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On the Eve of Possible Strikes on Syria, Forces of Peace Gather in New York

Hands Off Syria

Polls show a vast majority of Americans oppose intervention in Syria and anti-war organizers want to see those numbers once again reflected in the streets.

A new generation of activists is scrambling to rebuild the American anti-war movement that 10 years ago saw masses of people demonstrate ahead of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. With a new target in the Pentagon's scopes, rallies against American air strikes were held in more than 50 U.S. cities during Labor Day weekend.

In Manhattan's Times Square, several hundred peace demonstrators were assembled on Saturday when President Barack Obama addressed the nation, announcing the pending bombing campaign. Obama's call to arms came just days after he commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, when civil right leader, pacifist and Vietnam War opponent Martin Luther King delivered the famous “I have a dream” speech.

On Saturday, Obama said he would seek congressional approval before launching air strikes, though Secretary of State John Kerry quickly made a round of news appearances claiming that Obama ultimately could launch strikes regardless of a vote on Capitol Hill. In the same speech Obama asserted that he is prepared to order a military bombardment "tomorrow or next week or one month from now."

Relaying Obama's speech through the human microphone method popularized by Occupy Wall Street, the crowd in Times Square reacted strongly to Obama's words. "Hey Barack, remember Iraq,” they chanted, and “We don't want no World War III, come on let Syria be!” – a reference to what could be the unintended consequences of starting a war in the Mideast region that could draw in Iran, Israel and Lebanon.

“We have no business out there,” said Noor, a Syrian-American student who attended the Times Square rally and did not give her last name for fear of retribution from war enthusiasts and/or U.S. law enforcement, who have targeted both Muslims and anti-war activists in recent years without evidence of wrongdoing.

Noor wanted her dissent registered, however, and noted that while Obama has condemned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for killing civilians in the two-years-long civil war, various factions of the rebel army challenging his regime — some linked to al-Qaeda — are accused of similar atrocities. Strikes on her country of origin would have more to do with “empire, greed and power,” she said.

In his speech Saturday, Obama reiterated prior claims that the U.S. has evidence that Assad's forces were responsible for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, which killed over 1,400 civilians including many children. Administration officials have set about holding secret briefings with members of Congress to make their case for war, but interviews with witnesses and members of the loosely knit rebel army that is challenging Assad cast doubt on that assertion.

An article that appeared Thursday on Mint Press News raised the possibility that Saudi Arabian intelligence supplied the chemical weapons that were detonated. Saudi Arabia's regime, oil rich and heavily repressive, has long been an ally of Washington.

U.S. strikes would strengthen Saudi foreign policy objectives by crippling their main rivals in the region, Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah, which are both aligned with the Syrian regime.

Israel, which occupies Syrian territories captured in the Six Day War of 1967, has also lobbied hard for U.S. intervention. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose country received more that $3.1 billion in American military and civilian aid this year alone, expressed concerns over America's waning influence in the Mideast following U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq in 2010. A U.S.-erected government in Syria would replant America's flag in the region.

Cloaking the geopolitical game in moral reason, Obama asked on Saturday: “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?” He added, “If we won't enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?”

Yet any use of force by the Obama Administration, congressionally approved or otherwise, would have to bypass the UN Security Council where an attack on Syria has repeatedly been held up by China and Assad-allied Russia. Obama is likewise confronting an increasingly war weary American public — just 9 percent of whom favor intervention according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll.

Taking some of the moral weight out of Obama's war vigor, a report in Foreign Policy last week, based on declassified CIA documents, confirmed the long held suspicion that the U.S. aided Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in using the nerve agent Sarin against Kurds during his country's war with Iran in 1988.

The magazine points out that Sarin is the same chemical that Obama and other congressional hawks accuse Assad of using, though the attacks by Saddam's forces were “far more devastating than anything Syria has seen.”

Fifteen years later, in 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, in making the case for invading Iraq before the UN, warned that “the Iraqis have never accounted for all of the biological weapons they admitted they had and we know they had.” No chemical or any other weapon of mass destruction, such as nuclear munitions, were ever uncovered following the American invasion. Instead, the U.S. unearthed seething civil strife that embroiled the country in sectarian violence and civil war which has continued well after America's withdrawal.

What's more, while aiding the fledgling post-Saddam government in suppressing a rebellion in Fallujah from 2004-2006, the U.S. used depleted uranium munitions killing thousands of civilians and leaving a toxic footprint on the city that experts say was worse than that wrought by the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Children continue to be born with birth defects in Fallujah to this day.

“The U.S. has used weapons of mass destruction,” said Occupy activist Imani Brown, speaking out at the peace rally in New York City. Brown pointed out America's support for brutal dictators in the region, from Hussain to Egypt's 30-year-ruler Hosni Mubarak, deposed in 2011.

The fall of Mubarak, which came on the heels of revolution in Tunisia, marked the most momentous victory of what observers began to refer to as the Arab Spring. Mass revolts eventually toppled Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, in Bahrain, host to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, the monarchy brutally suppressed Arab Spring protests with the aid of troops from their Saudi neighbors.

Tumultuous demonstrations have continued in Egypt as the country grapples with the political direction it will take: Islamic, military, neoliberal or popular democratic. Meanwhile, in Libya and now Syria, uprisings that began with popular protests morphed into military conflicts.

On Saturday, revolutionary socialist parties from Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia issued a joint statement, claiming that U.S.-allied gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are seeking to “distort the Syrian revolution and aiming to abort it,” a reflection “of their deepest fear that the revolutionary flame will reach their shores.”

As for Obama, his intention to launch the strikes “does not stem, in any way or form, from Washington’s solidarity with the suffering of children who fell in the Ghouta massacres, but from its commitment to . . . the vital interests of the US and its homeland security, in addition to Israel’s interests and security,” said the statement. The objective of the strikes is to solidify “the position of U.S. imperialism in the future Syria against Russian imperialism.”

In America, Occupy activists who sought to kindle the fire of revolts in the Arab World – adopting the tactic of erecting encampments like those seen in Egypt's Tahrir Square – now find themselves protesting their country's imminent involvement in conflicts sparked by the succession of uprisings in the region.

Many of those who hit the pavement over the weekend were not yet teenagers at the start of this country's previous military engagement in the Mideast, when millions in the U.S. and around the world mobilized to voice their objections to the invasion of Iraq. George W. Bush dismissed the widespread rallies at the time, saying “I'm going to decide policy based upon a focus group.”

The failure of the mass demonstrations to halt the war, aided by the U.S. mass media's refusal to give the protesters airtime, had a demoralizing effect on the anti-war movement. The election of a Democratic majority to Congress in 2006, followed by that of a Democrat to the presidency in 2008, further drained the movement's numbers as many of those behind the original peace effort retreated once their party gained power; an ascendancy based, in part, on Democrats' opposition to the militarism of the Bush-era.

The Occupy movement, despite the scarce emergence of concrete reforms, reinvigorated peoples' faith in their own power. Defiant non-violent demonstrations managed to fend off attacks from police and the movement's class-conscious lexicon of the 99 percent vs the 1 percent entered popular culture.

Now, many of those involved in the Arab Spring-inspired movement are turning their efforts against the current war.

InterOccupy, which began as a resource connecting various protest encampments as they popped up in towns and cities across America in the fall of 2011, is now working to link up anti-war activists, putting together a “pledge to resist” campaign against strikes on Syria. Organizers hope that the pledge, which had not yet been made public at the time of writing, will not only register opposition but will string together names and contact information of war resisters into a single database that can be garnered for future demonstrations.

For The Occupy Network's Harry Waisbren, the effort to halt the U.S bombardment of Syria is right in line with the original objectives of the Occupy movement.

“We're not looking at this as something as narrow as stopping a war,” Waisbren said. “We're building a whole new world here. It's a world that's going to survive past the military industrial complex, past climate change, past the insidious greed. We grew up in a country that had peace leaders like Martin Luther King taught to us in our textbooks, and the idea that we are going to go off and launch strikes that will likely murder civilians in the name of profit is abhorrent.”

At the anti-war demonstration in Times Square, a discussion emerged over what to call the new anti-war effort. “We can't call it Occupy Syria,” said one protester, remembering the U.S. occupation of Iraq. “How about Occupy Peace?”

People nodded in agreement, though many felt the urgently needed movement might have to drop the name “Occupy” altogether and find a new title – one that reflects a deepening sense of internationalism. No fresh monicker has caught on as of yet.

Originally published on Occupy.com.

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