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On the Wings of Empire Comes Only Grief

Letter to a Syrian Friend

by VIJAY PRASHAD

Dear Friend:

You are in Syria, somewhere in Damascus. You have been involved in various protests to fight for more democratic space in Syria, and then, after the early months of 2011, to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Asad. I have learned a great deal from people like you, about your country and about the nature of the struggles that confront you. You have seen the tide go out in your disfavor on two fronts: first, an international environment that seemed to be in harmony with your goals, but then turned out to be as conflicted about “regime change” as you are certain about it; second, an internal opposition that seemed to mimic the early wellsprings of the Arab uprisings in North Africa in its multivalent diversity, but then turned out to be hijacked by imperialist interests and by radical jihadis that you find intolerant and dangerous. As the politics goes against your more secular nationalism and democratic liberalism, and as you feel isolated in every which way, the advent of a US bombing raid seemed to be a deus ex machine—a thundercloud from Zeus himself. Such a clap of lightening on the hardened bases of military power would perhaps knock the wind out of the Asad regime, making it possible for people like you to clamber to the top of a revolutionary dynamic.

History offers you no hope of success along this path. On the wings of empire can come only grief. Recent interventions, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya, have not ended well for its people. In the month of August 2013, 804 people died in Iraq—numbers that rival the death rates of the worst period of sectarian violence. Libya’s security situation is torturous for its people, with assassinations and random violence the order of the day. The people of Afghanistan, and their twin in Yemen, face untold misery through night raids and drone strikes, and with few of the main human obstacles undone by the occupation.

The United States and its North Atlantic partners make extraordinary rhetorical pledges on behalf of human rights and for humanitarian relief, but these rarely translate into reality. Set aside the human rights record of the North Atlantic itself, whether in its colonial phase but equally in the present moment when it has been known to block routinely international regulations on arms sales and on the use of dangerous weapons. Set aside as well the internal human rights problems in the North Atlantic, whether against immigrants or against workers. Such things shall not detain us here. We should look only at the way the North Atlantic has used “human rights” in its military adventures.

First, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) states use “human rights” as pretext for war-making, but care little for the regime of human rights which would include reconciliation of the parties and investigation of the manner in which wars are conducted. NATO went to war in Libya based on a UN Security Council resolution. When asked if it would allow an investigation of its bombing campaign by a UN commission, NATO’s legal counsel Peter Olsen wrote in a letter dated 15 February 2012, “We would accordingly request that, in the event that the commission elects to include a discussion of NATO actions in Libya, its report clearly state that NATO did not deliberately target civilians and did not commit war crimes in Libya.” NATO states used an International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant to go to war in Libya, but they have since been stubborn in their refusal to allow the ICC to execute these warrants against Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi (held in Zintan, Libya). The regime of human rights has been trampled by NATO states, whose interests are to use the language of human rights for its sectional interests rather than fight to create a robust human rights system to benefit the wellbeing of the people of the planet.

If the North Atlantic states are cynical with their use of the language of human rights, they are equally limited in their appropriation of the idea of humanitarian relief. The most recent Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP) from June 2013 shows that there are now 6.8 million Syrians under UN care, including 4.25 million internally displaced people. Of these, three million are children, a million of whom have been edged out of Syria. The UN has criticized governments for being “slow to commit funds” and even slower to deliver the money. Pledges of financial support to the crucial UN agencies are made at the frequent conferences. Little more than a third of the SHARP request has been committed. Only one percent of the eleven million dollars requested for food and nutrition for the Syrian refugees has been delivered, and only 3.7 percent of the 343 million dollars of the emergency non-food aid has been transferred. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that almost sixty-five percent of the needs of Syrian refugees are unmet. If the North Atlantic states were truly humanitarian, they would open their vast coffers to take care of the immediate needs of the Syrian refugees, and if the Gulf Arab states were equally humanitarian, they would finance the removal of these refugees from dangerous zones to safe havens. If the North Atlantic states were truly interested in humanitarianism, they would increase the actual financial resources given to the refugees. Bombing Syria will simply displace more people into penury.

The United States says that it wants to bomb Syria to punish the Asad regime for its use of chemical weapons. But keep in mind that it will likely use Tomahawk missiles, whose warheads might or might not be tipped with depleted uranium (DU). In other words, the United States will punish the Asad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons by bombing Syria with a weapon that the UN General Assembly has four times asked to be sanctioned (but cannot because of the votes against these resolutions from France, Israel, the United Kingdom, and the United States). One hundred and fifty-five countries worry that depleted uranium will contaminate groundwater and produce environmental and health hazards for generations. The United States used such weapons in Iraq, where a 2010 study 15125371(Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005-2009) found that the rate of heart defects was thirteen times that in Europe, the nervous system abnormalities at birth were thirty-three times that in Europe, and the childhood cancer rate was twelve times greater than those before the use of DU in Fallujah in 2004. These are the consequences of an imperialist bombardment. It will violate law in order to pretend to uphold law. It will use dangerous chemicals to protest the use of dangerous chemicals. It will get self-righteous about chemical weapons, such as nerve gas, that it sold to the Assad government within the past three years.

You are part of the Syrian rebellion, sandwiched between the expatriate leadership of the Free Syrian Army and the heinous fractions of jihadis. Your claim is that the US bombardment is to overthrow Assad, but this is precisely not the war aim of the United States. It threatened to act in late August only because the US President Barack Obama had the previous year fallen into the trap of the “red-lines.” Unable to act in any way in 2012, he threatened that he would act if the Asad regime used chemical weapons. His words came back to bite him (although we do not know yet with any certainty about those chemical weapons). To respond, Obama had chosen, before he was blocked by the UK parliament, to fire a barrage of Tomahawk missiles. The US military says that the Tomahawks have “limited tactical effect”–which means they would create random destruction in Syria, but would be unlikely to degrade the military capacity of the regime.

Why has the United States been unwilling to conduct a Libyan-style air war on behalf of the rebels in Syria? For one, the Libyan engagement did not work out as well as the NATO states assumed: chaos reigns supreme in the country, and the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi has made the US political class skittish of full action on behalf of rebels whose political views spank of anti-Americanism. Second, chaos in Libya is a price that the NATO states are willing to pay as long as the oil continues to flow and the migrants do not. With Syria, chaos that threatens Israel and that allows Hezbollah to continue to get logistical support from Iran is unacceptable. It is far better to allow Syria to bleed and to let a maelstrom of internecine warfare blind Hezbollah and the jihadis than to allow any kind of Islamist regime in power in Damascus. Asad is preferable to Israel than a Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader (the Syrian Brotherhood is far more radical than the Egyptian Ikhwan, and even that was too much for Tel Aviv). The commitment of the NATO states to the fall of Asad is shallow. They are committed to a weakened Iran and Hezbollah, which is what motivates their cynical policy. Asad is neither here nor there.

All this is well and good, you say to me. What alternatives do you have? Do you expect us to have to tuck our dreams to sleep and return to the status quo ante?

But the status quo ante is no longer possible. Asad is weakened, as are his class allies. His braggadocio is that of a man who knows that he has nothing to lose. What comes next is not going to be the return of the old regime. It will be whatever the pressure from below can produce as an alternative. But nothing of a political nature is going to come if the violence continues, which will have thrown at least ten million people into displacement by the end of the year, and close to one hundred and fifty thousand people to their deaths. Such bloodshed is unacceptable, particularly when there is no light at the end of this long tunnel that runs from Homs to Aleppo, from Damascus to Hama. What will stop the violence? Not the regime, which is ready to fight to the end. Not the rebels, who taste victory even when it smacks of blood in your mouth. In the northern belt, the violence has mutated so that the Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Levant and Iraq are at war with the Kurdish protection committees (YPG). That violence, where the Asad regime is not involved, led to almost fifty thousand people rushing over a pontoon bridge into Iraq over a weekend. Matters are far from pre-2011. That is one reality that all sides need to recognize.

The refugee and humanitarian relief crisis is acute. Neither the regime nor the rebels want to put their focus on this problem. They are too centered on the frontline.

Syria’s neighbors are weighted down with the refugee crisis, which threatens to morph and has morphed to some degree into a political crisis. Car bombs in Beirut and in Tripoli are an indicator of the latter. Lebanon is on edge. Jordan’s monarchy is on the line. Iraq returns to sectarian fissures that it has tried to paper over. There are now 704,877 registered refugees in Lebanon, 517,168 in Jordan, 440,773 in Turkey, and 155,258 in Iraq. These four neighbors have the bulk of the 1.9 million refugees. If the region is serious about a political process it might want to begin where it has needs, and where it can have an impact: call for a Regional Syrian Refugee Crisis Conference. The UN would underwrite such a conference, which would allow the neighboring states to have a formal platform to begin consultation for their common crisis. The practical matters of relief can be dealt with at such a forum, including how these countries will tackle the extra problem of another winter for the refugees in temporary shelter. The fifty-seven percent funding gap that the UN’s SHARP faces leaves the Syrians vulnerable to the harsh weather that will approach. The Inter-Sector Coordination group of the UN agencies would be helped by a regional platform of member states.

A Syrian Refugee Crisis Conference would necessitate that the regional states move from practical matters to political ones–they, along with Syrians themselves, will be the ones who will suffer most if the situation destabilizes further. The roots of the crisis are not the stream of refugees, who are only the symptom, but the violence inside Syria. Any Syrian Refugee Crisis Conference would have to eventually turn to the political question, which would mean coordinated regional pressure on the actors in Syria, all of whom rely on the region for logistical support of one kind or the other, to come to the table and hatch out a plan for de-escalation of the war and renewal of a political process. None of the sides see this as possible at this point, but if the regional partners are serious about it they may leave the various factions no choice but to come to the table. If the regional states do nothing, they will be drawn further into the vortex of Syria, bringing Bilad al-Sham into the madness that has overtaken its heartland.

Mine is not the politics of two sides, of the battlefield. I recognize that you are in the midst of a civil war and that what I propose sounds to you like surrender. You wish to fight on, with the messianic view that eventually you will prevail over the regime of Asad. This might be the case, but the odds are stacked against you as much as they are stacked against the Asad regime that it will have a complete victory. Neither of you are willing to see that the human suffering is not worth the chances of triumph. Empire enjoys watching the two sides battle like caged mice, weakening each other to its advantage.

Syria deserves better. But now the cord of Syrian nationalism is wrapped around the neck of the Syrian people, asphyxiating your dreams of sovereignty and freedom. A mediated peace alongside a process for genuine democratization guaranteed by your neighboring states would strengthen the chances for the renewal of your national ambitions. Anything else will simply lead to the destruction of your country, its history, and its future. I am not in favor of the gallows of Ba‘th, nor the execution chambers of Jabhat al-Nusra, neither the guns of NATO nor the neoliberal spirits of the Gulf Arab regimes. Humans have complex minds, and even more complex ambitions. It is for us on the Left to foster those desires, and not to fall prey to the choices of the present. Neither this nor that, but only the future.

For you, my friend, a taste of the great Pakistani leftwing poet Habib Jalib, this is the opening of Dastoor, from 1962:

Deep jis ka sirf mehellaat hi mein jalay,
Chand logon ki khushyon ko lay ker chalay,
Wo jo saye main har maslihat kay palay;
Aisay dastoor ko,
Subh-e-bay noor ko,
Main naheen maanta,
Main naheen jaanta.

The light that shines alone in palaces,

Steals away the people’s happiness.

Feigns its strength from other’s weakness.

That kind of system,

Dawn without light,

I refuse.

I deny.

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013).

A version of this article originally ran in Jadaliyya.