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 have declared their intent to reject refugees. In a brazen attempt to stand strong against defenseless people fleeing terror, New Jersey Gov. 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 racist fears 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 are urging 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 is imperative that the refugee acceptance movement becomes an anti-imperialist movement.
Bigotry contributes to the reluctance of Americans to accept refugees. Perhaps an even larger factor is the widespread historical ignorance of the role the United States played 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 independently of the actions the United States takes in the world. The truth tells a different story.
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The Syrian refugee crisis began 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 began with George H.W. Bush, it was under the Clinton administration that the war reached a new level of cruelty. The Clinton era’s economic sanctions deprived Iraqis of food, medical supplies and much-needed chlorine for water purification. As a result, about 576,000 Iraqis, mostly children, died.
In 2003, the US administration under President George W. Bush violated international law and invaded Iraq under false pretenses. The “shock-and-awe” campaign and subsequent occupation devastated Iraqi life and society. The US 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 US occupation, the United States fomented sectarian divisions between Shiite 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 Shiite 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-Baathification policy further continued the erosion of Iraqi society. Paul Bremer, then the US “pro-consul” of Iraq, effectively blacklisted from employment all those affiliated with Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath 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 US 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 percent 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, 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 in 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 US Constitution with Obama ignoring his lack of congressional authorization to bomb Libya. In their bloodlust to punish Muammar el-Qaddafi for the crime of having nationalized oil resources, the US-backed opposition exterminated 50,000 Black Libyans. In other words, it was 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, which the US openly opposes. This has led to incoherent foreign policy decisions, from the standpoint of the United States’ expressed goal of establishing stability and defeating 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. Writing in The Jihadis Return, Patrick Cockburn correctly argues,
The ideology of [al-Qaeda] 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.
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. 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 often repeat the claim from the Obama administration that the United States supports a “moderate opposition” against ISIS. These media pundits rarely name that opposition. Cockburn explains, “Jihadi groups ideologically close to [al-Qaeda] have been relabeled as moderate if their actions are deemed supportive of US policy aims.” This includes terrorist groups like al-Nusra Front, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda. Like the paramilitaries in El Salvador and the Shiite death squads in Iraq, al-Nusra will likely carry out a path of destruction against the Syrian people.
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.
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 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 US empire.