Irvine, CA – Ramy Syed, the Syrian activist and videographer known as “Syriapioneer” – who was killed the other day by the Syrian government forces whose brutal violence he helped expose to the wider world – wasn’t a pioneer in the normal sense of the word.
He wasn’t the first person to use cell phone cameras and YouTube to show the world the horrific reality of state-sponsored violence against civilians. Egyptian activists have been showing videos of police torture for years, while Libyan activists last summer gave the world a front row seat to the protests, and then insurgency, against Gaddafi – whose own demise, or at least the moments surrounding it, were also filmed and broadcast for the world to witness via social media.
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But for the sheer volume of postings – 835 in total, the last four of them posthumous – and the brutality of the evil they depict, Syed had few equals. To watch just a handful of the videos he put up over the last seven months is to move beyond the increasingly politicised arguments over whether or not there should be outside military intervention to stop the bloodshed in Syria, and into the frame of blood and death that has come to define life for untold tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
Anyone who rejects intervention should spend half an hour on Syed’s video channel or Facebook page and see if they still hold the same view. Watching even a few videos gave me the same feeling I had last summer when speaking with Libyan refugees in Tunisia. Geopolitics and imperial games suddenly don’t matter as much; as a young woman talked about relatives under siege in Misrata or an elderly man talked of a grandson stranded in Benghazi, their voices shook as they implored listeners to persuade their governments to support the rebels.
No matter how jaded one might be about the “true” interests of US or European foreign policy, they seemed to pale in the face of the obvious need to “do” whatever possible to stop the bloodshed and ensure Gaddafi could “no longer kill his people with impunity”.
Even the loud echoes of the pre-invasion American discourse against Saddam Hussein couldn’t overpower the stories of suffering being so viscerally related by students, doctors, lawyers, homemakers, and pretty much every other sector of Libyan society that had made its way into Tunisia.
The images and stories conveyed a profound truth about the scope of intensity of the violence that could not be gainsayed, even if the chain of cause and effect – did Gaddafi’s violence against protesters spark the insurrection or did the insurrection spark large-scale government violence in response? – remained hazy and the goals of those offering help were suspect. After all, Libyans – and now Syrians – have as much right as everyone else to live free of a brutal state’s tyranny.
If it took an imperial power to stop the violence and oppression, so be it.
Or at least so many people thought.
“Libya offers a very cautionary tale about the long-term impact of even the most well-intentioned externally supported violence.”
Today it’s Syria that is seemingly disintegrating before the world’s view. Less than 48 hours after Ramy Syed died, two award-winning journalists were killed by Syrian army shelling in Homs, under perhaps the fiercest attacks of any Syrian city at the moment. One of them, Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin, wrote in one of her last dispatches of the “absolutely sickening” bloodshed and expectation of a massacre in the coming days.
Syed himself wrote in his final Skype message, “I don’t want to hear, ‘our hearts are with you’, while more people are murdred in Baba Amr. “No one will forgive you,” he warned the world if the rest of us stand idly by.
Yet as the violence in Syria escalates towards even more unbearable levels, Libya offers a very cautionary tale about the long-term impact of even the most well-intentioned externally supported violence. This is not merely because ultimately neither France, Britian nor the United States actually was ever interested in laying the foundation for a real democratic transition in Libya. That much was certain from the start, and the Libyan forces who accepted their help were likely not naïve in this regard.
Rather, because in toppling the existing system, and the state that functioned through it, the NATO-backed insurgency disintegrated networks of political, econonic and social power through which Libya had been governed for decades, and without which, as happened in Iraq in 2004, the fabric for a coherent national identity would be extremely hard to hold together.
In such a situation it was ludicrous to imagine that Gaddafi’s state could be replaced by a functioning new system in a matter of months, or even years. But again, this is not merely because of the internal difficulties of replacing one state with a particular set of interests, networks and constituencies with another quite different state. Other countries, from Eastern Europe to the Philippines or Indonesia have had fairly sudden and rapid, if incomplete, transitions from authoritarian to democratic systems. While some of them, particularly Indonesia, involved significant violence during their transition period, the transition to democracy was nonetheless more or less successful.
The answer lies in the larger international system in which the Libyan and now Syrian revolts are occurring. Quite simply, the assemblages of political, economic and strategic forces that make up the current world system make it all but impossible for any of the foreign powers who could intervene to do so in a way that would ultimately establish a functioning democratic system.
