to civilized society, it was now gone.

But the United States remained unconcerned.  Hardly any of us knew where the Muslim Brothers were, let alone who they were serving and who was financing their jihad.  American news outlets provided scant coverage of the attacks, and our national security apparatus said little about it in public.

American indifference to Islamist terror, even if not justifiable, would have been more understandable had it not been for the fact that, in very important ways, our government bolstered Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s and 1980s.  Although it is not clear whether the US government directly funded Syrian terrorists, it certainly handed off weapons and billions of dollars to Jordan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to pursue their agendas through various  proxies, including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood.  At the end of the Cold War, as one CIA analyst put it, we were “playing with fire,” and our blasé government knew it, even if our people did not.

Today, as we again consider sending weapons to “vetted” Syrian rebels in the current civil war, our costly recent involvements in the Mideast should remind us that it is risky to cast our lot with foreign factions intent on using our aid for murder and warfare.  Because our patron states in the region have themselves thrown around funds willy-nilly for a long time, it will be necessary not only to withhold aid from violent insurgencies but also to take a more critical look at the aid that we so readily wire into other states’ bank accounts.

Although the tale of Islamism is over a hundred years old, this chapter began when Muslim Brotherhood agents fled to Syria in the 1950s after Egypt’s Nasser amped up his attacks on the Brotherhood.  As the largely secular Syrian Ba’ath assumed power the following decade, the Brothers were forced to fight for the heart of their new home, declaring outright war against the Syrian government during the Arabs’ 1967 war with Israel.

Meanwhile, in Jordan, the Muslim Brothers were fending off similar threats from anti-Islamist nationalists and Palestinians.  Though it seemed that Syria would intervene on the Palestinians’ behalf during their 1970 uprising against the Jordanian monarchy, Assad backed down when Israel “threatened action if the Syrian army moved to help the PLO.”  Still, Jordan and Israel were concerned about Syrian-endorsed nationalism and socialism and thus supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s reinvigorated jihad against Assad in the mid-1970s.

To complicate matters even further, the Lebanese Civil War erupted in 1975 and eventually provoked the involvement of both Israel and Syria.  Still pitted against the PLO, Israel funded the predominantly Christian Free Lebanon Forces and Lebanese Front, both of which supported the Muslim Brotherhood.  In fact, one of Israel’s main allies in the Free Lebanon Forces, Sa’d Haddad, operated multiple Muslim Brotherhood training camps, including some in northern Jordan with the go-ahead of King Hussein.

Pause for a moment.  Suppose that, after a long day’s work in the 1970s or 1980s, you returned home to find King Hussein pulled up in a limousine to ask you to support his latest onslaught against the Syrian government and the PLO.  Before you were able to respond, Israel’s Menachem Begin popped in asking for a big donation as well.  The two leaders’ countries were technically enemies, yes, but they both needed your help in training a group of useful Islamist rebels.  Right as you tried to answer again, King Khalid of Saudi Arabia came by and asked to buy weapons from you for the same purpose.  They all admitted that they would kill innocent people with your aid but that it was ultimately “for a good cause.”  What would you have said?

Sadly, it doesn’t even matter.  In real life, you effectively said yes to all of them.  Islamist “terrorist acts” at the time were widespread, “centered around urban centers such as Damascus, Hamah, Homs, and the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartus.”  The US was implicated in this violence by its financial support for JordanSaudi ArabiaIsrael, and, by extension, the Free Lebanon Forces and the Lebanese Front.

Recently, we have again been asked to fund a bunch of fighters amidst Syrian mayhem—this time, by taking money directly from our pockets and putting it into theirs.  As crucial as it is for the international community to support humanitarian aid to Syria’s civilians being slaughtered by the brutal Assad on one side and Islamists on the other, it is risky for us to throw any more weaponry and military support into the volatile madness unfolding in the country.

The lesson from next door in Iraq– where ISIS is on a murderous rampage with stolen weapons that the US originally gave to Iraq’s Shi’ite government– is that our arms transfers can come back to haunt us and may be redirected by almost anybody to pursue a nefarious agenda.   Boasting a recent history of such counterproductive results, the “more weapons” strategy deserves much greater scrutiny and, in the case of Syria, should probably be discarded entirely.


Convention Dates Approved

Save the date! This week the National Committee of Social Democrats USA approved the dates and location for the biennial convention.  It will be held in Pittsburgh on Thursday Oct 23 and Friday Oct 24. Our last convention was held in Buffalo in August of 2012. We are pleased to bring the convention to Pittsburgh this year, another city with significant labor history.

We are also very pleased to announce that Dr. Sheri Berman, Chair of Political Science at Barnard College, will be a featured speaker.  Sheri is an expert on social democracy and the history of the Left. She has written a number of books and papers on the birth and growth of European social democracy.  Sheri also sits on the Editorial Board of Dissent magazine.  She has written a number of articles for Foreign Affairs. She will bring a great new perspective to our discussions and we are delighted she is coming to Pittsburgh. Additional speakers will be announced in coming weeks.

Any SDUSA members who want to attend should call the office at 412-894-1799.

Posted in Uncategorized by Rick DLoss. 5 Comments

Futbol, War, & Jean Jaurès

LBJ signing Civil Rights ActThere are many interesting and important anniversaries occurring this summer. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by Lyndon Johnson— a momentous step towards ending discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, sex, or national origin. Two weeks ago we remembered the 50th anniversary of the murder of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney— three young men who were registering blacks to vote in Mississippi. Those events were part of what we know as Freedom Summer.

This summer we also remember the 100th anniversary of the beginning of WWI.  It was on June 28, 1914 that Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Hungary, and his wife Sophie were murdered by a Bosnian nationalist. This led Austria-Hungary to declare war against Serbia, and this in turn grew into The Great War, which enveloped all of Europe and eventually engaged the United States and Japan as well.  One of the deadliest wars in history, more than 70 million military personnel were mobilized, of which about 9 million died on the battlefield.

On July 31 we will remember the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Jean Jaurès. Most Americans are not familiar with him, but his role in reshaping European politics was extremely significant. I have made no secret that Jaurès has been influential for me in my own political development. Who was he? Jaurès was a French parliamentarian; leader of the French social democrats (at that time called the French Socialist Party). He was a prolific writer, and editor of the French socialist journal L’Humanité. During his time, the socialist parties of Europe were dominated by classical Marxists who believed that capitalism would collapse due to its own natural excessive behavior. However some leaders in the parties concluded that it wasn’t going to happen and pushed for changes in strategy that included participation in electoral politics. In Germany, Bernstein led the way, but the government structure there didn’t allow for parliamentary elections. The story was different in France, and it was Jaurès who led the charge. His proposal was that Socialists should enter parliament and work in coalition with other parties representing other constituencies to achieve the socialist goals.  It was through his leadership that various socialist factions joined together to form the Left Bloc and push through legislation separating church and state.  His use of parliament to constrain the destructive behavior of capitalism while at the same time allowing a limited free market has been copied around the world. It is unfortunate that the impact was not immediately felt, but eventually it would lead to an enduring stability in western Europe when social democrats took charge at the end of WWII.

Jean_Jaurès_(1)In was at this time 100 years ago that France was getting ready to engage in a catastrophic war prompted by the murder of Franz Ferdinand. Jaurès was very vocal against the war. In fact, he was planning to attend a conference of the Socialist International in August where he would speak out against it. Unfortunately, a French nationalist would shoot him dead at a cafe in Paris on July 31. So ended the life of this great man. But his legacy lives on. Tomorrow, the French and Germans meet each other on the battlefield once again. This time it will be in the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament. It is a wondrous development of civilization that replaces war with sports. While Tea Partier Ann Coulter may prefer that Americans express their nationalism by killing foreigners instead of playing soccer, I’m sure the members of the American Mens National Team are happy to live to play another day.

In Holocaust Education, Re-Emphasize Allied Apathy

When teaching children about racism and genocide, educators often focus on individual biases as the source of systematic racism and anti-Semitism.  For example, at my synagogue, teachers often ask their students to put themselves in the shoes of Christian German civilians during the Holocaust and consider whether they, as non-Jews, would have simply shrugged off anti-Semitic slurs and the sight of innocent people in yarmulkes being attacked by policemen.  Questions like this spark a discussion of bullying and anti-bullying in American schools today.  In the process, “racism” becomes a dysfunctional interpersonal phenomenon, and the Holocaust, as a result, becomes a simple amalgamation of millions of acts by individual racists who allowed their prejudices to get out of hand.  By the end of a course on the subject, many students assume that the only way to save Hitler’s victims would have been to speak out against incidental anti-Semitism before it escalated into genocide.  As the Anti-Defamation League notes, “challenging belittling jokes” and not “accepting stereotypes” are good ways to prevent a society from escalating into acts of prejudice, discrimination, violence, and then genocide.

