Hands Off Syria: Learning a Harsh Lesson

It seems inconceivable that U.S. decision-makers would be considering military 300px-no_war_on_syria-svgintervention in Syria given our recent dismal record of accomplishment when it comes to meddling in Middle Eastern conflicts. The 2003 invasion of Iraq led not to the blossoming of democracy and free market economics, as neoconservatives hoped, but instead destabilized the country and led to nightmarish sectarian violence. The U.S. occupation fueled anti-Western sentiment and acted as a boon for jihadist recruitment. These, in turn, created the conditions for the ascendancy of Islamic State, its 2014 capture of Mosul and its spread into Syria. The U.S. had also helped make possible the ISIS expansion into Syria by training and supplying Syrian rebels, a CIA operation now regarded as a failure and a waste of billions of dollars. Yet, despite this string of calamities, the Beltway “foreign policy elite” is chomping at the bit for a more hawkish Syria strategy than President Barack Obama has been willing to give them. With a Hillary Clinton on November 8 almost assured, it seems very likely that those elites will get their druthers.

U.S. elections rarely concern themselves with issues, but this year in particular we have heard more about pneumonia, tax returns and e-mails than about policy positions. It was only during the debates that Clinton came out clearly in favor of a no-fly zone in Syria — not to bring down the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad, but to prevent the Assad government from bombing civilians in rebel-held territory. The obvious problem with this is that Russia is actively assisting Assad, and Moscow would use surface-to-air missile systems so the bombings could continue. Assuming, however, that the bombings did end, how would that prevent the sieges leading to starvation in Homs? How would a n0-fly zone stop the car bombs and mortar shells in East Aleppo? These questions are becoming secondary and even tertiary to the insistence that the U.S. do something, anything, to combat the war crimes being committed by Assad’s forces with Russian support.

There is a compelling moral argument to stop those crimes. Who can see the images of the 320px-wounded_civilians_arrive_at_hospital_aleppodisplaced, traumatized people in Syria and not feel a visceral urge to stop the suffering? At the same time, however, very few advocates of escalation openly call for open war, especially a war between two global powers. The question therefore becomes, “How can we have 100% safe military intervention?” In other words, how can we have war without the casualties? It is an absurd premise, but it is the one upon which modern U.S. foreign policy typically rests. According to this dysfunctional thinking, unmanned drones and “smart” bombs translate to interventions that are more affordable domestically because there are “no boots on the ground.” Vietnam and Iraq became untenable for the U.S. government in part because of widely circulated images of U.S. soldiers wounded and dying in hostile environs characterized by insurgents striking from the shadows. Granted, U.S. bombings and drone strikes cause plenty of “collateral damage” but the deaths of innocent non-Americans are tolerated if they serve the “higher purpose” of U.S. foreign policy.

For example, it became imperative in 2011 for the West to intervene in the Libyan civil war to prevent the massacre of dissidents by Muammar al-Qaddafi’s loyalists. The NATO air campaign that followed helped bring down Qaddafi, but it also killed at least 72 civilians, one-third of them children. The Obama administration thought it had escaped the errors of Afghanistan and Iraq by not committing to “regime-change,”but by neglecting reconstruction entirely has led to Libya becoming a breeding ground for militias associated with al-Qaeda and ISIS. Five years after the NATO bombings, the U.S. is now bombing Libya again, this time in the hopes of dislocating the jihadist bases located there. Obama now considers the Libya intervention the “worst mistake” of his time in office.

