The Syria Dilemma
Nader Hashemi & Danny Postel, editors
Boston Review Books, MIT Press, 2013

by Bill Weinberg, Middle East Policy

An illustration of the very dilemma referenced in the title of The Syria Dilemma is that several contributors to this timely book cite 75,000 dead in the conflict; the figure is now above 100,000. The anthology, which saw print just as Obama threatened intervention in the wake of the August 2013 chemical attacks near Damascus, compiles editorials and policy recommendations produced in the preceding months. Co-editors Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel try to be objective, assembling both pro- and anti-intervention voices. With few exceptions, these exemplify the tunnel-vision that characterizes both sides, forestalling a painfully honest reckoning.

Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center leads with a warning, invoked in defense of military intervention: "Hoping to atone for our sins in Iraq, we have overlearned the lessons of the last war." In contrast to morally messy Iraq, he finds: "What made Libya a 'pure' intervention was that we acted not because our vital interests were threatened but in spite of the fact that they were not."

Hamid decries the antiseptic moral environment of wonkdom, protesting that it is "fashionable to play the technocrat and ask 'what works?'" He contrasts the Syrian opposition slogan: "America, has your spite not been sated by our blood?" Without Western support for "the Syrian people" (by which he means the organized opposition), Hamid finds that they may yet "win," but at the price of a "destroyed country," with "Salafists and Jihadists ascendant," a state "too torn and divided for real governance."

Ironically, Hamid could be describing post-intervention Libya here, with little exaggeration. If that is his template for a "pure" intervention, its fruits have hardly been secularism and stability. And it is questionable whether great powers ever go to war without "interests" at stake. After all, what "vital" US interests had been "threatened" in Iraq in 2003? But the Bush White House seems to have perceived an opportunity to establish US control over the world's most strategic oil reserves, even if it didn't quite work out that way. The Libya intervention may have represented an attempt (again, by no means altogether successful) to impose a pro-Western direction on the unpredictable currents of the Arab Revolution.

Also weighing in for intervention is Michael Ignatieff, former Canadian Liberal MP—for whom the "last war" is Bosnia. He advocates intervention on that model: targeted air-strikes and arming of indigenous forces. Ignatieff overlooks some uglier aspects of the Bosnia intervention—as will other contributors.

More enthusiastic about arms shipments than air-strikes, Anne-Marie Slaughter of the New America Foundation warns: "Syria is not yet a problem from Hell—but if we don't act quickly it will be." The "problem from Hell" references the title of UN ambassador Samantha Power's book on genocide—a prescient invocation in a piece written three months before the August gas attacks. But Slaughter's call for the West to arm Syrian towns willing to declare themselves "no kill zones" will seem counterintuitive to those who fear the potential for US-supplied weapons to reach extremists.

Returning to a call for outright military intervention, Thomas Pierret of the Center for Middle East Studies asks rhetorically, "Better Assasd than the Islamists?" Far from being a "secular bulwark," Bashar Assad has "played into the hands" of the Islamists, he writes. Rather than a false choice between "panzer-secularism" (that imposed by tanks) and Islamism, it is one between a "pluralistic society…that can still be preserved" by fast action and "extremism that will continue to flourish if Syria remains abandoned by the outside world." Yet this could be a prescription for what we may call "Cruise missile secularism"—opening its own set of contradictions and continued challenges for the Syrians.

Radwan Ziadeh of the DC-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies in his "Case for Humanitarian Intervention" betrays dishonesty by writing that the "Syrian security forces and the Syrian army have killed at least 80,000 people…" Of course, not all those deaths are attributable to state forces—and recognizing this doesn't have to imply moral equivalence between the regime and the rebels. Ziadeh cites the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine, embraced by the UN General Assembly in 2005, but is on dubious legal ground in advocating military action "even without prior approval of the Security Council."

Attempting to explain "What the anti-interventionists are missing," co-editor Nader Hashemi, of the Center for Middle East Studies, provides the book's most compelling entry. While a hands-off position may appease "Gandhian impulses," he says it ignores the nature of the Assad regime and the "right to self-determination of the Syrian people." Hashemi quotes Syrian writer Rana Kabbani's assessment that 42 years of one-family rule constitutes "internal colonialism," and Syrian activist Ziadeh on the "need for a second independence… the first was from the French and the second will be from the Assad dynasty."

