Two years ago, when Syrians rose up against the brutal military dictatorship that had ruled their country for the past four decades, few could have imagined that their homeland would turn into a proxy battlefield for great powers pursuing their own vendettas.
While conventional wisdom suggests that the Syrian Revolution has been “lost” – hijacked by jihadists and crushed underfoot by foreign repression – this interpretation of events happens to be vociferously disputed by many Syrians themselves. In many places across the country, the same groups of people who originally launched popular protests against the regime are still largely in control of their struggle, and many fighters doing battle against the government are not ideologically affiliated with extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Jabhat al-Nusra.
Simply put, the argument that the democratic Syrian revolution no longer exists is fallacious. For all the excesses that have been committed by the opposition over the past two tragic years, most Syrians have maintained their principles and continued their popular struggle in the face of Herculean odds. In their fight for self-determination they should be supported using every means available, but in doing so the revolution for which so many have died should not be robbed from them.
Should the West go to war with Assad?
It is in light of the continuing revolution that the prospect of Western military intervention in Syria should be considered. For all its stated intentions, the reality is that the United States has distinct geopolitical interests in the region and if it goes to war against the Assad regime, it could end up as the arbiter of the Syrian people’s destiny. As pointed out by many Syrian observers, allowing the West to take control of the revolution would be little different than ceding control of it to foreign jihadists. Both have an agenda alien to that of Syrians themselves, and both would simply use the country as a platform upon which to pursue their own pre-existing goals.
Syrians rose up with aspirations in mind that were higher than simply being used by the United States to strike a blow against Iran or Russia, or being used as a security buffer for Israel. If the principles upon which the uprising were founded are subjugated to the craven manipulations of outsiders, it will be an insult to all those who have given their lives over the past two years. The claim that the US would be involved as a benevolent, altruistic actor flies in the face of recent history, but even if Syria’s situation is viewed as sui generis such a view does not stand up well to scrutiny.
Before the recent chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, more than 14 chemical weapons attacks have been recorded in the country, in addition to the deaths of 100,000 other Syrians who have been killed by conventional means since the uprising started. Should the US administration’s claim that this specific event marked a “red line” be taken at face value, there needs to be some substantiation of what makes this moment different from the others. If, as Secretary of State John Kerry claimed in a recent speech, scenes he witnessed on social media compelled him to action, it stands to reason that he could have reached the same conclusion years ago, as similarly terrible scenes have been tragically abundant since the conflict started.
The reason US involvement is being debated today can be understood only when viewed through the prism of the country’s interests, specifically in regards to escalating tensions with Russia and the need to maintain the geopolitical credibility of its military threats. Indeed, this is how the debate has been framed by most American policymakers, aside from the necessarily emotional case made to the public. Although there is nothing inherently nefarious about this from the perspective of statecraft, by its nature such a course of action will end up subjugating the popular will of the Syrian people to interests that are not their own.
Of course, foreign powers are already involved in the Syrian conflict, where both sides have received arms and military support from regional powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as from countries further afield such as the United Kingdom and France. Those who decry foreign interference in Syria – citing only the prospect of American military involvement – would be remiss to ignore Hezbollah’s shameful decision to send fighters into the country to bolster Assad, or the widespread presence of Iranian and Russian military advisors providing support to the Syrian army.
But the fact that Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia are attempting to control the fate of the Syrian people does not mean that other foreign actors should also attempt to do so for their own benefit. The United States should not go to war to overthrow Assad. It should also not carry out “symbolic” military strikes, which would be undertaken purely to maintain its own credibility – but which would also tarnish Syrian revolutionaries as being proxies of Western powers. The only moral course of action is to return the power of self-determination to the Syrian people themselves, instead of continuing to use them as pawns in a broader geopolitical power struggle.
What should be done?
What the United States should do is what the Syrian people have been asking for from the beginning: Provide Syrians with the arms and equipment that will allow them to level the playing field with the regime and thus determine their own destiny. This is one option that has never been fully embraced, ostensibly due to the fear that such weapons will be delivered to international jihadist groups. But such a fear is overblown, as Syria is a largely urbane, cosmopolitan society with a large, identifiable opposition already vetted by the US and its NATO allies. The mistakes of 1980s Afghanistan need not be repeated, and many Syrians have shown themselves to be as hostile to foreign jihadists as they are to the Assad regime.
Furthermore, if Western powers are sincere in their humanitarian concerns for Syria, a far more effective gesture than dropping bombs on Damascus would be to allow some of the millions of Syrian refugees safe harbour from the conflict in Europe, the US, and other Western states. “Intervention” has recently become a curious synonym for “war”, but there is nothing that logically suggests it needs to be. Indeed, history has shown that such military “interventions” tend to worsen humanitarian catastrophes rather than alleviate them.
Instead, the US should help create the political conditions in which this war can safely end. What this means is reining in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, while negotiating with Iran and Russia to create a non-zero-sum situation in which they can acquiesce to Assad’s exit without losing face or coming under threat themselves. Throughout all this, the Syrian opposition should be bolstered so that it can negotiate its own fate in a post-Assad Syria and protect the values and principles upon which the revolution was launched.
It is not too late to save Syria, but Western powers sincerely seeking to do good will not accomplish this by rushing into yet another ill-advised war. By empowering Syrians themselves while creating the political conditions to end the fighting, the West can help Syrians without robbing them of their self-determination or inadvertently worsening their situation.
The mistakes of the recent past must not be repeated if Syria is to emerge as a unified, stable and peaceful country once again.
Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics.