Saturday, November 26, 2011

Hizbullah brings Lebanon once more to the brink of collapse

The Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced on Thursday that he will resign next week if a Cabinet meeting scheduled for November 30th fails to agree to fund the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the UN-backed court investigating the 2005 assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Other ministers, such as those of the National Struggle Front, loyal to Walid Jumblatt, now say that they will follow Mikati in that event. These are honourable decisions, not only in their commitment to international law (Article 5.1 of Security Council Resolution 1757, signed and agreed by the Lebanese government in 2007, makes it unequivocal that Lebanon will provide 49 percent of the funding of the STL), but in their obvious justice – how, after all, can one Prime Minister of Lebanon be expected not to endorse the punishment of the murderers of a previous Prime Minister?  

As things stand, twelve of the thirty Cabinet ministers have confirmed they will vote for the funding – six on Mikati’s behalf; three on President Michel Suleiman’s behalf and three on behalf of PSP leader, Walid Jumblatt. Mikati’s task, therefore, is to persuade four more to join his side. This may not be impossible – indeed, An-Nahar has cited “informed sources” as saying that as many as five more will “most likely” vote with him (from the Tashnag, Marada and Lebanese Democratic Party seats) – but there are reasons to be pessimistic. Hizbullah, the most powerful faction in Lebanese politics despite having only two official seats in the Cabinet, has repeatedly denounced the entire tribunal as an American-Zionist conspiracy, a position that its Minister of State, Mohammad Fneish, described on Thursday as unchanged. And Michael Aoun, whose Free Patriotic Movement commands seven seats, has promulgated the absurd falsehood that Lebanon isn’t even legally bound to pay its share of the funding in the first place. These are forces against which the undecided members of Cabinet will not act without reluctance. 

If, then, the majority votes against funding, and Mikati keeps his word and resigns, the Lebanese government will once again cease to exist, and once again it will be the people who pay the price. According to “ministerial sources” quoted in the Daily Star, “it will be difficult if not impossible to form a new government” after this one, meaning that that price could be very extortionate indeed. The irony that this ‘March 8’ coalition was brought down for the same reason, by the same party, that felled its ‘March 14’ predecessor is one that should not be missed by the Lebanese people, who will have to suffer all over again for that party’s arrogant intransigence. For if the Cabinet puts its interests before the country’s and votes ‘no’, will it ever have been plainer that there cannot be a Lebanese government so long as there is a boneheaded gang called Hizbullah pulling the strings? A militia that exploits its illegal arsenal to negate the country’s obligations under international law; to insult the sovereignty of the national army; to recklessly endanger the lives of Lebanese civilians with its unilateral attacks on Israel; to force Islamic law on drink merchants in the south; and to show nothing but loathing and contempt for the democratic process in general? In a week that has seen their brothers and sisters in Egypt, Syria and Bahrain escalate their courageous struggle for liberation, it’s high time the Lebanese reassessed their devotion to the Mubaraks, Assads and Khalifas amongst their own purported ‘leadership’.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Jeffrey Goldberg enables extremists by denial of Israel's theocracy

Reviewing the Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg’s new book, The Unmaking of Israel, in last week’s New York Times, the Atlantic columnist and author Jeffrey Goldberg took care to get his apology in early for the mild criticism he was about to make of the Israeli settler movement, beginning by saying:

Let me list, at the outset, the many things that the diminutive but disproportionately interesting state of Israel is not [...] Israel is not a fascist state, nor is it a theocracy nor, for that matter, is it a fascist theocracy.

Leave to one side the redundancy of those last nine words, and put off for another day the question of Israeli fascism, which is in any case not an easy term to define. What is most inadmissible about this sentence is the way it denies the perennial and impermeable divide within Israeli society about the religious character of the state, and by extension undermines the millions of secular Israelis who have to fight every day – not always with much success – to repel the swelling tides of the ultra-Orthodox right wing. As Goldberg knows well, having lived in Israel himself, the suggestion that the Israeli legem terrae is free from religious interference might assuage the anxieties of Zionists in America, but it would meet with ridicule from Israeli Jews – to say nothing, of course, about Israeli Arabs.

The briefest glance at the headlines of Haaretz, Israel’s best-known Anglophone newspaper, suffices to make the point. ‘New rabbinical courts will lead to oppression of women’, read an editorial this week, condemning a move to reduce women’s rights in the country’s powerful religious courts (the mere existence of which provokes some curiosity, does it not?). ‘Fighting to make Israel into a military theocracy’ went another one earlier in the month, explaining how “the hesder yeshivas, which combine army service with Torah study, were making a concerted effort – in conjunction with the IDF rabbinate – to create a theocratic military culture”. Just substitute the words ‘Torah’ and ‘IDF rabbinate’ with ‘Qur’an’ and ‘Ayatollahs’, and try to imagine Goldberg coolly assuring New York liberals that this was a secular state of affairs. A similar editorial in June, ‘Israel needs to keep religion out of the army’, lamented that Israel was “turning from a secular country into a theocracy in which the rabbis set the rules”. 

Lengthy indeed would be the task of listing all the ways in which this phenomenon is occurring. I shall restrict myself, therefore, to just three examples of what are unequivocally theocratic characteristics of the Israeli state. 

Firstly, there are separate courts for religious and secular matters. Arbiters in the battei din, or religious courts, are rabbis, and the law applied is the halakha, or Jewish law, derived from the Torah and the Talmud. This is no different in principle from the situation in Saudi Arabia, which also divides jurisdiction between civil and religious courts, the latter of which uphold the shari’a, or Islamic law, derived from the Qur’an and the Hadith. (If Goldberg believes the Kingdom to be a secular country, I’m not aware of his having said so.) In Israel, the battei din are invested with substantial power, including total control over marriage – as in Saudi, there is no civil marriage in Israel, meaning that non-believing citizens must travel abroad to tie the knot – and divorce. In addition, there exist in Israel de facto supplementary religious courts, such as the Takana, which handles crimes committed by the clergy and, not unlike the Vatican, tends to prefer to keep things ‘within the family’ where possible. As the Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy put it:

A high school teacher at a secular school who sexually assaults his students would be turned over to the police. A rabbi at a yeshiva [religious school] suspected of the same thing would be turned over to Takana. Perish any connection between them, but the criminal underworld also has its own judicial system with the means to investigate and punish. In that respect, there is no difference between the underworld and Takana.

Secondly, the laws concerning immigration are explicitly religious in both letter and spirit. The text of the amended ‘Law of Return 5730-1970’ defines a “Jew” as “a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion”, and grants any such person the automatic right to citizenship. This definition, as the great Israeli polymath Israel Shahak noted in his seminal Jewish History, Jewish Religion, comes directly from the halakha, being:

[T]he Talmudic definition of ‘who is a Jew’, a definition followed by Jewish Orthodoxy. The Talmud and post-Talmudic rabbinic law also recognise the conversion of a non-Jew to Judaism (as well as the purchase of a non-Jewish slave by a Jew followed by a different kind of conversion) as a method of becoming Jewish, provided that the conversion is performed by authorised rabbis in a proper manner. This ‘proper manner’ entails, for females, their inspection by three rabbis while naked in a ‘bath of purification’, a ritual which, although notorious to all readers of the Hebrew press, is not often mentioned by the English media in spite of its undoubted interest for certain readers.1

One assumes that Goldberg would be less than thrilled if Congress passed a law granting instant green cards for all Jewish converts to Christianity, and indeed Levy has argued that the Israeli legislation amounts not only to theocracy but to racism as well:

It's time to admit that this approach can only be called racist. Yes, that hackneyed term. That's what it is when it is the blood flowing through the veins that determines your status. If the grandson of a woman whose Judaism is doubtful has the right to automatic citizenship when he arrives here from the ends of the earth, and a non-Jewish soldier who chose to fight and live here runs into rabbinic obstacles, then this is not just judgment by religious law, but judgment by racist law. If the Arab native is an outcast, but a member of the "Tribe of Menasseh" from Burma is welcomed with full rights simply because a rabbi said he was Jewish, then this is a benighted theocracy.

Thirdly, and most gravely, as Goldberg no doubt recalls from his own stint in the IDF, the laws concerning military service are different for secular and religious Israelis. In their indispensable book, Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky draw attention to the frightening world of the hesder yeshivot, the religious corps, who serve not for three years, as do other soldiers, but for eighteen months, divided into three six-month periods, in between which they “leave the army for a six-month period of talmudic study in a yeshiva wherein the presumably negative influences of having met secular Jewish soldiers are supposedly countered”2. As might be expected, the scheme of training religious fanatics in the use of state-of-the-art military equipment is not without its demerits. They elucidate:

Soldiers in Hesder Yeshivot units [...] distinguished themselves during the suppression of the Intifada; they were noted for their cruelty to Palestinians, which was from many perspectives much more severe than the Israeli army average [...] When the army commanding officers have wanted to inflict especially cruel punishment upon Palestinians or others, they have most often relied upon and used religious soldiers. In more ordinary companies, consisting of soldiers holding varying political views, some members might object to illegal cruelty and even inform media people of its use. In Hesder Yeshivot units the religious soldiers, who are anyway more cruel than most secular Jews, will not object to the orders.3

A perpetually baffling fact of American writing on Israel is how markedly it differs from its Israeli counterpart. The works of Israelis like Shahak and Levy are infused with everything the intellectual descendents of Thomas Jefferson should celebrate: unswerving commitment to reason, democracy and secularism, undergirded by a visceral contempt for injustice. Why then is their voice so persistently ignored? One of the things that has to happen in order for there to be peace in Israel is that, in the battle for the national identity, the secularists must win and the theocrats must lose (the same must happen, incidentally, on the eastern side of Jerusalem). By denying that such a battle is being waged in the first place, Goldberg only further isolates the secular camp and clears the path for the Liebermans and Lubavitchers. Let us hope that Israelis – and their sponsors in America – have more sense than to listen to him.

1 Shahak, I., Jewish History, Jewish Religion (4th edition, 2008), p. 5
2 Shahak, I., and Mezvinsky, N., Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel (2nd edition, 2004), p. 91
3 Ibid.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Istanbul, graveyard of empires

That the description of being ‘where east meets west’ is applied to so many cities – ranging as vastly in look and location as from Sarajevo to Singapore – is of course an indictment of its essential vapidity. But to the extent that it's true of any city, it is surely truest of Istanbul, that ancient imperial capital with its spinal Bosphorus river across which the lands of Europe and Asia are quite literally ‘bridged’. In this distinction – of being a single city adjoining two continents – Istanbul is unique. Less trivially, and not coincidentally, it has the further unique distinction of being the former seat of four epochal empires – Roman; Byzantine; Latin; and Ottoman – making it in effect the global centre of power for more than 1,500 consecutive years. That these empires (as we sometimes forget) were officially faith-based gives the city the additional distinction of being the only former capital of both Christendom and the Islamic caliphate. And finally, in its latest form within the borders of modern Turkey, its people were the first in history to have thrown out the Islamic shari’a in favour of a secular constitution. 

The city today bears the stamp of each of these origins, if in different ways and to uncertain extents. To take them broadly in order, the ‘European’ cloth of the tapestry is evident from the moment one steps into Atatürk International, which flexes the bulk and polish of a Schiphol or a Gatwick without the gilded glitz of, say, a Dubai. On the roads, the restraint and consideration shown to fellow drivers are truly foreign to anyone accustomed to the Middle East, as is the thoughtfully built and efficiently run public transportation system. The food, on the other hand, is unmistakeably ‘Asian’, as the faintest whiff of the Eminönü Spice Bazaar will confirm. Indeed, much of what is now eaten in the Arab world descends from traditional Ottoman cuisine: from the döner (shawarma in Arabic) and the şiş kebap (shish kabab) to the baklava sweets (baqlawa) and more (the Arabs were able to return the favour with their lahm b’ajin, the meat pastry now rendered in Turkish as lahmacun). In terms of dress, there’s been a good deal of cross-pollination, with about as many heels and skirts as headscarves and skull caps (on which more later). Perhaps above all else, it’s in the language that the cultural DNA is most nakedly revealed: distinctly Balkan to the ear, the vocabulary is nevertheless replete with loanwords not only from Arabic and Persian (including the most basic of all, merhaba, from the Arabic marhaba) but also from the West (one purchases a jeton to ride the tram, for instance). These adopted words persist despite attempts since the formation of the Republic in the 1920s to replace them with ‘purer’ Turkish equivalents – an initiative that also brought about the enforced Latinisation of the old Ottoman script. As we shall see, this is not the only way in which the Turks have not entirely taken to the ‘Reforms’ imposed by Atatürk. 

In the 4th century AD, around the same time that Constantine ‘The Great’ was making Christianity the state religion of the Roman empire, the need was felt for a new capital east of Rome to address the vast territorial gains made in that direction. It was decided that the strategically-located city then known as Byzantion best met the requirements, and what was to become Constantinople was in fact briefly named Nea Roma, or ‘New Rome’. Much of the city as it was then remains visible in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul today, from the Hippodrome with the surviving section of the Serpent Column to the Basilica Cistern now lying beneath Yerebatan Street. But the most striking creation of what became the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, empire was the Hagia Sophia cathedral completed in the 6th century during the reign of the emperor Justinian. 
Egyptian obelisk in the Hippodrome

Basilica Cistern

Hagia Sophia/Ayasofya 'Museum'

This magnificent building - whose signature dome would inspire the Sultanahmet and Süleymaniye mosques a thousand years later, and which was in fact itself later converted into a mosque by Sultan Mehmet II - was by far the largest of its kind worldwide; a record it held for nine centuries until the building of the Saint Mary cathedral in Seville. After five hundred years as the ‘Ayasofya’ mosque, it was eventually stripped of its religious status by Atatürk and is today strictly referred to as a ‘museum’, much to the fury of fundamentalist Christians and Muslims alike.

Indeed, the ‘museum’ is nothing if not a damning testament to religious hatred and tyranny. Repeatedly sacked and pillaged throughout its existence – by the Islamic invaders but more devastatingly by the Catholic Crusaders (whose loathing of the Orthodox Church is still very much alive in eastern Europe today) – it’s a wonder the thing still stands at all. In addition to the four minarets added to the exterior by the Ottomans, inside one finds Islamic calligraphy on great black discs crudely affixed like cheap stickers to the walls, in places just metres from the original Christian mosaics. And the mosaics themselves tell a sordid story of their own; many of them depicting Christ and Mary shoulder to shoulder with Constantine and Justinian – brazen attempts to deify the emperors and thus render themselves, and their authority, infallible. That the Byzantine empire turned out to be very much fallible, and that it was an orgy of violence and despotism while it lasted, is a lesson in humility that far too few religions appear to have learned (not least of them Catholicism, which actually does still use the word ‘infallible’ in official descriptions of the pope).

Inside the Hagia Sophia/Ayasofya

Christian mosaics behind Islamic calligraphy
From left to right: Constantine, Mary, Jesus, Justinian

Of course, Atatürk couldn’t convert every house of worship into a museum, and the two most marvellous mosques still in use – the Sultanahmet, or ‘Blue’ one to the east of the Hippodrome; and the Süleymaniye one further to the west – have generously been made open to the public free of charge (entrance to the Hagia Sophia/Ayasofya costs 20 TL, or $11). These skyline-defining structures, exquisitely sculpted of marble and granite, are examples not only of the egos of the Sultans Ahmet and Süleyman (‘The Magnificent’) but also of the genius of the architect Mimar Sinan, the ‘Michelangelo of the East’, whose legacy extends from the Tekkiye Mosque in Damascus to the Sokolović Bridge in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Yet perhaps the most interesting relic of the Islamic period is the colossal Topkapi Palace, personal residence of the Sultan and seat of the Ottoman government from the 15th to the 19th centuries. 
Sultanahmet Mosque

Süleymaniye Mosque
Entrance to Topkapi Palace

Built on the ruins of the ancient Great Palace of Constantinople, the grounds of what we now call the Topkapi Palace Museum - which effectively comprise an entire borough of the city – are the very height of Ottoman glory and greed; containing not just the old living quarters of the Sultan and his 4,000-strong support staff, but a mosque, a Byzantine church, a library, a treasury, a hospital, a mint, and over a hundred acres of gardens and courtyards. Within these walls can be found an 86-carat diamond; thrones made of solid gold and ebony; emeralds and rubies the size of golf balls; and the most exquisite porcelain of China. One can also find several purported belongings of the Prophet Muhammad, including his swords; his cloak; a tooth and even the individual hairs of his beard (why anyone should want to see these, I couldn’t say). Most famously, one can also find the Harem; the private quarters where the Sultan lived in the company of his hundreds of concubines. These often very young women were bought, donated or simply stolen into slavery and put to whatever use the Sultan desired. A New York Times article elucidates the grotesque way in which the girls were forced to feign interest in their owner and master:

At times up to 300 young women lived here, most of them in tiny cubicles, including four wives, the favorite concubines, the young up-and-coming odalisques. Harem girls were captured in wars or bought as slaves; some were offered by their parents. Russian and Georgian girls were considered great beauties and much in demand. [The Sultan’s] Mother apparently had the first choice and alloted the girls different tasks so that they might or might not be noticed. If you were an odalisque you could try to catch the sultan's eye when you served his coffee or when he called for the girls to parade and perform dances for him. If he offered you his handkerchief, you knew.

One must never forget that this monstrous combination of slavery and rape is wholly licensed by the tenets of Islam. The Qur’an makes repeated reference to slaves as ma malakat aymankum, or ‘what your right hands possess’, e.g., Suras 4:24; 23:5-6; 70:29-35:

And all married women (are forbidden unto you) save those (captives) whom your right hands possess.

[The believers are those] who guard their modesty, save from their wives or the (slaves) that their right hands possess, for then they are not blameworthy.

And those who preserve their chastity, save with their wives and those whom their right hands possess [...] These will dwell in Gardens, honoured.

Muhammad himself had a number of concubines – indeed, the canonical tafsir, or exegesis, of Ibn Kathir tells the illuminating tale of Maria the Copt, the concubine whom Muhammad swore never again to see after his wife Hafsa found the pair of them in bed. “Why bannest thou that which Allah hath made lawful for thee, seeking to please thy wives”? was the Almighty’s contemptuous response (Sura 66:1). Thus the Ottoman Sultans, in consigning thousands of girls to lives of abuse and abjection, were in fact only following the example of their moral and spiritual tutor. 

Which seems as good a reason as any to celebrate the day in 1924 when the inaugural President of the Republic of Turkey put a stop to all that forever, abolishing the caliphate and establishing the first secular country of the former Muslim world. That state would quickly go on to grant equal rights to women in things like education and marriage; outlaw the degrading practice of polygamy; and give its female population the vote long before supposedly enlightened nations such as France and Canada would do the same. The social and economic dividends of these revolutionary steps were suggested by Turkey’s joining of NATO in 1952 (it remains the only Muslim-majority country in the organisation) and its candidacy – recognised in 1999 - for membership of the European Union. 

Today, however, these hard-won gains face a threat that cannot easily be exaggerated. Never entirely accepted by the Turks from the start, over the years Atatürk’s constitution has had to be upheld by a powerful military establishment that can be as ruthless as it needs to be against its enemies, perceived or actual. Or at least that was the case until July of this year, when in an event that went largely unnoticed outside the country – and is still not nearly well enough appreciated - the entire leadership of the armed forces simultaneously resigned. This major and unprecedented move, described by the Milliyet columnist Asli Aydintasbas as “the symbolic moment when the first Turkish republic ends and the second republic begins”, was in response to the arrests of dozens of generals on what may or may not be fabricated charges of plotting to overthrow the government. The man behind all this, of course, is the Prime Minister and top Atatürk-despiser, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

An incredible amount of loose talk has it that Turkey strikes the ideal balance between the secular and the Islamic (when Rachid Ghannouchi’s Ennahda party won last month’s elections in Tunisia, for example, he cited the Turkish “reconciliation between Islam and modernity” as though to negate fears about his own non-secular proclivities). Yet Erdoğan’s entire political career, from the day he joined the now-banned Islamist ‘National Salvation Party’ as a teenager, has been focused on advancing the former at the expense of the latter. 

