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The Endgame in Syria / Ending the Games in Syria

by MUSA al-GHARBI AND ST MCNEIL

In philosophy circles, bullshit is a technical term denoting a claim which is presented as “fact” although its veracity has not been established. The truth value of bullshit is largely irrelevant to its propagators. Bullshit is disseminated in the service of particular ends, typically opaque to the audience. There is no better description for the Obama Administration’s case for intervention in Syria.

The Obama Administration had been intending to use the Ghouta incident as a pretext for changing the balance of power “on the ground” in Syria. They were prevented from direct military action as a result of the deft maneuvering of Syria and Russia, so they have instead ramped up the delivery of arms to the rebels, and stand poised to shift the training of said rebels from a small CIA operation into a much larger Pentagon-run operation.  

Moreover, the White House continues to make its case for strikes, despite the deal which was recently achieved with Russia and the al-Assad government.  There are bills being floated in the Senate which would give the US the right to attack if the Administration deems the regime’s progress “unsatisfactory,” even in the absence of U.N. agreement. If the history of Iraq is any indication, we can rest assured that the progress will be deemed insufficient regardless of how well the Syrian government complies, providing ever-new pretexts to increase “allied” involvement.  The opposition is already calling for further military restrictions on the Syrian government.  

That is, while the recent developments were inconvenient for the Administration, the plans to depose al-Assad have been in the works since 2004–they will not be abandoned so easily. Sanity may prevail in this particular battle, but the war rages on.  What follows is the third and final chapter in our deconstruction of the Obama Administration’s case for intervention in Syria. If you missed the first two, see:

(Part One)  ‘Flooding the Zone’ with Bullshit on Syria

(Part Two)  Syria: Immodest Proposals & Naked Emperors

Justification #6: The Strikes Serve the Will and Interests of the Syrian People

“It is a general popular error to assume that the loudest complainers for the public to be the most anxious for its welfare.”

Edmund Burke, Observations on a Late Publication on the Present State of the Nation

The essence of democracy is more than a set of (liberal) institutions or occasional election rituals.  Instead, that governments be representative of, and responsive to, the will and interests of the majority of its citizenry.  There is no question that the al-Assad regime is authoritarian, guilty of a number of heinous War Crimes before and during the conflict. Within al-Assad’s cult of personality there are civilian militias which have carried out further atrocities on Sunnis who were perceived as sympathetic to the uprising. Astonishingly, there are many within the regime who believe that the President has been too soft on the protestors—they believe that had al-Assad reacted with overwhelming force like his father, the uprising could have been put down in its infancy. Many of these forces are beginning to “go rogue,” utilizing these brutal methods in defiance of government orders for restraint–prompting the President to dramatically reform his security apparatus and the Ba’ath Party leadership.

Bashar al-Assad came into power with the sincere intent to transform the state, to distance himself in practice from the brutality of his father-and-predecessor, instilling some hope in a more democratic, less violent future. But he was changed by the institutions he sought to reshape — not unlike President Barack Obama, whose “change” few hope for anymore.  

While there should be no doubt that most Syrians want to see the government dramatically reformed, do they support the revolution?

Listening to the pop-media narrative, one might take it for granted that most Syrians support the rebels, oppose President Bashar al-Assad, and want him gone by any means necessary. One might even think they would overwhelmingly welcome the action the U.S. is proposing. Inside the Beltway, and beyond, it seems Assad has lost “all credibility” with the Syrian people.  Unfortunately, despite the confidence with which these proclamations are made, there is absolutely no empirical evidence which would substantiate them. If one pays attention, evidence is never offered. In fact, the Syrian people are overwhelmingly ambivalent or opposed to the insurrection.  

From the outset, the demonstrations against president al-Assad were not calling for his resignation, but for an acceleration of his reform agenda. These protests were fairly small, around a hundred people, and confined primarily to the rural areas and not in urban spaces like downtown Damascus or Aleppo. And while underreported in the media, the anti-government demonstrations were usually accompanied by counter-rallies showing support for the government. In fact, these rallies were typically much larger than those of the protestors. In defiance of opposition calls to boycott the President’s reforms, the majority of Syrians ratified a new parliament and a new constitution—indicating their desire to work with the government towards resolving their grievances.

In fact, even by the most generous estimates, it is difficult to establish that even two percent of Syrians have taken part in the protests or the armed insurrection. While there are likely a number of people who sympathize with the rebels without having taken up arms or picket signs—there’s no credible way to assert that anywhere near a majority supports them. Demographically, as has been widely reported, most ethnic and religious minority groups, as well as the Sunni bourgeoisie of Damascus and Aleppo, are not merely unsupportive of the rebels, they overwhelmingly support the government. Additionally, the vast majority of the military continues to side with the state. From these groups alone, we might be approaching a plurality of the Syrian population actively supporting the president.

Meanwhile, as the opposition has grown more violent and more extreme, it has also grown smaller and more homogenous. In fact, according to a recent NATO report, al-Assad is not only winning on the battlefield, but “in the hearts and minds” of the Syrian people: 70 percent of Syrians support the al-Asad regime over the rebels, 20 percent were neutral, and only 10 percent of the population continues to support the insurrection.

The rebellion is being propelled primarily by Western-trained and sponsored opposition groups, whose cultivation began under Bush administration. The political opposition is headed up primarily by expatriates, Washington insiders, and pro-Western ideologues—most of whom have not actually resided in Syria for decades, and try to oversee the conflict from cushy hotels in Europe and the Gulf.  The armed opposition is driven heavily by al-Qaeda affiliates. While they represent a minority in terms of numbers of fighters, they are unequivocally the most effective and influential bloc of combatants in the theater. The Syrian people overwhelmingly, and correctly, view the opposition as largely exogenous. Direct intervention by America will only reinforce this narrative, further delegitimizing the “friendly” rebels America wants to empower—even as it helps al-Assad argue that his regime is Syria’s last line of defense against the imperialists at the gate.

The indigenous elements who have taken up arms against the government have little in common with those who were initially protesting (who, themselves, were not reflective of the broader population)—they are an extreme minority of an extreme minority. And they are nothing like the picture the Obama Administration is attempting to sell:

According to a New York Times report, there is no evidence of any secular or liberal fighting force anywhere in rebel-held Syria. According to a recent UN report, the overwhelming majority of the armed opposition is disinterested in, or even averse to, democracy and pluralism. And according to US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Dempsey, there is no chance that the extremely small and disorganized numbers of Western-friendly or compliant forces would be able to effectively seize, wield, or maintain power or legitimacy were Bashar al-Asad overthrown.

In fact, many of the rebel factions are not concerned about the fate of Syria, at all. As we have previously explored, many of them are engaged in class warfare, occupied primarily with looting and otherwise taking vengeance upon Syria’s elites. Warlords have risen up and seized large swaths of territory for themselves; others have organized vast criminal enterprises smuggling people, resources, money, weapons, and even priceless artifacts across Syria’s borders. Others engage in kidnappings. A major source of infighting among rebels is access to the country’s oil reserves. Others are separatist groups, such as the Kurds, hoping to establish an autonomous zone independent of greater Syria. And then there are religious extremists who occupy themselves principally with purging Syria’s religious minorities or enforcing their interpretations of “sharia law” over rebel-held areas.

As most Syrians are opposed to the insurrection, they would certainly not welcome a U.S. strike which would empower and embolden these actors even as it weakens the ability of the government to combat them. In fact, the intervention is controversial even among the armed opposition. The U.S. justification for war is Orwellian: in the name of democracy they will undermine the will of the people, forcing upon them a revolution they do not want. In the name of protecting the Syrian people, they will bomb them.

Make no mistake, despite all of the media bluster about the accuracy of US cruise missiles, there will be a good deal of collateral damage. Thousands of civilians died in the Libya intervention—and that country is sparsely-populated and largely desert. Syria has thrice the population in a much smaller space. Each innocent life that is lost will only fuel the growing anti-American sentiment in the region, further energizing the momentum of al-Qaeda and its ideological brethren.

Not only is the intervention against the will and interests of the Syrian people, but also the citizens of America, Turkey France and Britain—despite their respective governments’ commitment to the measure. The intervention is not just against the will of the people—it is unambiguously against their interests as well.

Justification #7: The Intervention Will be Limited in Scope and Duration

No one should believe the Obama Administration’s claims that military action in Syria will be “limited in scope and duration.”

The war resolution the president originally put before Congress was astonishingly open-ended—the Senate version has paired this down a bit, but is still full of loopholes through which the President could expand the US campaign at will. And regardless of what the final bill looks like, the US has a long and consistent history of overstepping its war mandates—regardless of whether they are granted by Congress or the UN.  Military interventions almost always run much longer than predicted and cost much more in terms of lives and treasure; many secondary effects and blowback are virtually impossible to strategize for beforehand.  To his credit, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Dempsey, has been up front with this—asserting that regardless of Washington’s semantics, people need to understand that any attack on Syria would be an act of war, with all that entails. Moreover, virtually all options for military intervention carry a high risk of mission creep. For this reason, most US military planners have been profoundly averse to direct involvement in Syria (as have most rank-and-file soldiers).

In the Foreign Relations committee hearing, Secretary Kerry said it is important that the Senate resolution not “take it off the table” that US ground forces could be deployed into Syria; the Pentagon is already preparing up to 20,000 troops for rapid entry into the theater. The Administration has asked the Pentagon to expand its list of military targets in Syria, even as Kerry described the impending strikes as “unbelievably small.” Unbelievable, indeed.  

