Dictatorship, military intervention and false binaries in Syria

Any external military intervention would devastate Syria due to intended and unintended consequences, writes scholar.

Free Syrian Army
Unless regime brutality reaches even higher levels prior to the intervention, it will be counter-productive [REUTERS]

Washington DC – 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) to 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, well, 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 10-month crushing of independent protesters. 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 10 months of uprising. It baldly erases the decades of oppression, detention, imprisonment, silencing, excommunication and torture that the regime has dealt to the mere hint of opposition. That regime which turns 50 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 centres 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 polarisation.

After the 2000 succession of Bashar Asad and eventually his team of “liberlisers”, the Syrian Baath (out of all places) introduced what they called the Social Market Economy in 2005 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-centred 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 those corrupt but functioning institutions of the state, combined with continued notorious mismanagement of the economy, became a recipe for social unrest.

The scant rainfall during the past decade caused massive migration and loss of jobs in the country side, 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 didn’t all start in March 2011. Beneath the serene and comforting streets of Damascus and Aleppo 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 honourable 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 counts.

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 ever be the regime’s priority. Clearly, the Syrian National Council (SNC) will not be any better on this count – in fact, it 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 holstering of various legitimate regional causes, or the “cause”, as a subterfuge for its horrendous domestic repression created resentment even among the “causes'” proponents.

Many Syrians are fed up with this duplicity that has come at their expense. They may even appear uninterested in regional issues and calculations. Many in the pro-“resistance” camp read this deprioritisation 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 motive force of self-preservation. It is none other than the regime that has given birth to this informing imperative of self-preservation.

Imperialism is not the only issue for the regime or for the protesters

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 the current conditions are part of a conspiracy.

Again, it is the Syrian regime’s brutality since March 2011 and before that has created the conditions for the street’s increasing support for foreign intervention to stop the killing. Certainly, some may have had ulterior motives, connections or designs and supported intervention all along. But the majority of those calling for intervention have been brutalised into doing so. They are not thinking in terms of supporting or opposing imperialism at this time.

Let us imagine a wild scenario where the United States was going to intervene to stop the Israeli massacre of Palestinians in Gaza in January 2009. Would Gazans, under daily bombs and bullets, object on the grounds of the US record of imperialism? Or perhaps, Gazans would 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 not be entertaining ideology and geostrategic reflexivity as the skies rained death. Moreover, even if, in this wild scenario, Gazan acceptance of external intervention was perhaps short-sighted, it would be patently ridiculous to claim that all such Gazans were part of an imperialist conspiracy. Imperialism is not always the issue for everyone. To not recognise 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 prioritise 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.

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. If they engage in or enable resistance to imperialism, which the Syrian regime has certainly done more than any other in the region of late, that’s all the better. If not, well, staying alive is good enough, even if it required 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: if it can engage in promoting democracy, that’s 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 objective was never to create democratic regimes, but compliant ones.

Inside Story: The cost of Syria’s crackdown

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 it proceed from the best interests of, say, the United States’ or Israel’s foreign policy establishments and their proponents?

This is not to mention an entire coterie of actors like Saudi Arabia and their minions, various European countries and what is left of the Lebanese March 14th movement. The call for the downfall of authoritarianism is as, stated above, rational and just. But we must be necessarily weary when it is the likes of Elliot Abrams behind the call for democracy.

Why foreign intervention is loathed

Protecting and defending authoritarianism on the political grounds that it serves resistance has become desperately short sighted from a the very-same pro-resistance perspective. By the same token, to not understand the implications and consequences of foreign intervention in Syria at this moment is patently short sighted. This moment of regional turmoil and unsavoury political alignments linking the worst in the foreign policies of “east” and “west”, dating several 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 and Saudi Arabia and their chorus, as an occasion to accomplish their own objectives in the region – reactionary ones, to be sure, in terms of the interests of most people in the region as the decades behind us attest, and as the current uprisings against the “fruits” of such objectives make clearer even to some skeptics. That does not mean, 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 should not come, however, at the expense of Syrian lives. Since the mid-20th century, when mainly European designs for dominating and influencing the countries or politics of the region through schemas such as the Baghdad Pact, Syria was an important regional prize, but mostly in a passive manner. After Hafez Asad took power in what is called the “Corrective Movement” in 1970-1971, Syria became a more fortified regional actor that not only determined its own internal politics, but also those of other countries at times.

Notably, Syria became a leading member in what was called the rejectionist front. That front sought to confront Israel without succumbing to bi-lateral “peace” plans that did not aim at 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 jet-fighters in a pathetic air 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 Hezbollah and Hamas, Syria became the last and only state confronting Israel.

