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Bernie Sanders' foreign policy fail on Syria

To Syrians, Sanders’ ignorance of their plight doesn’t simply amount to misinformation - it amounts to a complete abandonment of their society

US Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is a humanitarian.

His progressive socioeconomic policies in the United States highlight the sort of European leftism which emphasises support for social welfare and human rights. Race equality, provision of basic health care and public services are all fundamental aspects of the Sanders platform.

Sanders has spoken out in force for closing private prisons, and holding the federal corrections system accountable for misconduct and inhumane policies, such as extended isolation and sensory deprivation. He believes in greater income equality, where disenfranchised classes aren’t held down at the behest of a wealthy ruling oligarchy. And at the epicentre of Sanders’ campaign platform is the issue which he describes on his campaign website as "getting big money out of politics and restoring democracy".

“In the year 2016, with a political campaign finance system that is corrupt and increasingly controlled by billionaires and special interests,” says Sanders on his campaign website, “I fear very much that, in fact, government of the people, by the people, and for the people is beginning to perish in the United States of America.”

There is certainly no doubt that Bernie Sanders holds the value of leftist humanitarianism close to his heart.

And then there’s Sanders’ foreign policy.

In every other area of the globe outside of the United States, Senator Sanders has not been humanitarian.

Far from it.

Across the world, Sanders has a philosophy consisting of what can be described at best as “entirely misinformed,” and at worst “outright opposed to human rights”.

In February, Sanders provided Politifact with a list of advisors he says form part of his foreign policy team. But when Politifact contacted these advisors to verify, many said they were very rarely contacted for input. Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress who was named on Sanders’ list of foreign policy advisors, disputed the claim, saying he had only met with the senator on one occasion.

"I'm not involved with the Sanders campaign or have an official role," Korb said. "As far as being an adviser? I have provided advice to him, so…"

Ask Sanders, and he’d probably tell you he knows a lot about foreign policy. So much that he can go head to head against his primary opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for the position of commander-in-chief.

“How many cities of 40,000 have a foreign policy? Well we did,” wrote Sanders of his time as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, during which he hosted Sandinistan guerrilla Nora Astorga. Astorga’s appointment as Nicaraguan ambassador to the UN was previously rejected by the United States over her role in luring CIA informant and Somoza regime official Reynaldo Pérez Vega back to her apartment over promises of sex, slitting his throat, and wrapping his body in the Sandinista flag.

Sanders was proud of Burlington’s foreign policy, and his administration’s outspoken role in critiquing US policy in Latin America throughout the 20th century - a policy which is viewed in retrospect by many historians as destabilising, brutal and ineffective.

But his presidential campaign platform reveals a different foreign policy: one steeped in ignorance, which intends to counter US hegemony rather than promote democracy or fundamental human rights.

After the Democratic debate on 9 March in Flint, Michigan, a Syrian approached Senator Sanders. Ismael Basha, who moved to Michigan in the late 1980s amid Hafez al-Assad’s widespread crackdowns on civil society, worked heavily with other Syrian refugees from the ongoing civil war - many of whom had fled the indescribable chaos of Syria, amid barrel bombs, forced kidnappings and conscriptions, and executions of friends, family and countrymen.

When Basha approached Sanders, he says, Sanders was initially happy to take his question. But when he mentioned the question would be about Syria, Sanders quickly soured.

“[Sanders] had this look - he reacted like it was an unpleasant surprise,” Basha told The Daily Beast in an interview in mid-March. “He said, ‘Look, this is not the time, and I am very tired.’”

This encounter highlights the fundamental failings of Sanders’ foreign policy platform and the inherent hypocrisy of his domestic platform.

As part of his foreign policy, Sanders has outright ignored blatant human rights abuses and justified socioeconomic issues which fundamentally oppose his domestic worldview. He has argued against intervention in one of the worst humanitarian crises in the past 30 years, headed by a regime which nearly perfectly encapsulates almost every single policy and political philosophy Sanders detests.

The Syrian regime - which Sanders opposes intervening against - is so corporatist, corrupt, and non-democratic that its basic structure shatters Sanders’ entire “getting money out of big politics and restoring democracy” platform. The Assad regime was born and bred from the special interests-laden corruption of the Baath Party in post-Mandate Syria, and functions as a government that controls society through a patronage system paid for by the Assads’ inner circle, which Hafez worked for decades to foster, while suppressing civil society and essentially all political dissent.