His soon-to-be successor, Hillary Clinton, had been the swing vote that had green-lighted the 2011 intervention. In 2002, she had been one of the many U.S. senators to vote in favor of authorizing the Iraq war, although she now claims to regret it. Her stances on Libya and 320px-us_navy_110319-n-7293m-003_uss_barry_28ddg_5229_fires_tomahawk_cruise_missiles_in_support_of_operation_odyssey_dawnSyria suggest that her regret may have more to do with electoral calculus than the learning of any lessons about the high price of so-called “low-risk intervention.” Publicly, she blames the failure of Libya on the rebels themselves: “[Libya] is a perfect case where people who’ve never had that opportunity to run anything, manage anything, even participate in meaningful politics, understandably are not even sure what questions to ask.” The absence of strong institutions in Libya, however, was plain for anyone to foresee. Qaddafi’s political power was based on tribal networks and alliances, and without power centralized in his hands, a power vacuum formed that was filled by religious warlords. It was exactly what had happened in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party was purged from government post-invasion: the U.S. policy of “de-Baathification” led to the undermining and collapse of state power, leading to unrest and violence.

There is every reason to believe that the same would happen in Syria, in the unlikely event that Assad could be forced from power. The Assad family has for decades laden the government with relatives and sycophants. Ironically, the individuals who could have posed any internal threat to Assad were killed in a July 2012 rebel attack. As in countless other regimes across the world, the government has been ordered to conform to a binary choice: the status quo or anarchy. In such situations, for a peaceful transition to occur, the change has to be supported by the leader as well as the most powerful institutions. In Syria today, Assad remains firmly in control, with Russian and Iranian support — and no shortage of external enemies to blame his problems on, from ISIS to the United States.

Even if Vladimir Putin is bluffing and Russia backs down rather than stand by Assad until 320px-al-nusra_front_members_in_maarrat_al-numanthe bitter end, it will take rebels storming Damascus, Aleppo and other key cities. Such a scenario would mean even more dead and displaced civilians, to say nothing of even more damage to the basic infrastructure. Who fills the void left by Assad? Most likely, it will either be ISIS or the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (otherwise known as the Al-Nusra Front, or al-Qaeda in the Levant). Instead of Bashar al-Assad, Syria will either be controlled by fanatics promoting worldwide jihad or “just” jihad in one region. The only way that the U.S. gets a government it favors is through hands-on reconstruction, and again, evidence from Afghanistan and Iraq shows how unsuccessful that can be.

It must be stressed that this deviling choice — between brutal autocrats and barbaric zealots — can also be credited, at least in part, to U.S. foreign policy. During the Cold War, the U.S. lent its support to corrupt authoritarian Middle Eastern leaders if they opposed communism and aided us in the obtaining of oil. In 1953, the CIA infamously saddam_rumsfeldmasterminded the coup that overthrew democratically-elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh of Iran. When the Iranian clergy revolted against the U.S.-supported monarchy in 1979, Washington aided Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the ensuing Iran-Iraq war. Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria as a military dictator from 1971 to 2000, slowly gained U.S. trust for his reputation as a pragmatist. Assad supported the nationalist Baath Party in Syria not out of ideology, but its pan-Arabism provided him with a political platform that he would not otherwise have had as a member of a religious minority. After the 1973 Arab–Israeli War proved that the Soviet Union would not actually back its Arab allies against Israel, Syria joined the region-wide shift into the U.S. sphere of influence. In 1991, Syria even joined the U.S.-led coalition in the first Gulf War against Iraq. When Hafez did and was succeeded by his son Bashar, there was speculation that he would keep Syria a bulwark against religious and political radicals while simultaneously reforming his regime to be more open and accountable. Of course, rather than share power, the Assad family has consolidated its own and destroyed the opposition.

That the U.S. supports a large number of dictators globally is hardly news. Yet not enough attention is paid to how we also support one of the strongholds of radical Islam, the 320px-flag_of_saudi_arabia-svgKingdom of Saudi Arabia. The House of Saud had come to power in 1932 by partnering with the local clergy, who preached Salafism, a puritanical form of Sunni Islam that promotes a fundamentalist religious lifestyle. After discovering rich oil fields in the country in 1937, the U.S. government struck a deal with the Saudi royals: the U.S. would enjoy privileged access to Saudi petroleum as long as it stayed out of Saudi affairs, including its religious practices. To this day, the U.S. government stands by Riyadh, even as it carries out terrible human rights abuses. We also support it even as it sponsors the exporting of Salafism around the world, where its literal and extreme interpretation of Islam has fostered the growth of al-Qaeda in the Middle East, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and other jihadists. (Qatar, another oil-rich Gulf autocracy, is also a key sponsor of al-Qaeda, Libyan jihadists, and most notably has provided an office for exiled Taliban leaders in the capital of Doha.)

There is no shortage of recent examples of blind U.S. support for Saudi Arabia. One was President Obama vetoing bipartisan legislation that made it possible for families who lost loved ones in the September 11, 2001 attacks to sue the Saudi government for its complicity (Congress overturned the veto). Another was a “triple-tap” bombing by Saudi planes of a funeral in Yemen that killed 140 people using U.S. munitions. This was so egregious that a U.S. official said that Saudi Arabia did not have a “blank check” to commit war crimes. This was a slap on the wrist compared to the heavy-handed rhetoric the U.S. government uses against its enemies, but in the context of U.S.-Saudi relations, the incident stands out as a rare case of Washington daring to chastise Saudi Arabia.

The conflict in Yemen, widely ignored in the Western media, is worth noting because it also features an al-Qaeda affiliate — Ansar al-Sharia — fighting on the side of Saudi Arabia and its coalition (all U.S. allies) against the Houthi government. Yemen, by the way, is suffering a major humanitarian catastrophe, with a historic drought and water shortage, all exacerbated by a civil war. Interestingly, the U.S. and its “foreign policy elite” are not ringing any alarm bells to intervene in the Yemeni situation.

Perhaps because Saudi Arabia called dibs first.

The Neo-Imperialism of Intervention: Syria & the West

Media outlets reported on Friday that Bashar al-Assad’s government killed 37 more people in the ongoing crackdown in Syria against pro-democracy protesters. This mounting death toll, combined with horrific images of activists and civilians alike mowed down by tanks and machine guns, will surely contribute to the growing consensus that the West should intervene to stop the massacres. Considering NATO displayed a marked keenness to step in when Muammar Gaddafi brutally repressed the insurgents who rose up against him, many observers have denounced what they have perceived as hypocrisy. Are Syrian lives somehow worth less than Libyan lives? Is al-Assad any less of a cruel despot than Gaddafi was? The West, these commentators argue, has nothing less than a moral obligation to intercede on behalf of the Syrian people, who stand no chance against the much more well-armed Syrian security forces. Institute a no-fly zone, begin bombing Damascus, supply weapons to the rebels – the whole nine yards.

Of those voices sounding off against intervention, they offer a rationale that Syria represents a different situation than Libya did when the West rode in to the rescue. Unlike Libya, they say, civil war has not torn Syria asunder. The anti-government movement holds no territory of its own, and given the dominance and sophistication of the Syrian armed forces, any internal conflict is likely to be a one-sided affair. Additionally, Syria can count on support from its nearby allies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran, whereas Gaddafi lacked friendly neighbors. Gaddafi could also not credibly warn that he would launch a suicidal attack on Israel the moment the first U.S. cruise missile hit his country’s soil. On top of all this, these voices note, Russia and China – two illiberal countries exasperated with the Arab Spring and this whole fascination with free and fair elections – are putting their collective feet down, putting the kibosh on an emerging precedent of the West liberating citizens aspiring for freedom under authoritarian rulers. In other words, the West is not being hypocritical in “freeing” Libya and leaving Syria to descend into chaos; it is just that Libya represented a unique opportunity, with its tribal divisions, pariah state status and lack of resources. His tyranny only needed a slight push (in the form of air raids and drone strikes, plus crates of automatic weapons) to bring down.

The only thing keeping the West from fulfilling its ethical responsibility of preventing slaughter of the innocent, according to this line of thinking, are unfavorable conditions particular to the Syrian case. Yet Western inaction concerning Syria is not the exception; it is by far the norm. You might find reams of words on “respected” news and commentary Web sites dedicated to Western outrage over oppression and butchery in Syria, and going back a little farther, will find similar impassioned editorials and blog posts about the persecution of homosexuals in Uganda or the “ethnic cleansing” of Africans by Arabs in Darfur. You will find much fewer paragraphs demanding a Western intervention in places like Bahrain, where over a dozen people have died over the last year due to government use of tear gas against peaceful protestors, or Saudi Arabia, where demonstrations are illegal and the Shiite minority in the eastern provinces has been viciously dealt with, sometimes fatally. In addition, could you imagine the backlash that would occur if The New Republic or The Atlantic – much less TIME or The Washington Post – ran a piece advocating that the United States bomb or invade Israel to end its illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip, which leaves a densely populated area without access to imported food, machinery and medicine?

The scholar Mahmood Mamdani has done an excellent job studying why some human right violations and global bloodbaths receive more attention than others do. In his deconstruction of the campaign to save Darfur, Mamdani notes the silence in the West when the United Nations reported that 1,000 people were dying every day in Angola between May and October 1993, and how 3.9 million dead in the Democratic Republic of the Congo did not raise a murmur in 2004. By way of explanation, Mamdani cited the work of the journalist Lara Pawson, who observed that it was no coincidence that the U.S. received eight percent of its oil imports from Angola during its spiral into violence, while 18 British-based companies currently enjoy access to Congo’s rich mineral deposits.  It would therefore not be in the economic interest of the West for military operations to disrupt the extraction happening in these countries, despite the bloodshed. Yet Mamdani goes beyond economic factors, and argues that the “Save Darfur” campaign framed a complex and nuanced problem as simplistic acts of political violence. It did not inform Westerners about what happened or was happening in Sudan, but played into the hands of the War on Terror, providing yet another example of “Arab Muslims behaving badly.” As in all marketing strategies, the message was clear enough for all to understand: “Muslims, who are evil and just so crazy, are killing Christians, and we all know how religion just makes people do crazy things, not like here in the secular world, am I right?”

It is mentally easy to connect war with profiting from natural resources, to boil wars down to “blood for oil.” Yet I tend to agree with Mamdani as well as the analysis by Immanuel Wallerstein that Western governments and civic institutions are not riled up for refineries, diamond mines and gas reserves alone. There is also genuine bleeding heart liberal faith that the West has a “responsibility to protect,” to institute a “liberal imperialism” to defeat the “bad guys” and preserve the right to life, liberty and the American way – which, at Fukuyama’s “End of History,” is now the international way. If this sounds like the neoconservative ideology, that is because it is. Critics of Mamdani have reviled him for linking the “Save Darfur” movement, an offspring of the U.S. Left, with Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and other neocons. Let us not forget, however, the reason why the intellectual originators of neoconservatism are not called simply “conservatives” is that they used to be radical left-wingers, yet flocked to the imperialist right-wing over what they perceived as a lack of adamant democracy promotion – such as through regime change. It would of course be incorrect to lump all pro-interventionist left-wingers and neoconservatives together, but in essence, their idealism springs from the same conceit: that the West, with its unchallenged power and enormous wealth, has license to stop the worst excesses of humanity, embodied by the Holocaust, from ever taking place again. The West, like a global Robespierre, should decide who lives and who dies, all for the sake of making the world “better.”

There has been a lot of hand-wringing on the Left over siding with traditional anti-imperialist arguments or being guilt-tripped into supporting excursions to topple dictators, end wanton murders and establish democracies. Yet those who struggle with this question should remember the adage to judge a policy by its consequences, not its intentions. Western interventions, even when they have been “successful,” have done little to get at the heart of a cleavage or a conflict, to address the long-standing issues that led to this civil war or that uprising. They have been flash-in-the-pan exercises – bombs and bullets, followed by rushed negotiated settlements that either unravel or barely contain the unsatisfied resentments of all parties. The bottom line is that the “white man’s burden” – to bring civilization and order to backward, bloodthirsty “savages” – is morally bankrupt, regardless of whether it is used as cover by the self-interested or is sincerely believed by naïve pseudo-leftists.