Combatting individual prejudices certainly can help stop mass atrocities, but, in an educational context, this truism is incomplete because it ignores the systematic mobilization of hatred and violence by governmental authority.  Even though many German schoolchildren were too reticent in the face of schoolyard anti-Semitism and could have spoken up, we must not overstate the practical impact that several more German dissidents could have had once the genocide was actually underway, nor should we pretend that the world was helpless to stop the Holocaust once Germans’ prejudices had spiraled so murderously out of control.

In our case, American students today must know that our government, even without changing the hearts of individual anti-Semitic Germans, could have saved many more of Hitler’s victims and that fighting prejudice, though immeasurably valuable, would not have been enough to compensate for the Allies’ failure to intervene on the victims’ behalf.

The US government’s shameful policy of proroguing on the Holocaust was underway by December of 1942 when President Roosevelt met with a Jewish delegation imploring him to stop the genocide. Although Roosevelt intimated at the meeting that his administration “shall do all in our power to be of service to your people in this tragic moment,” the proceeding few months panned out much differently.

In February of 1943, the Rumanian government suggested that it would transport 70,000 Jews into Allied territory in exchange for roughly 130 dollars per refugee. Though such a proposal probably would have required further examination and negotiation, Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles simply dismissed it out of hand, lambasting it as a hoax of “the German propaganda machine” to “create confusion and doubt within the United Nations.” The Nuremberg trials elucidated, however, that the offer was sincere and that, with only a little bit of extra research, the State Department would have known to capitalize on the offer.

With that in mind, perhaps we should be asking students what their forbears in the United States could have done to pressure their government to act on the Rumanian proposal.  When organizations pushing the United States to accept Rumania’s offer were denigrated as inflammatory and overdramatic, how could our forbears have normalized the struggle for genocide victims and defended the efforts of those who were advocating positive action?

It is no exaggeration to say that the Allies’ “efforts” at saving Hitler’s victims were laced with unconcern and faux-outrage at most key turns thereafter.  To the world, our leaders were “devastated” by what was happening to European Jewry, but, in private, they were much more insouciant about the matter. In fact, to absolutely no objection, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden once said outright in a 1943 meeting with President Roosevelt that “we should move very cautiously about offering to take all Jews out of a country like Bulgaria.  If we do that, then the Jews of the world will be wanting us to make similar offers in Poland and Germany.”  When Eden expressed concern that “Hitler might take us up on any such offer” and that the Allied Powers would have to find new homes for Jewish refugees, he was greeted with nonchalance and tacit agreement.

Today, students of the Holocaust or any other systemic atrocity should not ask themselves only how more people could have acted individually to condemn incidental bigotry, as important as that question is; they should ask how thousands upon thousands of people could have acted in tandem to pressure their governments to save thousands upon thousands of victims.  We should remember that the Holocaust was not only an exercise of individual prejudice but also an exercise of systemic governmental apathy and an exhibition of societies’ unfortunate tendency to shrug their proverbial shoulders amidst large-scale suffering.


Annual CEJ Awards Dinner in Buffalo

Rick D'Loss (left) SD National Chair and Michael Mottern, Chair of YSD

Rick D’Loss (left) SD National Chair and Michael Mottern, Chair of YSD

Each year the Coalition for Economic Justice holds a dinner to celebrate the efforts of various groups and individuals. The CEJ is an amalgam of groups who work together on the behalf of workers, the poor, the disabled, immigrants, and the environment. I was pleased to attend along with Michael Mottern, our local leader in Buffalo. Admittedly, it is an easy drive from Pittsburgh to Buffalo (a little less than 4 hours). The weather was great.  Mid week, mid day travel presented no traffic obstacles except for road construction (thank you PA legislature for finally passing a transportation funding bill that puts people to work). The awards dinner was this past Thursday evening, everything was well organized, and Michael and I had a wonderful time. Not only did we get to promote Social Democrats USA, we refreshed relationships, and were genuinely encouraged by the efforts of so, so many people. We even had time for a couple of beers.