Regionally, the Syrian regime acquired a reputation of bravado. This was not because it actively fought Israel’s outlaw behaviour and racism. It was because all the other Arab states were, more or less, wimps, to use a sophisticated word (though some say they were rational, we’ll leave at that for now).

In 1993, Syria’s stance as 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 various Arab countries and Israel, notably Qatar and Morocco. When Gaddafi paid off the UK and the US for being a bad boy and promptly joined the community of lawful nations. It was none other than the great intellect of George W Bush that deemed Gaddafi as a model of sorts. By the mid-2000’s, the Syrian regime was the only remaining Arab country that would not pay lip service to the United States.

It did more than that. The Syrian regime continued to support resistance to the Israeli occupation by supporting Hezbollah 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-Hezbollah-Iran axis that constitutes the most formidable challenge. Taking out Syria as it stands would weaken Hezbollah and isolate Iran, the big prize. With Syria out of the way, Hezbollah 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 the Syrian authoritarianism at the same time that it oppresses Kurdish resistance, Turkey would have to balance two conflicting desires. On the one hand, the Turkish administration hopes to nourish its 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 in its drive to isolate the Syrian regime.

Syria is being used by various powers… to accomplish their own objectives in the region [AFP]

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. In sum, these actors are certainly more violent, discriminatory and anti-democratic, in reality and in terms of their collective or individual long-term vision for the region.

In unity, there’s strength! Whether one supports the Syrian regime or not, the fall of the Syrian regime is more than the fall of the Syrian regime. That does not mean that it should not be opposed or overthrown by domestic means. I have argued elsewhere (1, 2) that 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 means, including external military intervention, is extremely reckless 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. It will exponentially increase the death toll of Syrians in absolute and relative terms without achieving any discernable conclusive outcome. Moreover, the external factor will reignite another local and regional struggle rather than simply end domestic authoritarian rule and pave the way for democratic development.

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.

Ideological considerations aside, the magnitude of the complexity and mayhem can be discerned simply by anticipating a conflict that will involve Iran, Hezbollah 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 question of no-fly-zones that is considered the ask by many, as opposed to full scale military intervention, it has become safe to say that a no-fly zone is a code of sorts for more active military intervention in practice, as the case of Libya makes clear.

The residual problem with this article

Not to be outdone by this article, it is crucial to point to a flaw, or lack, within it, and to introduce a anti-climactic caveat. First, I must admit that the tenor of the position elaborated in the lines above lacks a clear agency (e.g., institution/party/movement) that might convert it to a real and actionable path. The Syrian National Council is certainly not it. But that has never been the object of debate. Hence, this article is a very modest and hopelessly insufficient attempt at engendering a discussion about locating or catalysing such a collective.

According to independent organisers and protesters on the ground in Syria, there is room for the growth and effectiveness of a truly democratist opposition that is not always in line with the SNC. True, both parties may be benefitting from each other for their own purposes today, but there is growing concern among many activists on the ground about where the SNC is headed and how it is run, now and in the longer term.

This tension, which is also evident between the SNC and other smaller opposition groups outside Syria, has not become explicit yet. Perhaps the most bright ray of light are the reports that the larger part 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 is that no one outside the SNC and part of the domestic opposition is calling for external intervention in a inexorable manner. That 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’s because of the low pay-offs, and a bit of cynicism, among the anti-Syrian (regime, geostrategic importance, and people) camp.

First, Syria is not Iraq or Libya. It does not have ample natural resources to be used as mortgage for future reimbursement for the “noble” deed (the West’s got to stop liberating people!). Second, unrest in Syria may potentially spill over 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 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.

Finally, as the venerable Kissinger used to say in the 1980s (I’m paraphrasing), let the Iranians and Iraqis kill each other into impotence, for it facilitates things for the United States thereafter. Thus, some would like the Syrians to continue killing each other for a while longer. They would be happy to see Syria weakening even further its institutions and infrastructure while exacerbating social/political divisions and undercutting possibilities of collective action for a long time to come.

Syria’s long-term trajectory after the Baath had fallen is an unknown quantity regarding the question of resistance, anti-imperialism and the struggle for restoring the Golan. So, from their perspective, why not wait for Syria and Syrians to disempower themselves further instead of having a swift conclusion? 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 continue. 

Bassam Haddad is Director of the Middle East Studies Program and teaches in the Department of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University, and is Visiting Professor at Georgetown University. He serves as Founding Editor of the Arab Studies Journal a peer-reviewed research publication and is co-producer/director of the award-winning documentary film, About Baghdad, and director of a critically acclaimed film series on Arabs and Terrorism, based on extensive field research/interviews. He is the author of  Business Networks in Syria: The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience (Forthcoming, 2011, Stanford University Press). Bassam is also Co-Founder/Editor of Jadaliyya Ezine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.