As the Mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, elected on the Islamist ‘Welfare Party’ ticket (also now banned), Erdoğan illegalised the sale of alcohol in city-owned establishments. Having presumably been on the military’s hit list for some time, the man describing himself as a “servant of the shari’a was eventually arrested and imprisoned in 1998 for the somewhat ridiculous crime of ‘inciting religious hatred’ for reading a poem at a rally that contained the lines:

The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the believers our soldiers.

Since coming to high office in 2003, Erdoğan has, to borrow a phrase used by Patrick Cockburn in another context, done as much harm as he can and as much good as he must. His ‘Justice and Development’ party attempted to criminalise adultery in 2004, a blatantly Islamist move defended by Erdoğan as a question of “human honour”. At a NATO summit in 2009, the Turkish delegation made enemies of everyone in the room when it threatened to veto the appointment of the Danish Prime Minister, Anders Rasmussen, to the post of Secretary-General, on the preposterous and fascistic grounds that he had not censored the publication of the Muhammad cartoons in the Danish media – something the Danish constitution would not have allowed him to do even if he had wanted to. This sinister piece of galling impertinence led the French Foreign Minister to publicly withdraw his support for Turkey’s EU bid. And while Erdoğan has become something of a hero in the Arab world for (rightly) standing up to the Israelis, his defence of Palestine rests on the insulting notion of it as an ‘Islamic’ territory. Certainly, he seems to mind much less about slaughter and military occupation when the subjects of Armenia, Cyprus or Kurdistan are brought up – not to mention that he’s happy enough in the company of mass-murderers such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (“my good friend”) and Omar al-Bashir, whom he defended from the charges brought against him by the International Criminal Court by saying it was “not possible for a Muslim to commit genocide”. 

And then of course there is the drink question. Happily, the ban from the ‘90s has been repealed, but Erdoğan has never been one to give up easily on the imperatives of moral policing. Indeed, for the fruits of the grape and grain he appears to reserve especial distaste. After yet again raising taxes on alcohol in October, his advice for disgruntled drinkers was to “consume less alcohol”, echoing the call he made last year for Turks to eat grapes rather than drink wine. The courts had to get involved in 2007 to block a proposal to create designated “red zones” outside the cities in which alcoholic venues could be quarantined. While I was able to get a glass of raki easily enough in the famously convivial Beyoğlu district, the atmosphere was slightly but perceptibly diminished by the brand new law banning outdoor seating. This of course came after a series of restrictions introduced in January on things like advertising alcohol and the way in which it may be served at events (not for free, and not to anyone younger than 24). That package was to spark one of the most heartening sights of the year: crowds of protesters gathered in city centres across the country, each man and woman equipped with a brimming tumbler of tipple, in what they called a “drinking action” demonstration. To irk the forces of clerical fascism and get jolly drunk in the process is as fine a day’s work as any. 

There are still a lot of Turks, in other words, for whom secularism and individual liberties mean a great deal (there had, after all, been a number of rather larger rallies in 2007, when over a million people took to the streets to protest the presidential nomination of Erdoğan’s ally, Abdullah Gül). Whether they outnumber their more pious compatriots, however, is unclear. Peter Hitchens – a man with whom I very often disagree – made the interesting observation that while in the seriously Islamist country of Iran, the young women have a healthy contempt for the veil, in Turkey a very ugly kind of zealous conservatism appears to have become the fashion:

The Iranian women mock the headscarf as they wear it, pushed as far back as possible on the head, revealing as much bleached-blonde, teased hair as the piety police will allow. 

Their message is: 'The law can make me wear this, but it cannot make me look as if I want to.' The young Turks, by contrast, are saying: 'This is how I want to look, even if the law says I cannot.' For the scarf is banned by law in many universities and in government offices, and they view this ban as a challenge they must defy. 

There is no simpler way of making the point that, while Iran is a secular country with a Muslim government, Turkey is a Muslim country with a secular government. 

If Turkey truly hopes to be a First World nation, it would do well to start taking large strides away from, rather than toward the ideals that have turned life in the great Persian nation into a waking nightmare. And unless it wishes to lose its few remaining secular friends, it will have to come to terms with being the graveyard of the Islamic empire, and not the soil of its rebirth.

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