If a debate on Middle East policy took place during the bar scene in Star Wars, it would look like a lot like the gathering in Lafayette Park outside the White House on Saturday. After President Obama announced in the Rose Garden that he would seek congressional authorization for military strikes against the Assad regime in Syria, a cacophony of protesters congregated in front of the White House.
There were Syrian Americans showing their solidarity with the rebels by waving the flag of the anti-Assad insurgents and holding up signs in English and Arabic condemning what they called genocide. There were anti-war protestors from ANSWER, the anti-war umbrella coalition affiliated with the Worker’s World Party, a small Maoist organization. They were young, mostly white and waving yellow signs that proclaimed “No War on Syria.”
But both groups were dwarfed by a large gathering in the park of a group called Egyptian Americans for Democracy and Human Rights. They were there to protest American acquiescence in the military coup in Egypt and had simply picked the wrong day for their rally. However, they did join in the spirit of the day. Although their target was the Egyptian military and its leader, General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, they occasionally mixed up their chant of “Sisi, Hitler are the same. The only difference is the name” by replacing the reference to Sisi with one to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The park was also filled with its usual assortment of tourists, street preachers and miscellaneous weirdos. One woman sat silently in a wheelchair, holding a sign that said “Please Stop Soul Execution” while a school group trooped down Pennsylvania Avenue gawking at the White House.
The anti-war protesters, whose rally dissipated after the president’s speech, seemed convinced that whatever happened in Syria wasn’t America’s problem.
“It’s not our place to intervene,” said Jake Cook, a young protester with blond scruff on his face and a black fist tattooed on his forearm. In his opinion, the number of people that Assad had killed was nowhere near the millions of Afghan and Iraqi civilians whose deaths the U.S was responsible for. He was disappointed at even the possibility of military action, saying that the President going to Congress was “awful.” Instead, he thought we should stop funding the Syrian opposition.
William and Teresa Carson, a tanned and tattooed couple who were holding protest signs while wheeling their bicycles through the park, echoed his views. They had been riding their bicycles across the country from Sacramento, California for the past 15 months. They had just arrived in Washington and joined in the protests. They were devout Christians who worried that this might bring on doomsday. William Carson noted his fear that the Syrians might bomb us in retaliation, which he insisted was a threat that the Assad regime issued. Another protester who identified herself as Lacey wore a purple shirt and a bandana emblazoned with the words “hands off Syria,” and ran off screaming after D.C. police arrested her fiancée for apparently refusing to follow police instructions to stay away from the Egypt protest. “Where are they taking my fiancé?!” she said hysterically to no one in particular.
In the meantime, the area in front of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue continued to be occupied by about 50 protesters supporting the Syrian rebels. They were passing out leaflets saying “Stop Assad Now” and every other person seemed to be waving the green, white and black flag of the rebels. Tarak, a Syrian American who declined to give his last name for fear of endangering family members who still lived in Syria, said he supported Obama. He had no quarrels with the decision to go to Congress, Tarak simply hoped intervention would happen “sooner, so that less people would die.” For him, action was imperative to “stop the murder.” He said “if we can save one life, ten lives” it would be worth it.