For Hashemi, the principles of the Arab Revolution remain the foundation of Syria's opposition: hurriya (political freedom), adala ijtima'iyya (social justice) and karama (dignity). Syria went over the edge into war because Assad lies at the "extreme end of a spectrum of repression" among Arab dictators, with both Human Rights Watch and the UN Human Rights Council's Commission of Inquiry on Syria finding evidence of "crimes against humanity." He cites Tanzania in Uganda, Vietnam in Cambodia, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front in Rwanda as well as NATO in Bosnia and Kosova as examples that prove "military force is required" to end "massive state-sanctioned atrocities."

Hashemi quotes a statement by the opposition National Coalition finding it "tragic that NATO has the power to stop further loss of life in Syria, but chooses not to take that course of action…" Naming Syria a "litmus test for the left," Hashemi calls on progressive forces around the world to listen to "the Syrian people" and "follow their lead" (emphasis in original) on the question of intervention.

But this formulation ignores not only that many (although not all) Alawites and Christians still support the regime, but also that there remain even now some (admittedly minority) left-wing opposition currents that oppose intervention. And even if the Assad regime does constitute an "internal colonialism," the notion of liberation through superpower ordnance is obviously problematic to any anti-colonial analysis.

Next we turn to the anti-intervention entries, which also betray denial and occasional dishonesty. Asli Bâli of UCLA Law School and Aziz Rana of Cornell Law expound on "Why There Is No Military Solution to the Syrian Conflict"—an easy assertion from those not actually under bombardment or banished to refugee camps. The Syrians now calling for foreign intervention are doing so out of utter desperation. But for Bâli and Rana, interventionist calls "embody goals that further undermine the interests of the local population. If anything, it is intervention, not its absence, that fuels the blood-letting in Syria." Cynicism about interventionist goals (that is, those of the Great Powers, not of the Syrian opposition) is refreshing. But the observation that "major powers are sustaining the current stalemate by arming and financing military factions on all sides" accepts an equivalism on responsibility for the war. In rejecting the "tautology" of military solutions, they offer no acknowledgement that repeated efforts at a diplomatic one have failed.

Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco is worse still, proffering high-handed condescension in lamenting the "tragic miscalculation by parts of the Syrian opposition to supplant their bold and impressive nonviolent civil insurrection with an armed insurgency." This is an exercise in victim-blaming, as if the Syrian opposition took up arms arbitrarily. While Shadi Hamid decries technocratic detachment, Zunes warns against an "understandably strong emotional reaction to the ongoing horror or a romanticized attachment to armed revolution." He insists that "opposition to US support for the armed resistance in Syria has nothing to do with indifference, isolationism, or pacifism." Maybe it doesn't have to, but hopefully Zunes acknowledges that in the real world it frequently does.

In a similar vein, Charles Glass, veteran Middle East correspondent for ABC News, admonishes: "The Last Thing Syrians Need Is More Arms Going to Either Side." He states, less than plausibly, that before the US pledge to arm the rebels last year, the conflict "seemed to be heading hesitantly towards negotiations." He openly embraces equivalism: "The victims of lethal and non-lethal aid to government and rebels alike are the Syrian people." Yet the Assad regime has a virtual blank check from its Russian patrons. And if some of the jihadist rebels are arguably just as bad, it can be contended that lack of foreign support for the secular rebel forces has allowed the jihadists, with their own arms networks, to fill the vacuum—polarizing the conflict into a clash of rival totalitarianisms.

Marc Lynch of the Institute for Middle East Studies also rejects arming the rebels, saying this "basically means renting them until a better offer comes along, as suggested by the endless parade of articles reporting Syrian groups turning to Islamists because they are better financed or better armed." He does not anticipate the response that supporting the secular rebel forces could be precisely a prophylactic against this tendency. (Or, more pessimistically, could have been.)

Fareed Zakaria, despite a title of "Why Syria's Future is in Our Hands," lines up with the anti-interventionists—yet still displays illusions, about both the US and Assad. "From 2003 to 2012, despite there being as many as 180,000 American and allied troops in Iraq, somewhere between 150,00 and 300,000 Iraqi civilians died," he writes. These are conservative estimates, and the word "despite" is inappropriate, as the US-led coalition was a party to the conflict, not a neutral moderator. And nobody is actually talking about sending US ground troops to Syria in any case. Instead of any military action, Zakaria, again, calls for a "political settlement"—which, again, others argue is an option long exhausted.

Christopher R. Hill, who served as both US ambassador to Iraq and envoy for Kosovo, revives the Bosnia analogy in his essay "From Dayton to Damascus"—but this time arguing for a diplomatic effort, finding that it was "not American bombs" that "brought about the end" of the Bosnian war. This ignores that at least token US air-strikes came before the Serbs agreed to the Dayton talks. More significantly, it overlooks the 1999 Kosova war, Bosnia's grim postscript. The Dayton Accords left Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic in power, indeed embraced as a paradoxical peacemaker—who next turned his wrath on the Kosovar Albanians. The Syrian opposition have good reason to reject an agreement that would similarly leave Bashar Assad in power—while Assad views his continued rule as a precondition for talks.

There are a few entries in the book that eschew dogmatism and resist the lure of easy answers. Richard Falk, UN human rights rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, articulates the dilemma: "To stand by is unacceptable, but to act without some realistic prospect of improving the situation is equally unacceptable." He is heartened by Syrian opposition moves to create a "Freedom Charter" committing to a pluralist future, and sees the potential for a "politics from below" that could "deserve our support and confidence." Noting the South African example, he writes that such a solution oft "appears to be utopian until it somehow materializes and becomes history." But on how outside powers can help, he only has prescriptions for a general de-escalation across the region, such as a Middle East "nuclear weapons free zone," with Israel pressured to join as well as Iran. An entirely worthy aim, but not one likely to comfort Syrians under regime bombardment.

Actual exponents of the "politics from below" are brought to the debate by Canada-based Syrian writer Afra Jalabi, who offers "Voices of Syrian Activists." One, identified as Mufid from Daraya, utters the book's first morally nuanced assessment: "When arms entered the Syrian revolution, and it was a result of the tyranny of the regime and its brutal way of dealing with it, in that moment the leadership of the revolution started leaving the hands of its makers and moving to external powers who supply and bring in arms." This faces the implications of militarization without implying it was avoidable. Jalabi accuses Assad of "provoking people to take up arms, where the regime would have the upper hand," and "stoking sectarian tensions." Another quoted activist, Mirna from Daraa, again rejects the Iraq analogy: "Iraq was an egg that was crushed, but Syria is a chick trying to break its shell from within and is in need of protection."

Also emphasizing a "politics from below" is Rafif Jouejati of the Local Coordination Committees, organ of Syria's civil resistance. She dismisses fears that weapons will fall into "wrong hands," asserting: "those weapons already are, and have long been, in the dreaded 'wrong hands': those of the Assad regime… We Syrians know all too well that the actual 'wrong hands' are those of the chemical-weapons-yielding [sic] dictatorship that stockpiled them for domestic use." Those who "learned all they know about Syria from Wikipedia glommed on to the terms 'civil war' and 'sectarian conflict' early on… Such intellectual laziness only offers a quick sedative, a little respite from the nagging truth…" She urges arming the rebels to "tip the balance of power," citing a litany of peace plans that have been rejected or violated by Assad. To Western fears of a jihadist threat, Jouejati recalls another opposition slogan: "Count our dead not our beards." Syrians who identify as Syrian—not Sunni, Alawite or Christian—reject the "regime's sectarian narrative," she writes. But certainly the war has taken a sectarian cast, even if this is the bitter fruit of a regime strategy.

It isn't a coincidence that the book's best contributions are those penned by Syrians, who do not use the pronoun "we" to refer to the United States government, and do not share the assumption that the US is inexorably on the side of democracy, secularism and human rights—yet are unequivocally calling for intervention. If Syrians, in their desperation, have come to seek US aid, we may be sure that they are doing so with their eyes open. This cannot be said of many stateside commentators, of either camp.


This review first appeared, in slightly edited form, in the Spring 2014 issue of Middle East Policy

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