The False Analogy of Syria and Palestine
As with many of those who express a view in the continuing debate about the wisdom of launching yet another “humanitarian intervention” in Syria, I have found myself under attack from those calling for more war. The charge against me and many like me is one of hypocrisy.
So where are my double standards? I have consistently objected to all western efforts to interfere militarily in the Middle East over the past decade. I have argued that all states in the Middle East, including Syria, are seen by western governments simply as chess pieces in a great game called the Battle for Oil.
But critics want to use a different stick to beat me and others who resist their on fervour for intervention. Here is how Louis Proyect, a diehard interventionist who blogs under the title “The Unrepentant Marxist”, sets out the accusation:
“With his long time commitment to the Palestinian cause, [Cook] seems to have trouble understanding that those under attack in Homs or Aleppo have much in common with those living in Gaza. While he is obviously trained enough to understand and communicate the plight of one group of Arabs, another group gets short shrift because it is perceived as inimical to the interests of peace.”
In other words, I and many other supporters of the Palestinian cause are not being consistent in denying to the people of Syria the support we wish extended to the people of Gaza. This is an argument I hear being used with increasing frequency by the interventionists, in an effort to recruit to their cause the large numbers who back the rights of the Palestinians against decades of occupation and oppression.
But Syria and Gaza are not alike on many levels, making the comparison deeply unhelpful. And in so far as there may be similarities in their situations, I actually hold a consistent position that differs markedly from the interventionists.
First, Gaza is not like Syria because Palestinians live under a belligerent occupation, not in a unified, if failing state run by a dictator. There are very few decades-long occupations, but there are lots of dictators the world would be better off without.
Occupations are regulated by international law, which in Gaza’s case is almost entirely
ignored, whereas states have the luxury of being largely ringfenced from such accountability within their own domestic spheres. International law is mostly there to regulate the relations between states, not what goes on inside them. I may wish it were otherwise but I have to live with the reality that this is the current world order, and that such law exists precisely to prevent powerful states, either on spurious or selfish grounds, from destroying smaller states.
The comparison with Gaza is also unhelpful because it is possible to be in favour of external efforts to remove the occupation in Gaza without that also requiring us to be in favour of external efforts to overthrow the state apparatus in Syria. Doing the first may lead – potentially – to liberation; doing the second leads – inevitably – to chaos, as we saw in Iraq and Libya.
Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem need help in freeing themselves from the rule of a belligerent foreign state, one in which they have no stake or voice. The people of Syria – if Syria is to survive and not end up as a series of feuding ethnic cantons – need to find a common cause, a sense of nationhood they can agree on. That, by the way, was a long and painful path Egypt was just beginning on when the Egyptian military – backed by decades of US money and armaments – decided to halt it.
The only thing that changes in Syria by intervening or by arming either side is that each is able to inflict more bloodshed on the other. Ordinary civilians are dying on both sides of the civil war in greater numbers because we have fed an industry of fighting and death by providing factions with guns and rockets.
The only hope for Syria – as what remains of a rapidly collapsing state – is through bringing those sides willing to talk to negotiations to create a new order in Syria. It will not be Sweden.
Also to be addressed is the paradox that for the Syrian government to negotiate safely it needs to ensure its strength within the global system of nation-states; but with such strength it has less interest in making concessions to the rebels. This is a paradox that relates to the current world order. We may not like that order, but it is the only one that exists at the moment.
The implication of critics like Proyect is that the Palestinians are in a civil war themselves and that doubtless I would be in favour of intervention to help them. Again, the situations are different. The civil war between Palestinians is being fed and manipulated by Israel to keep the Palestinians weak and divided so that the occupation can entrench. It is part of a familiar colonial settler project.
The Syrians are in a civil war because there is bitter competition between sectarian groups for dominance of the state apparatus. In short, there is not enough sense of Syrian-ness. If there were, one of two situations would have arisen: Assad would have mass support still, or the rebels would have been able to tip the balance in their favour and take over through a popular revolution. That revolution might have been bloody but it would have been liberating. Instead we are in a protracted civil war, which each side sees as a zero-sum game.
Exacerbating this problem is the exploitation by other states of the Syrian state’s current relative weakness. Those states, chiefly Saudi Arabia, are feeding the conflict and trying to distort its nature. They are further damaging the fragile sense of Syrian-ness. On the other side, Iran and Hizbullah in Lebanon are playing their part in interfering in favour of the Syrian government, propping it up with military support.
These last factors point to a more realistic way of interpreting events in Syria. Syria is caught in a power game, with the US and Saudi Arabia trying to keep Iran and its ally Syria weak on one side, and Iran desperately trying to keep its few remaining allies, among them Syria, as strong as possible in its battle against efforts by Israel and the west to undermine its sovereign integrity. Ignoring this as the main framework for understanding what is happening in Syria inevitably leads to erroneous analysis and faulty solutions.
What is needed now in Syria to lessen the bloodshed is reduced negative western intervention in Syria and much greater western positive engagement with Iran (certainly much more positive than the measly deal struck at the weekend). Syria’s best hope of a solution is through the west coming to a respectful accommodation with Iran.
A last point about the Palestine and Syria comparison. In so far as there may be some similarity in their respective situations, I certainly do not favour western military intervention on behalf of the Palestinians. This is not related to what is allowable in international law, which, as I noted earlier, treats these two situations differently; I am talking only about what I personally believe makes most sense.
I have never argued for the US and Europe to start arming Palestinian militants in the hope that the Palestinians can end the occupation by slaughtering settlers and soldiers. The level of military support the Palestinians would need to challenge or defeat Israel militarily would result in only one outcome: a sustained bloodbath that would lead to large numbers of dead both among Palestinians and Israelis. Something less than massive military support for the Palestinians would lead to a bloodbath chiefly on the Palestinian side. I favour neither outcome.
More useful and ethical would be a drastic reduction in, or better still an end to, military support to Israel from the US and economic support from the EU, or at least tying continuing support to genuine concessions from Israel to the Palestinians. Making Israel more militarily vulnerable to its neighbours, for example, would be an effective way to get it to the negotiating table and force it to make meaningful compromises.
So, in short, I and most other supporters of the Palestinians wish nothing less for the Syrians than we do for the Palestinians.
A final, related point about the revolutionary fervour of many of the supporters of greater western intervention in Syria. People who have monikers like the “Unrepentant Marxist” doubtless believe in a global workers’ revolution, but they are deeply misguided if they believe it will or can start in Syria.
The real hypocrisy lies with these armchair revolutionaries. Eager to foment a revolution, they want to build it on the bodies of Syrians, a people who have little hope of liberating themselves in a world where their tiny state is no more than a pawn being shuffled around a board controlled by other, much stronger states. If the revolutionaries really want to effect change, they would be wiser – and far more ethical – concentrating on the revolution needed first in their back yards.
Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His new website is www.jonathan-cook.net.