Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Why are we ignoring Syrian calls for intervention?

How Bashar must have smiled. In almost the same breath as Anders Rasmussen, the NATO Secretary General, stood for the first time on free Libyan soil to announce “a new chapter” in the country’s history and the withdrawal of the international forces that made the liberation possible, he went out of his way to assure the Syrian dictator that the action taken against his former counterpart was not even to be considered in his case:

NATO has no intention (to intervene) whatsoever. I can completely rule that out.

This conspicuously blunt revelation immediately raises a series of highly nontrivial questions, among them: who on earth are the beneficiaries of this policy, other than the Assad family and its fascistic proxies throughout the region? Why, if the NATO mission in Libya was a success – as the Secretary General clearly believes it was - should it not merit emulating in Syria? Surely Mr Rasmussen cannot mean to imply that a Syrian life is of less consideration than a Libyan one? And by what possible right does he assume this paternal tone of reassurance? To tell the Syrian people that help is not coming, and to suggest that they should be grateful for it too, is to let them down inexpiably as well as to insult them into the bargain. For shame.

‘But the Syrian people don’t want intervention!’ I hear you pontificate. That may indeed be the received wisdom of Western ‘liberalism’, but a glance at the Arabic media reveals something less conveniently straightforward. As the Lebanese al-Akhbar reported on October 29th, the Syrian resistance is far from resolved on the question of intervention, with a significant and swelling faction decided firmly in its favour. The report cites regime opponents such as the journalist Fahd al-Masri and the veteran activist Haitham al-Maleh as examples of those for whom “military intervention is not just a possibility, it is practically a demand”. Indeed, when interviewed by al-Akhbar two weeks previously, al-Maleh put the case for intervention quite squarely:

We have no other option. This regime is forcing the people to resort to this game. The regime is committing two crimes: killing people, and forcing them to seek protection from international organizations. I called on Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi to solve the problem via the League. Otherwise, we have no choice but to turn to international organizations. Give us another option!

It isn’t difficult to see his point. For more than nine months, the world has watched as thousands of Syrian men, women and children have been beaten, gassed, gunned and bombed to their deaths for demanding a freer and more dignified existence. All this time, we have heard it said that Bashar is not his father; that Bashar is a reformer; that the solution lies in ‘dialogue’ and ‘patience’. Yet every promise of restraint has been followed only by more exorbitant murder – indeed, last Thursday, the army violated a ceasefire agreed with the Arab League on Wednesday by shelling the city of Homs with tanks, killing dozens. Other commentators have speculated that the regime will eventually collapse due to soldiers defecting, as was the case in Egypt and Libya. Though the number of defections does appear to be rising, a Syrian activist interviewed by NOW Lebanon last Monday complained that the lack of a Benghazi-style breathing space was the crucial difference in Syria:

“Any soldiers [sic] are afraid to defect right now, because there is no safe zone where they can go and organize to fight the regime. Nobody is protecting them. That is why we are asking for the international community to impose a buffer zone or a no-fly zone where these people can organize,” he said.

Again, the logic appears uncomplicated. Why then does the international community ignore these voices? Is it not a matter of elementary principle that, just as we would not impose intervention on an unwilling population, so we would not hesitate to intervene if that population should turn out to be willing?

Quite apart from such lofty moral considerations, need we be reminded of the practical dividends at stake? The dismantling of the Baathist dictatorship, well described by the Lebanese intellectual Samir Kassir as the synthesis of “the corruption of Soviet republics with a Chinese-style closed police state”1 (it was not by coincidence that Kassir was later blown up in his own car), would remove the principal enabler and arms supplier of Hizbullah, the Islamist militia and mafia that keeps a boot to the throat of secularism and democracy in Lebanon. It would remove a crucial ally of the lunatic theocracy in Iran, further isolating the tyrannical Ayatollahs and possibly even galvanising the moderate ‘Green Movement’ that was so ruthlessly steamrolled after the ‘elections’ in 2009. It could bring relief at last to the sizeable and long-repressed Kurdish minority in Syria, who have provided some of the bravest and most determined resistance to the regime in recent months, and who may even be able to attain a form of self-government in a post-Assad Syria, as they’ve done with much success in post-Saddam Iraq. And it would do away with two of the tiresome myths that give Western foreign policy so much undue bad press: namely, that policy is controlled by the oil lobby (since Syria hardly has any); and that policy is controlled by the Israel lobby (since a post-Assad Syria, with an enfranchised Sunni majority, would very probably find a friend in Hamas). It would, in other words, be a declaration of the West’s seriousness with respect to promoting democracy in the Middle East.

To those who state their preference for the ‘stability’ afforded by Assad’s autocracy over the ‘chaos’ that would be unleashed by his removal, one need only ask: what stability? Entire cities in Syria, including Dar’aa, Hama and especially Homs, are already war zones. Warnings that Islamist militants may launch attacks against religious minorities appear to have come too late: such attacks may already be happening, and the sectarian anxieties that fuel them are exacerbated, not relaxed, by the overwhelmingly Alawite character of the regime in general and the Republican Guard in particular (to say nothing of the staunch support voiced for the dictator by the luminaries of other minorities, such as the Syrian Orthodox church and the Maronite Patriarchate). As for fears that intervention will inevitably be followed by an Iraq-style occupation, we now have the precedent of Libya to attest otherwise.

Which isn’t to say that the case for intervention is bulletproof. The point is rather that Syria is facing ‘chaos’ with or without it. And even supposing, for argument’s sake, that a cost-benefit analysis of intervention is inconclusive at the present moment, two things ought to be made abundantly clear to Assad, and indeed all his fellow despots: that intervention will never be ruled out “absolutely”, and that not one second will be wasted in ruling it ‘in’ should the circumstances demand that we do so. 

1 Kassir, S., Being Arab (2006), p. 20

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