Syria’s intervening years

Looking at Syria three years after its time on the global stage.

By Hamid Bendaas

This month marks three years since political revolt in Syria escalated from a surprising instance of mass demonstrations into the civil war that has resulted in more than 150,000 casualties and over two million refugees. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has come under intense scrutiny for his excessive and indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations, most of all when his regime launched a chemical weapons attack in August 2013, killing hundreds of civilians. Any discussion of the political aspects of the war, as this will be, must be prefaced by consideration to the millions of lives affected for the worse by this war, the cities of orphans and widows, and the earnest wish on their behalf for a resolution, soon and just, to prefigure a land of lasting peace which properly serves its own people.

As witnesses to the first great humanitarian crisis of the 21st century and the internet age, we have been provided the novel ability to reach out and back in time to see the evolution of the crisis as it was perceived by the outside world and by those at its epicenter. With ease and with the advantage of hindsight, we can watch the breaking news coverage of the limited protests in mid-March, as well as the coverage in following weeks as news agencies slowly replaced the word “protest” with “uprising”. We can browse the Facebook page “The Syrian Revolution Against Bashar al-Assad 2011” and the first demonstrations they staged online and on the ground. March 15th, 2011: 268 going, 125 maybe. March 25th, 2011: 1,200 going, 132 maybe.  And yet, as disquieting as it is to see the coverage change as journalists, protestors and the Syrian government itself began to realize what the conflict was escalating into; perhaps most disturbing is that any resolution seems much further now than it did then, “with the glittering hope of peace fading with each passing day,” to borrow from Yasmeen Hussain’s (A.B. ’13) 15 Months Later.

The well-intentioned desire to bring a quick resolution to this conflict and save thousands of civilian lives in the process has led many to advocate for military intervention by the USA and by others. Particularly after the indiscriminate and heinous chemical weapons attack last August by Assad’s government, world leaders in the US, UK, and France began to promote the idea of retaliation of some sort, with proposals ranging from limited airstrikes to the greater commitment of enforcing regime change as had been done in Libya. Much of the public, fatigued by Western intervention in the Middle East and, in the US’s case, unilateral military actions, recoiled at such proposals.

That debate forced many of us, firmly confused about Syria’s consequences and solutions, to take a side. I chose then and have maintained a position against military intervention, though admittedly not without self-doubt. What used to be a clear-cut position to defend smaller nations’ sovereignty against possible exploitation—the principle that superpowers should not use their military might to topple regimes of weaker nations, regardless of whether that regime be dictatorial or antagonistic to the West—has become complicated, if not rendered obsolete, by the new reality that such dictators can now kill hundreds of thousands with “small” supplies of outdated weapons. “Mass killing is mass killing. Sometimes you may kill tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands with very primitive armaments,” al-Assad said in his interview with Charlie Rose—a statement which I hope he made with some amount of self-awareness. But if the anti-interventionism elaborated on above has been rendered obsolete, so then has the international community’s infatuation with weapons of mass destruction as the standard red line been rendered obsolete as well. I point all this out only to make clear that my position is that calls for intervention in Syria, even unilateral and extensive intervention before the August 2013 chemical weapons attack, can be well-intentioned and guided by humanitarian concerns.

I do not believe the same can be said for the calls for regime change which took place before 2011. I maintain a position against intervention today because I believe military intervention, even if supported by some people with good intentions, will fulfill the ugly intentions of another group of people, a group which has been requesting regime change in Syria for two decades. With a bit more searching, we can also reach back to see the machinations of this body of individuals, the neoconservative lobby in the United States. We can see, for example, undersecretary John Bolton inflating the nature of the Syrian threat, despite protestations by US intelligence officials. In spring 2003, against President Bush’s wishes, Congress passed the Syrian Accountability Act amidst a wave of calls by neoconservatives for the Bush administration to take a hard line on Syria and use “whatever techniques are necessary—including military force—to effect behavior modification and/or regime change in Damascus,” in the words of neoconservative Frank Gaffney. In The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, authors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, in their chapter “Taking Aim at Syria”, portray in great detail the tactics of the neoconservatives who have been seeking regime change in Syria long before the current humanitarian disaster; many of these neoconservatives had also played influential roles in the decision to seek regime change in Iraq.

One of the great lies that our generation has come to accept is expressed in their tone of exasperation regarding the Iraq War, as they ridicule the incompetence which led to the regrettable war in Iraq; we talk about it in terms of a waste of time and resources, as if we were talking about having bought an overripe banana. The Iraq war was not regrettable—it was reprehensible, and it was not the result of incompetence but rather a sinister calculation that has killed over half a million people. Already we have forgotten the years of preparation before 9/11, like the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which called for regime change and which was preluded by an open letter to President Clinton signed by prominent neoconservatives William Kristol, John Bolton, and Paul Wolfowitz. Bashar, like Saddam, is unquestionably an enemy to human rights and his own people, but the enemy of my enemy is in this case still my enemy, and a greater enemy; I cannot join the calls to forcibly overthrow al-Assad knowing what pleasure it would give the men who have been hoping for it since before I could speak. I do not know why this neoconservative lobby desires regime change in Syria and elsewhere. Professors Mearsheimer and Walt’s assessment that it has some connection to Israeli security interests seems odd now, given the Israel government’s seemingly divided view of Assad, “the devil [they] know.”

As conflicts drag on and more civilians are killed, the humanitarian calls for military intervention will grow, and I would be lying if I said I did not sympathize with those calls. But fear overrides my sympathy in this case. I fear my sympathy will become a tool for someone else’s malice, and I fear my support for opposition to one monster will simultaneously distract from and nourish a larger monster. I hope “the devil we know” is brought to justice, but for now I will keep in mind the devil whose knack is for making us forget him.

Hamid Bendaas is a third-year in the College majoring in political science.