As currently structured, the Obama Administration’s strategy is clearly aimed at prolonging, rather than ending, the conflict within and around Syria. But it is important to note that, even if Bashar al-Assad is deposed, the civil war will not end—in fact, a collapse of the state would radically exacerbate the conflict. The bad actors previously described would not suddenly abandon their enterprises, disarm, and join hands in a chorus of kumbaya; instead, in the absence of a common enemy, even the more sincere rebel groups would almost certainly turn on one another, vying for power or influence in the aftermath. This is already a common and growing phenomenonin the ungoverned zones.

Unbeknownst to many, this is not the United States’ first disastrous incursion into Syria. During the Cold War, America also attempted to “bring democracy” to Damascus—the result was decades of war, rendering Syria one of the least-stable countries in the region, due primarily to US involvement in, and support of, a series of successive coups and insurrections (hoping in vain with each “transition” that someone they liked would come to power).  Apparently, America has learned little in the intervening decades.

This period of instability was only ended with the rise of the Alawite regime: under Hafez al-Assad’s iron hand, Syria emerged as one of the safest and most stable countries in the region.  Generations have grown up knowing only the Ba’athist legacy of secularism, pluralism and security—a legacy which is quickly being eroded by the current conflict. And it is not only Syria which may spin out of control as a result of this crisis:

The Lebanese Civil War persisted for decades and was only eventually contained as a result of an extended Syrian occupation, dubbed the Pax Syriana.  Obviously, Damascus will be in no position to play this stabilizing role, should Lebanon again devolve into civil war as a result of the crisis in Syria—an outcome which looks increasingly plausible.  Syria and Lebanon share a common history, and in many respects, a common destiny.

Iraq has also been struggling to overcome a decade of civil war brought about by the Bush Administration—and they are losing this fight as a result of the Syrian conflict, which threatens to tear the region apart along its ethnic, religious, and geopolitical faultlines. The rate of killings in Iraq is now approaching the worst period of the US occupation, and the country is on the verge of also descending back into a full-on civil war.

While each of these crises are individually and uniquely severe—collectively they threaten to engulf the entire region for generations—the consequences of which would be difficult to predict and nearly impossible to contain; the severity and scale of such a crisis would cause the world to reminisce fondly about the quagmires of the Bush presidency.  There is no good outcome which could come from military action in Syria.

Conclusion

At the outset of the Syrian uprising, the US calculation was that IF they could depose al-Assad and replace him with a compliant/friendly alternative, it would weaken Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas; it would strengthen Israel; it may even help push Iraq back to the “allied” column (since the withdrawal of US forces, Iraq has grown increasingly close to Iran and Russia). It should be obvious by now that this fantasy will not be realized. Despite predictions by the White House for the last two years of al-Assad’s imminent demise, he has retained control over 11 out of Syria’s 12 provincial capitals throughout, and stands poised to altogether rebuff the insurrection. At this point, even were the regime to precipitously fall, the outcome would be nothing like the US had hoped for—it would cast the entire region into chaos for the foreseeable future.  Accordingly, it is time for the Administration to radically reconsider its goals and strategy in Syria, rather than doubling-down on the failed policies of the last two years.

Don’t believe the Obama Administration’s false dichotomy of a choice between military strikes and “doing nothing.”  This is bullshit.

We can all agree that the longer the crisis goes on, the more Syrian society will be brutalized, the more sectarianism, extremism, and lawlessness will become entrenched within the country and the broader region.  We can all agree that US half-measures are unquestionably escalating and propagating the conflict rather than resolving it. We can all even likely agree on the need for international intervention into the conflict.

But the primary decision lies in defining the aims and methods of intervention: should it be oriented towards peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and reconstruction in support of a negotiated settlement? Or should the intervention be military in nature, oriented towards particular geopolitical and security objectives (chief among them being deposing Bashar al-Assad)?

Apologies for our false dichotomy: there is no real choice here if one values international law, the fate of Syria, or the will of the Syrian people. Lay down your arms, President Obama. Perhaps Pope Francis expressed it best:

“We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves. As if it were normal we continue to sow destruction, pain, death! ..At this point I ask myself: is it possible to change direction? Can we get out of this spiral of sorrow and death? Can we learn once again to walk and live in the ways of peace?”  

En sha Allah.

Musa al-Gharbi is a Research Fellow with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC). He has a M.A. in philosophy from the University of Arizona. You can follow him on Twitter @Musa_alGharbi.

ST McNeil is an environmental convergence journalist. He is also a research assistant with the Institute of the Environment’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development grant, contributor and web editor of SISMEC, founder of Los Deportados multimedia hub, and a musician. You can follow him on Twitter @stmcneil. 

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