In other words, if a revolutionary candidate like Sanders campaigned in Syria, he would almost certainly be forcibly disappeared by the regime mukhabarat, subjected to persistent torture and sensory deprivation, and perhaps even executed - like long-time opposition member Riad al-Turk, or the nearly 12,000 Syrians who were revealed to have been starved, tortured and executed in regime custody since the onset of the war in the 2014 Caesar Report.

Amid Sanders’ campaign calls to end mass incarceration and widespread corruption within the Department of Corrections, 200,000 Syrians were arbitrarily imprisoned in the regime’s infamously brutal prisons - Tadmur, Adra and Sednaya, among others.

Sanders has opposed income and wealth inequality increasing within the United States. In Syria, the Assad regime re-arranged the economy at the turn of the millennium to allow its senior retainers to steal even more of the nation’s resources, concentrating wealth in an even smaller number of hands. Previously, Assad’s inner circle and its clientele of military officers and sections of the urban elite had dominated national life; now nearly all national industry was put in a stranglehold by one extended family, and the only paths to any share of this privatised wealth was military service or rising through the ranks of the (immovable) ruling party.

As Sanders spent months lobbying for the support of nurses’ unions on his "Fighting for Nurses" platform, which highlighted the need for more nurses and better working conditions, tens of thousands of nurses, doctors, and aid workers were killed or driven from Syria by indiscriminate air strikes by the pro-regime coalition. Prior to the war, when Sanders was hard at work securing nurses’ rights in the state of Vermont, swathes of Syrian doctors, nurses and professional civil society members fled the country and formed a vocal Syrian diaspora which now comprises the basis of the Syrian political opposition.

Sanders famously described the Syrian situation as a “quagmire within a quagmire,” but categorically opposed any US measures to fix it. His suggestion to solve the chaos of Syria?

“Bring Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and other nations into discussions on how to end the civil war.”

Saudi Arabia and Iran have long been bitter rivals in an intense regional struggle for hegemony. Recently, the two countries severed nearly all relations amid escalating tensions.

Iran and Russia actively support the Assad regime, and are culpable for a number of violations of international humanitarian law, which a recent UN committee - in its report to the International Criminal Court - said could constitute crimes against humanity. These tactics, which include forced hunger sieges on civilian towns and indiscriminate bombing of mosques, hospitals and markets, are not only counterproductive in solving the Syrian situation, they are some of the largest contributing factors to the categorical tragedy of Syria.

To Syrian citizens, Sanders’ ignorance of foreign policy doesn’t simply amount to misinformation: it amounts to a complete abandonment of their society, and a total disavowal of their struggle against corruption, corporatism and brutal dictatorship.

In the wake of Sanders’ comments regarding his opposition to a no-fly zone in Syria, many Syrian citizens on social media expressed confusion as to why Sanders opposed an end to the number-one cause of death, destruction, and displacement in Syria. From their perspective, Sanders didn’t just oppose a no-fly zone: he supported barrel bombs, regime coalition air strikes, and the perpetual fear of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians trapped, hopelessly, under regime warplanes.

The foreign policy of Bernie Sanders is, in many cases, an abhorrent and counter-humanitarian ignorance. More than that, it is disrespectful to all of Sanders’ grassroots supporters - myself formerly included - who champion his cause as a herald of liberalism, humanitarianism and progressive social equality.

Sanders’ foreign policy is the polar opposite of his domestic policy. And although he is undoubtedly humanitarian, his entire platform will be inherently hypocritical until the ideological disparity between foreign and domestic is closed.

“My impression is that he’s a genuinely nice guy. But being a nice guy doesn’t make him a great leader,” said Ismael Basha after meeting with Sanders. “He is wrong and he doesn’t understand the world well. When he said he was tired, that confirmed my view - this isn’t something he wants to deal with.”

- Jett Goldsmith is a journalist from Denver, Colorado. He currently serves as news editor for Neowin, contributing writer for Bellingcat, and formerly is a member of the investigative reporting and geopolitical analysis outlet Conflict News. He is currently an undergraduate student in International Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies. You can follow him on Twitter @JettGoldsmith

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during his campaign in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on 22 April, 2016 (AFP).