Barbara Young, organizer of domestic workers in NY

Barbara Young, organizer of domestic workers in NY

The key note speaker was Barbara Young. It’s easy to remember her name because Barbara comes from Barbados. She came to NYC 20 years ago to be a domestic worker. After working in the business and networking with other domestic workers, she realized that working conditions desperately needed to be improved.  But organizing thousands of individual contractors is a lot more complicated than organizing the workers at a single plant with a single employer.  Barbara realized that she would need to go beyond traditional organizing.  There were three important components to her strategy— lobby state legislature, lobby the employers, and be persistent.  Lobby the employers?  Yes, indeed.  Many of the domestics in NYC work for Jewish families with two working adults.  Barbara learned that Jews are generally sympathetic to leftist issues, so she decided to work that angle.  She pressed the argument that these domestic workers are taking care of America’s most precious assets: our children and our elderly.  These Jews formed Shalom Bayit (peace in the home); an organization that helps organize domestic workers. They promoted it through a network of synagogues. Then together, Domestic Workers United and Shalom Bayit took the matter to Albany, and after 8 diligent years were able to get a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010— the first such legislation in America! Barbara deserves a lot of credit for seeing a problem, devising a solution, and not giving up until she was successful.

Richard Lipsitz (center) leads the Western NY Labor Federation

Richard Lipsitz (center) leads the Western NY Labor Federation

I had a few minutes to speak with Richard Lipsitz, president of the Western NY Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. Richard was keynote speaker at our 2012 Convention. We reminisced over that event, which was held at Rust Belt Books.  With a big smile he told me what a great time he had, and that if we ever hold the convention in Buffalo again to make sure we invite him. Although Richard is not too far away from retirement, he continues to do great work for organized workers in Western NY. At the CEJ dinner he was honored to give remarks about new efforts to work with people outside the normal constituency of Labor. We recall during the national AFL-CIO convention when we heard Rich Trumka tell us that all of us are under attack and that the 99% can no longer view itself as a multitude of constituencies, but instead must realize that we are all in the same boat. Environmentalists, trade unionists, gay right activists, civil rights activists, immigrant rights activists— we must work as coalition if we are to make any progress. We saw then for the first time non-trade unionists speaking at an AFL-CIO convention. We see now trade unionists supporting gay rights. There is a sense of cooperation that I’ve never seen before.  I come from Western Pennsylvania, an area where union members are not liberals. They didn’t support civil rights, they didn’t support immigrant rights, they didn’t support gay rights. But now they realize that if we don’t all work together, we’re pretty much screwed. I think trade unionists are seeing the light, and I am optimistic about the current direction.

Michael LoCurto accepts award for progressive elected official.

Michael LoCurto accepts award for progressive elected official.

We also had opportunity to connect with political leaders in Buffalo.  Michael and I sat at the table with Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and compared issues in Erie County (Buffalo) and Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), including Marcellus shale drilling, welfare administration, parks, and airport authorities.  We also got to spend a few moments with Michael LoCurto, City of Buffalo Council member.  Michael is a well known progressive and received an award at the dinner for his efforts. We also established a relationship with Betty Jean Grant, Erie County Legislature member (district 2). She was very open to our message of economic rights and jobs for all.

Lastly, I want to mention Beverly Newkirk. She leads an organization called “It Takes a Village”. As a young woman she had the incredible privilege of working with Bayard Rustin (our chair during the 70’s), A Philip Randolph, Ernie Green, and other notables in the civil rights movement. At the time, she was an apprentice in the Recruitment and Training Program. The function of the RTP was to recruit and train minorities for jobs in the construction industry. Randolph was Chair and Rustin was Vice Chair. Their annual conference was an important calendar event for anyone in politics. She says the experiences of those times changed her life and she is eternally grateful.

Looking forward to next year.

SDUSA Chair Rick D'Loss and "It Takes a Village" Chair Beverly Newkirk hold a picture of Bayard Rustin

SDUSA Chair Rick D’Loss and “It Takes a Village” Chair Beverly Newkirk hold a picture of Bayard Rustin

Richard Lipsitz talks about the future of worker rights

Richard Lipsitz talks about the future of worker rights

Michael shows off the SDUSA table

Michael shows off the SDUSA table

Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant endorses the SDUSA economic proposals

Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant endorses the SDUSA economic proposals

SDUSA Chair Rick D'Loss and Buffalo Council member Michael LoCurto

SDUSA Chair Rick D’Loss and Buffalo Council member Michael LoCurto

Best wishes for full health to National Committee member Steve Weiner in Ashland, OR

Best wishes for full health to National Committee member Steve Weiner in Ashland, OR

Posted in Civil Rights Labor Uncategorized by Rick DLoss. No Comments