Iraq was the epitome of this dynamic. The so-called liberal opponents of the US invasion who nevertheless supported the occupation and even joined it to try to “fix it” or help rebuild Iraq were following then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s admonition that if the US broke Iraq, it would have to “own it”. As I saw while travelling in Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion, and in subsequent discussions with people who worked for the US, there were many people who genuinely thought they could help Iraq rebuild and construct a democratic system, even under foreign occupation.
Their naivete was as dangerous as it was inexcusable, as it gave a fig leaf to the occupation during the first two years when the US government was solidifying its presence and essentially taking the country’s political economy apart bit by bit. Indeed, there was a moment, at the start of the occupation, when a new public sphere erupted in which women and previously repressed groups participated in trying to shape a new political and public sphere.
But because most everyone who joined that sphere was dead-set against the US occupation, the US and its allies had no choice but to ignore or frustrate the aims of the incipient civil society and ally itself with whatever groups were willing to tolerate its presence, regardless of their democratic credentials. Indeed, as has been the case across the developing world, it was precisely the most conservative and least democratic elements that proved the most useful local allies.
And so it’s been with the Arab revolutions of the last year. Even if there are elements within the US or other Western governments who genuinely want to help build democracy – the employees of the National Democratic or International Republican institutes, or Freedom House in Egypt, for example – the structure of the larger system they serve makes that impossible. At best they serve at cross purposes with their core elements of the “deep state” that ultimately sets and executes policy, whether in the US or its Arab allies and adversaries. At worst they are merely puppets in a larger game of protecting the interests of elites on both sides who’ve been working together for decades to preserve the existing system.
The idea that great powers such as the US or Europe (Russia and China don’t bother with the facade of democracy promotion) can unleash their military power, which has for decades been crucial to creating and preserving such a dense web of violence, corruption and authoritarianism globally, for good remains a powerful and alluring fiction. This reality hasn’t stopped American officials and commentators from creating an entire industry around “humanitarian intervention”, most notably Obama Administration National Security Council official Samantha Power – whose job description for the NSC includes “Human Rights”, as if the NSC has ever or could ever promote human rights – who argued that the US and its allies had a unique obligation and ability to intervene military to stop mass murder or genocide, particularly in Libya.
Experts will long debate whether the foreign encouragement of insurgency and then intervention ultimately claimed fewer lives than Gaddafi’s brutal repression would have taken (similar arguments are being waged over previous NATO interventions in the former Yugoslavia). What is clear, however, is that the types of networks and relationships that the NATO intervention could develop to violently oust Gaddafi and dismantle his state were precisely the kind that could not work together to build a new, national consensus for the good of the large majority of Libyans.
“It might well be that foreign intervention is the lesser of two evils when it comes to stopping a regime that is becoming more murderous with each passing day.”
And so it will be in Syria, where any foreign military intervention will unavoidably empower the very forces and networks that, assuming they emerged victorious, will find it hardest to support a truly broad and democratic transition in Syria, one that would afford all citizens a fair and level political and economic playing field.
That is perhaps why, in his last message, in which he warned the international community it would not be forgiven for letting Syria descend into greater bloodshed, Ramy Syed did not directly call for military intervention. Rather, he declared that “we want all people in front of all embassies all over the world” protesting against the ongoing atrocities.
It might well be that foreign intervention is the lesser of two evils when it comes to stopping a regime that is becoming more murderous with each passing day (one new study by University of New Mexico professor Sharon Nepstad argues that non-violent resistance will likely not succeed if it can’t win the support of the military establishment, something unlikely to happen in Syria).
However, if foreign powers intervene, the only way that such intervention won’t end up producing another violent, corrupt and largely dysfunctional aftermath would be if it is the citizens of the countries who are demanding it, and remain as vigilant about supporting the aftermath of military intervention as Mr Syed hoped they would be in supporting the pro-democracy forces.
But this would demand an awareness of the realities of their countries’ foreign policy interests and practices that few Americans or Europeans have acquired. And if they got such knowledge, it would demand a much larger transformation in the political culture and economic structures of their own societies, which have always been intimately tied to support for authoritarianism and corruption abroad.
Given all that Ramy Syed sacrificed for bringing the reality of Assad’s death machine to the world, the least we all can do is heed his request and do our best to push our governments not merely to condemn and even intervene to stop the violence, but to change the ultimate goals behind their broader foreign policies, which for decades stood by while Assad father and then sun, ruled Syria with an iron hand as long in so doing he didn’t interfere with, and even preserved the regional and even global order against which the cries “The people want the downfall of the system!” are now being heard, in Syria and across the Arab world.
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).
Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming