[Writing this in Beirut is apt, where there is a deep polarization between those who would die for the Syrian regime and those who just want it to die, at any cost. Those who do not support either position "as is" are dubbed cowards and opportunists by both sides, as well as by the pro-Saudi camp. Outside the Arab context, pro-Israel commentators do not like the nuanced position herein, because it puts Israel and the United States in a bad light. Good company. The author does NOT assume this is the best rendition of a nuanced position: just one of them.]
After almost five decades, when the time came to publicly oppose authoritarian rule in Syria, one would have thought that it was the rational and decent thing to do. And it is. More than that, it is incumbent on anyone who cares about Syrians (let us leave “Syria” alone for a moment) and their struggle for the establishment of a political system that is free(r) of all forms of oppression. So, what is the problem?
Why Fighting Dictatorship Is Intuitive
It is easy, rational, and just to adopt unequivocal opposition to the decades-long history of the Syrian regime’s authoritarian rule. It is equally easy, rational, and just to severely condemn and oppose the regime’s ten-month crushing of independent protesters. Yet regime supporters and some in the anti-imperialist camp retort that some of these protesters are agents of external forces or armed gangs.
While there may be a grain of truth in this argument, it is empty. It is, in fact, an insult to the intelligence of any Syria observer. It overlooks the regime’s brutality in the last ten months of the uprising. It baldly erases decades of oppression, detention, imprisonment, silencing, excommunication, and torture that the regime has dealt to any mere hint of opposition. This is the regime that will turn fifty next year.
Indeed, it is only Saddam Hussein’s relentless authoritarianism in Iraq that has surpassed the legacy of the Syrian regime’s repression. This is not a secret. It is not a controversial description. It is true despite Syria’s relative stability until March 2011. Its institutions were poor but sufficiently functional. Its cities were relatively safe. And after the late 1980s, its urban centers boasted an increasingly bustling and dynamic life. The regime peddled these characteristics as a model of “social peace”.
The threat of heavy reprisal along with the formation and state cooptation of an exceptionally corrupt business class were among the painful threads that held this brittle “social peace” together. Important too, in this regard, was the fact that the Syrian welfare state was able to provide the minimum needs for most Syrian citizens until the 1990s—though the countryside was largely neglected. Ultimately, It is precisely the relationship between the state and top business echelons after the mid-1980s that gradually exacerbated Syria’s social and regional polarization. After the 2000 succession of Bashar Asad and eventually his team of so-called “liberlizers”, the Syrian Ba`ath Party (out of all places) introduced what they called the Social Market Economy in 2005. It was to respond to various calls not emanating from the Syrian majority. Within the still constitutionally socialist republic, the new announcement was intended as a near-formal blow to the remaining vestiges of a state-centered economy.
A resulting series of camouflaged neoliberal policies and bad fortune exacerbated existing structural disparities and social discontent among the less privileged. The increasing withdrawal of state subsidies and welfare, the gradual introduction of weak market institutions to replace corrupt but functioning institutions of the state, alonside continued notorious mismanagement of the economy became a recipe for social unrest. The scant rainfall during the past decade further caused massive migration and a loss of jobs in the countryside, adding fuel and, if I may say so, location, to the fire of social protest potential after 2010. All it took was a spark. Bouazizi provided it. Syria’s "social peace" was exposed and decimated.
But it did not all start in March 2011. Beneath the serene and comforting streets of Damascus and Aleppo lay and still lie thousands of political prisoners. Stuffing Syria’s jails and solitary confinement units, even prior to the uprising, were Islamists and atheists, liberals and communists, and everything in between. Prisoners came in all shades and indeed comported with the Syrian regime’s official rhetoric. They included those who dedicated their lives to defend the Palestinian cause against the apartheid state of Israel. They also included those who built honorable records for opposing the United States’ duplicitous and brutal policies in the region, its support of dictatorship, and its launching of barbaric wars on false accounts.
The prisoners’ fault was not that they were conspirators. It was that they opposed the regime. Their imprisonment and torture highlighted the fact that anti-imperialism has never been, nor will never be, the regime’s priority. Clearly, the Syrian National Council (SNC) will not be any better on this count. In fact, the council is already much worse when it comes to related matters of autonomy from external actors.
The tragedy is that the rise of such a problematic body—the SNC—with varying degrees of local support is an undeniable testament to the regime’s deep repression and bankruptcy. Some may argue that the regime’s bolstering of various legitimate regional causes or “ the cause” is a subterfuge for its horrendous domestic repression, creating resentment even among the causes’ proponents. Many Syrians are fed up with this duplicity, which has come at their expense. They may even appear uninterested in regional issues and calculations. Many in the "pro-resistance” camp read this deprioritization of anti-imperialism, or even the domestic call for external intervention, only as a betrayal. They fail to see the exasperation, desperation, vulnerability, and ultimately the motivational force of self-preservation. It is none other than the regime that has given birth to this imperative of self-preservation.
Imperialism Is Not the Issue for the Syrian Regime or the Protesters at All Times
It is one thing for analysts living outside Syria to oppose and condemn foreign intervention (which this author does unequivocally). It is another to assume that all those calling for it in Syria under current conditions are part of a conspiracy.
Again, it is the Syrian regime’s brutality since March 2011 and before that has created conditions for the street’s increasing support for foreign intervention to stop the killing. Certainly, some may have had ulterior motives, connections or designs as supporters of intervention all along. But the majority of those calling for intervention have been brutalized into doing so. They are not thinking in terms of supporting or opposing imperialism at this time.
Bear with me for a moment here. Let us imagine a wild scenario whereby the United States would have intervened to stop the Israeli massacre of Palestinians in Gaza in January 2009. Would Gazans, under daily bombs and bullets, have objected on the grounds of the US record of imperialism? Or perhaps, Gazans might have objected due to their suspicion of the United States’ potential designs for the post-intervention stage? Surely many outsiders will think so, and some insiders may too. But most Gazans would likely not have been entertaining ideology and geostrategic reflexivity, as their skies rained death from above. Moreover, even if, in this wild scenario, Gazan`s acceptance of external intervention would have been perhaps short-sighted, it would have beeen patently ridiculous to claim that all such Gazans were part of an imperialist conspiracy.
Imperialism is not always the issue for everyone. To not recognize this is to lose the fight against imperialism.
The “resistance” camp seems to want or expect hunted and gunned down individuals and families on Syrian streets to prioritize the regime’s anti-imperialist rhetoric over the instinct of self-preservation and their fight for freedom from authoritarism. Again, the fact that some inside Syria are abusing this dynamic to call for the kind of external intervention that the regime’s regional and international enemies have long dreamed of does not negate that fight.
If die-hards among the "pro-resistance" camp feel indignant or distraught by these calls, they should recount the modern history of Syria. Indeed, it is the anti-imperialist, pro-resistance camp that has some accounting to do at this stage. Any type of anti-imperialism must necessarily include a rejection of authoritarianism. Supporting resistance to imperialism at the expense of an entire community’s most inalienable rights can only spell defeat. Let us therefore cease this silly and insulting game of accusing the detractors of the Syrian regime as necessarily pro-imperialist.
Finally, as the regime strongmen, subjects, observers, and detractors know well, the regime’s priority above all else has been and continues to be its own preservation. From the regime`s perspective, if it engages in or enables resistance to imperialism, which it has certainly done more than any other in the region of late, that is all the better. If not, well, staying alive is good enough, even if it might require siding with the United States or reactionary Arab regimes at times. This is similar to the problematics of the United States’ self-image supporting democracy worldwide; if it can engage in promoting democracy, that is all the better. If not, promoting dictatorship to serve its interests (as is the case in the Arab world) will do just fine. This is because the United Sta objective was never to create democratic regimes, merely compliant ones.
Finally, it is of crucial importance to disentangle the sources of criticism of the Syrian regime. Does the critique proceed with the interests of Syrians in mind? Or does the criticism proceed from the best interests of, say, the United States’ or Israel’s foreign policy establishments and their proponents? This is not to mention the relevance of distangling an entire coterie of other actors such as Saudi Arabia and their minions, various European countries, and what is left othe Lebanese March 14 movement.
The call for the downfall of authoritarianism is, as stated above, both rational and just. But we must be necessarily weary when it is the likes of Elliot Abrahams behind the call for democracy.
Why Foreign Intervention Is Loathed
Protecting and defending authoritarianism on the political grounds that it serves as resistance to foreign intervention has become desperately short sighted from the very-same pro-resistance perspective. By the same token, to not understand the implications and consequences of foreign intervention in Syria at this juncture is equally short-sighted in all respects. This moment of regional turmoil and unsavory political alignments linking the worst in foreign policies of “East” and “West”, dating decades now (longer than the Syrian regime’s record of oppressing its own citizens, really), is cause for serious caution. In other words, Syria is being used by various powers—including the United States, Saudi Arabia, and their chorus—as an occasion to accomplish their respective or collective objectives in the region. And their aims are reactionary ones, to be sure, in terms of the interests of most people in the region as the past decades behind us attest and as current uprisings against the “fruits” of such objectives make clear, even to some skeptics. This does not mean, however, that we should withdraw our opposition and halt the struggle against dictatorship in Syria. It only serves to remind us how not to do it.
One must start with the simple and undramatic assertion that the Syrian situation is more than just the Syrian situation. This assertion, however, should not come at the expense of Syrian lives. Since the mid-twentieth century, when mainly European designs for dominating and influencing the countries or politics of the Middle East through schemas such as the Baghdad Pact, Syria was an important regional prize, mostly in a passive manner. After Hafez al-Asad took power in the so-called “Corrective Movement” of 1970 and 1971, Syria became a more fortified regional actor that could not only determine its own internal politics but also, on occasion, those of other countries.
Notably, Syria became a leading member of the "rejectionist front": a front that sought to confront Israel without succumbing to bilateral “peace” plans that did not aim for a comprehensive and just settlement of the Palestine-Israel conflict. Save for a brief stint of confrontation between Syria and Israel in 1982—when Israel downed several Syrian fighter jets in a pathetic air power confrontation—the story goes that the Syrian-Israeli border was the safest place on earth, despite the occupation of the Golan Heights. However, by proxy, and mostly via non-state actors such as Hizballah and Hamas, Syria became the last and only state to confront Israel. Regionally, the Syrian regime acquired a reputation of bravado. This was not because it actively fought Israel’s outlaw behavior and racism. It was because all other Arab states were, more or less, wimps, to use a sophisticated word (though some claim they were rational, we leave the latter claim for another time).
In 1993, Syria’s stance as the "lone" confronter state was further fortified. This was due, on the one hand, to Iraq’s military irrelevance and defeat. On the other hand, “peace” with Israel proliferated on multiple fronts: the Oslo accords, the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty, and deeper flirtations between Israel and various Arab countries, notably Qatar and Morocco. When Qaddafi paid off the United Kingdom and the United States for being bad boys and promptly joined the community of lawful nations, it was none other than the great intellect of George W. Bush that deemed Qaddafi a model of sorts. By the mid-2000s, the Syrian regime was the only remaining Arab country that would not pay lip service to the United States.
The Syrian regime went further. It continued to support resistance to the Israeli occupation by supporting Hizballah as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad (both of which had offices in Damascus). It opposed the brutal and arrogant invasion of Iraq in a manner that no Arab country did. It continued to be the only well-endowed secular and explicitly, if only rhetorically, anti-imperialist state in the region.
But for the United States, Israel, some European countries, Saudi Arabia and its minions in Lebanon and the Gulf, it is the Syria-Hizballah-Iran axis that still constitutes the most formidable challenge. Taking out Syria as it stands would weaken Hizballah and isolate Iran, the big prize. With Syria out of the way, Hizballah would be starved of its safe arms transport corridor and less able to meet a strike against Iran with reprisal.
An Iran strike would also confront Turkey with a dilemma. Quite aside from its two-faced posturing on Syrian authoritarianism as it simultaneously oppresses Kurdish resistance, Turkey would have to balance two conflicting desires. On the one hand, the Turkish administration hopes to nourish its grand vision of regional hegemony through the consent and admiration of the Arab street. But it is that very street that rejects the United States–Saudi Arabia alliance that Turkey is implicitly supporting as it strives to isolate the Syrian regime.
In any case, precluding Turkey, the actors that are amassed to benefit from the fall of the Syrian regime are, in the final analysis, no less problematic than the Syrian regime itself. In sum, these actors are certainly more violent, discriminatory, and anti-democratic in terms of their collective and/or individual long-term vision for the region. In unity, there is strength! Whether one supports the Syrian regime or not, the fall of the Syrian regime is more than the fall of the Syrian regime.
This does not mean that it`s fall should not be opposed or overthrown by domestic means. As I have argued elsewhere (here 1 and here 2), Syria’s past or potential regional role should not be an excuse for supporting its sustenance. Conversely, supporting the demise of the Syrian regime by any and all means, including external military intervention, is extremely reckless, especially if the objective is to save Syrian lives or set the stage for a post-regime path of self-determination.
Any external military intervention supported by the above array of the awkward and brutal will devastate Syria because of a host of intended and unintended consequences. The strange and cruel affront would exponentially increase the death toll of Syrians in both absolute and relative terms, without achieving any discernable conclusive outcome. Moreover, an external factor would reignite another local and regional struggle rather than simply end domestic authoritarian rule and pave the way for democratic developments.
One can be moved by the urgency of saving Syrian lives today but if this is the ultimate purpose, and if Syrians’ self-determination is the desired outcome, one can easily see the perils of military intervention that will make the current killing look like a picnic. Ideological considerations aside, the magnitude of the complexity and mayhem can be discerned simply by anticipating a conflict that will involve Iran, Hizballah, and an intense chunk of the Syrian population. Internal and regional opposition to external military intervention in Syria will swell the more an attack is imminent. Unless the regime brutality reaches even higher proportions prior to the intervention (apologies for the coldness of the calculation here), it will be counter-productive, to say the least.
As for the hoax of no-fly zones that is deemed to be asked by the many, as opposed to full scale military intervention, I am reminded of how some young(er) boys used to promise their girlfriends that they would not go all the way. No-fly-zones are equally unrealistic and much less pleasurable in the end. I cannot say more here, and I cannot believe I am keeping the above text in the post.
In sum, both positions are doable simultaneously: opposing the regime and opposing external military intervention. The problem arises with the question of agency.
The Residual Problem with This Article
Not to be outdone by this article, it is crucial to point to a flaw, or a "lack," within it, and to introduce an anti-climactic caveat. First, I must admit that the tenor of the position elaborated in the lines above lacks a clear agency (e.g., an institution, party or movement) that might convert it to a real and actionable path. The SNC is certainly not the answer. But this question has never been the object of the debate discussed herein. Hence, this article is a very modest and hopelessly insufficient attempt at engendering a discussion about locating or catalyzing such a collective.
Some strands of the opposition, including the head of National Coordinating Committees, support a nuanced position but are usually opposed fiercely. According to independent organizers and protesters on the ground in Syria, there is room for the growth and effectiveness of a truly democratic opposition that is not always in line with the SNC. True, both parties may be benefitting from each other for their own purposes today. However, there is growing concern among many activists on the ground about where the SNC is headed, how it is run now, and how it will be in the longer term. This tension, which is evident between the SNC and other smaller opposition groups outside Syria, has not become explicit yet. Perhaps the brightest rays of light are the reports that the larger portion of the Syrian opposition inside Syria does not take its cues from anyone outside Syria, and for good reason, despite some appearances to the contrary. It may only be this indigenous force that can solve the problem of leadership.
The anti-climactic caveat I offer is that no one outside the SNC and part of the domestic opposition is calling for external intervention in an inexorable manner. This status is not for lack of want or desire. Besides the arguments suggested above from a general standpoint, the lack of readiness for external intervention is manifold and not always intuitive.
Largely, it is because of the low pay-offs, some deterrence, and a bit of cynicism, among those in the anti-Syrian camp (against its regime, geostrategic importance, and/or people). First, Syria is neither Iraq nor Libya. It does not have ample natural resources to be used as a mortgage for future reimbursement for the “noble deed" (The West has got to stop liberating people!). Second, unrest in Syria may potentially spill over to the new champions of democracy in and around the Arabian Peninsula, not to mention Lebanon and the thorny derivatives of further instability in that "godforsaken" country. Third, the current Syrian regime has protected its borders with Israel (actually, itself, considering the occupied Golan) for decades. Not a bad thing for Israel’s decades’ long violation of international law, underwritten by the foe it robbed. Fourth, Syria has a lot of friends, big and small, that will not stand still. And some, like Russia, have a fleet docked near Syria`s northern shores.
Finally, as the venerable Kissinger used to say in the 1980s (I am paraphrasing): let the Iranians and Iraqis kill each other into impotence, for it facilitates things for the United States thereafter. Thus, some would like Syrians to continue killing each other, for a while longer, before an intervention is advanced. They would be happy to see Syria weaken even further its institutions and infrastructure, while social and political divisions are excascerbated enough to undercut possibilities of collective action for a long time to come. Syria’s long-term trajectory after the Ba`ath fall is an unknown, whether one considers questions of resistance, anti-imperialism or the struggle for restoring the Golan. So, from the perspective of those in the "Kissinger camp", why not wait for Syria and Syrians to disempower themselves further, instead of pushing for a swift conclusion now? If one, or a government, supports the safety of the apartheid state of Israel, what else would be better than a protracted killing field in Syria?
So, for the moment, external military intervention is not seriously on the table yet. But the discursive conflicts on this question will continue. Hence, this idiot’s guide.
[A version of this article was published on al-Jazeera English website.]