Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for Common Dreams and an independent journalist whose work has been featured in The Nation, Al Jazeera, TomDispatch, Yes! Magazine, and more. She is also an anti-militarist organizer interested in building people-powered global movements for justice and dignity. This article is an excerpt from a longer article that first appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus.
Towards a Politics of Solidarity
A long-term alternative to war, ultimately, can only be built by popular movements in Iraq and Syria. While we in the United States are inundated with images of death and victimization, surviving grassroots efforts on the ground in both countries tell a different story. These countries are not mere geopolitical battlefields — they’re hotbeds of human agency and resistance.
Iraq saw a blossoming of nonviolent, Sunni-led movements against repression and discrimination by the U.S.-backed government of Iraq in 2013. But the Iraqi military brutally crushed their protest encampments. This included the Hawija massacre in April 2013, discussed by scholar Zaineb Saleh in an interview last summer, in which at least 50 protesters were killed and over 100 were wounded. In a climate of repression and escalating violence, civil society organizations from across Iraq held the country’s first social forum in September 2013, under the banner “Another Iraq is Possible with Peace, Human Rights, and Social Justice.”
Amid siege from ISIS, repression from the Iraqi government, and bombing from the United States and its allies, popular movements survive on the ground in Iraq. Groups like the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq are organizing emergency aid for women and families fleeing ISIS — while at the same time demanding U.S. withdrawal, and end to Iraqi government oppression, and reparations for the U.S.-led war.
The Federation of Workers Councils and Trade Unions in Iraq, meanwhile, continues to organize workers against Saddam Hussein-era anti-labor laws that were carried over into the new government and backed by the United States. Right now, the Federation — alongside OWFI — is mobilizing within the country’s state-owned industries, which are undergoing rapid privatization and imposing lay-offs, firings, and forced retirement on hundreds of thousands of workers. Falah Alwan, president of the Federation, explained in a recent statement that the gutting of the public sector is the result of austerity measures driven, in part, by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. “We are in daily confrontations with the government, by demonstrations, sit-ins, seminars, [and] agitating the other sectors to take part,” Alwan told me over email. “At the same time we are preparing for a wide conference next March, for all the companies across Iraq, that will need support from our comrades in the U.S. and worldwide.”
Both of these organizations are collaborating with U.S. groups — including the War Resisters League, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and Madre — under the banner of the Right to Heal Initiative to press for reparations for the harm from U.S. policies in Iraq dating back to 1991. Along with damages from the last war and the sanctions regime that preceded it, their grievances include environmental poisoning in Iraq from the U.S. military’s use of depleted uranium, white phosphorous, burn pits, and more.
Likewise, “There are still people and groups in [Syria] who are working through nonviolent means,” said Mohja Kahf, a Damascus-born author and poet, in a recent interview. “And they matter. They are quietly working for the kind of Syria they want to see, whether the regime falls now or in years.” As Kahf argued in a piece penned in 2013, it is critical for the U.S. peace movement to connect with movements on the ground in Syria, not only when they are threatened by bombings, and not only when they are used to win arguments against U.S.-led military intervention.
We in the U.S. left must take a critical — if painful — look at the harm U.S. policies have done to the Middle East, press for a long-term shift in course, and seek to understand and build links with progressive forces in Iraq and Syria. The United States has a moral obligation to provide reparations to Iraq for its invasion and occupation. But these things must be demanded now, before the U.S. spends one day more waging a new armed conflict based on the same failed policies.
Grassroots movements did offer an alternative to endless war following the 2003 invasion, and that needs to happen again. This dark time is all the proof we need that the U.S. must get out of the Middle East once and for all, and the pressure to do so is only going to come from the grassroots.
Building international solidarity takes time, but you can get started today. Here are a few suggestions for productive next steps anyone can take.
Direct Support. Donate to relief efforts on the ground in Iraq and Syria that are orchestrated by grassroots organizations seeking to help their communities survive in the face of ISIS. The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq has been working to provide food and winter survival gear to people fleeing ISIS and maintains shelters in Baghdad and Karbala. Furthermore, they have created a “Women’s Peace Farm” outside of Karbala, which provides “a safe and peaceful community” for refugees, according to a recent OWFI statement. Direct donations to this work can be made at OWFI’s PayPal account.
Learn. Now is a critical time for U.S.-based movements to educate ourselves about both the histories and current realities of struggle and resistance in Iraq and Syria, as well as Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, and beyond. A forthcoming book by Ali Issa, field organizer for the War Resisters League, will be important reading for anyone interested in learning more about Iraqi social movements. Entitled Against All Odds: Voices of Popular Struggle in Iraq, the book is based on interviews and reports highlighting environmental, feminist, labor, and protest movement organizers in Iraq.
In the process of learning about civil societies in Iraq and Syria, it is important to avoid simplistic equations that reduce all opponents of Assad to agents of the U.S. government, and likewise regarding opponents of ISIS. As Kahf emphasized in her interview, “It is racist to think that Syrians do not have agency to resist an oppressive regime unless a clever white man whispers in their ear. … Syrians can hold two critiques in their minds at the same time: a critique of U.S. imperialism and a critique of their brutal regime.”
There is also a great deal to learn from U.S. civil society, including the powerful movement for black liberation that continues to grow nationwide. From Oakland to Ferguson to New York, people are showing by example that justice and accountability for racism and police killings will not be handed from above, but rather must be forced from the grassroots. This moment is full of potential to build strong and intersectional movements with racial justice at their core — a principle that is vital for challenging U.S. militarism. The Stop Urban Shield coalition — comprised of groups including Critical Resistance, the Arab Organizing and Resource Center, the War Resisters League, and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement — powerfully demonstrated the connection between domestic and international militarization when they kicked a global SWAT team, police force, and mercenary expo out of Oakland last September.
Ultimately, solidarity with Iraqi and Syrian people will require more than a push to end the U.S. bombings, but long-term pressure to steer away from U.S. policies of endless war and militarism, in the Middle East and beyond. Building consciousness across U.S. movements is critical to this goal.
Pressure the U.S. government. Grassroots mobilization in the United States can play a vital role in preventing lawmakers from charging into war. This was recently demonstrated when people power — including overwhelming calls to congressional representatives and local protests — had a hand in stopping U.S. strikes on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2013. Mass call-ins, as well as scattered street protests, also had a hand in preventing war hawks from passing new sanctions in the midst of talks with Iran last year. It will be important to closely track any Obama administration attempt to pass explicit authorization for the war on ISIS, as well as congressional efforts to sabotage diplomacy with Iran.