The Syrian uprising: it isn’t all about us
The vanity of those calling for the West to intervene is matched only by the navel-gazing of those who claim to be opposed to intervention.
It seems that some in the West, be it those in the corridors of power or the writers of op-ed pieces for the broadsheets, are just itching for the International Forces of Good to sort out the affairs of another country. Again.
It doesn’t appear to matter that recent military jaunts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have not exactly been shining vindications of the liberal interventionist creed. Advocates of Western intervention seem pathologically untroubled by either experience or history. Regardless of past disasters, they now have Syria, a new opportunity for feelgood posing and moral posturing, firmly in their sights.
Syria is certainly a nation on the brink. Since mid-March last year, when the residents of the smallish southern city of Daraa ventured out on to the streets in protest against the security forces’ arrest and torture of a group of students for writing anti-government graffiti, a conflict between a people yearning for freedom and a despot desperate to cling to power has escalated. As the protests spread and changed into a direct challenge to the reign of Syria’s hereditary dictator, President Bashar al-Assad, so Assad has responded with a mixture of concessionary gestures – such as the cessation of Syria’s 48-year-old state of emergency – and violent repressive action.
For nine months now, this cycle of promises of reform followed by all-out assaults on rebelling towns and cities has run and run. It is the behaviour of a regime that has lost the last vestige of legitimacy, which can neither win over the now widely dissenting Syrian masses, nor effectively repress them.
By the same token, while the general desire for a freer, more open society is pervasive, especially in light of the uprisings across the Arab world, the forces opposing Assad are far from coherent. For example, the Syrian National Council, led by the exiled, Paris-based university professor Burhan Ghalioun, would certainly like to posture before overseas observers as Assad’s successors-in-waiting. But it is not clear that they have anything like widespread support in the country they claim to represent, something for which currying international favour is no substitute. And then there is the Free Syrian Army, a several-thousand strong (estimates of size vary) militia largely made up of defectors from the Syrian national army. Their objectives, to the extent to which they have stated them, do not extend beyond the removal of Assad. As it stands, then, a thoroughly rotten but militarily strong regime continues to fight and kill a militarily weak and politically uncertain opposition.
And it is around this volatile, still inchoate conflict that external forces are now circling with ever more forceful, self-interested intent. As Patrick Hayes reported in November, for instance, the Arab League, a coalition of similarly autocratic and repressive regimes such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, saw an opportunity to throw stones at Syria from the comfort of its violently fortified glasshouse. First it expelled Syria from its ranks; then, last month, it imposed travel bans on Syrian officials, froze Syrian assets and ended commercial transactions with the Syrian government. All this was intended to force Assad to end the fighting, withdraw troops from the streets, release political prisoners, and, to all intents and purposes, stop further unsettling the agitated publics of Syria’s neighbours. Following Assad’s willingness to accept the Arab League’s plan, Assad’s brothers in petty despotism at the League even sent over 60 monitors to see that peace was being seen to be done. But given the corner in which Syria’s internally isolated rulers now find themselves, they have unsurprisingly continued the crackdown, just with snipers rather than the more easily ‘monitored’ tanks.
It is against the background of Assad’s continued assault on those struggling for a more democratic society that calls for Western intervention have been building in recent weeks. Last month for instance, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, declared that ‘based on the evidence and the widespread and systematic nature of the killings, the detentions and the acts of torture… there should be a referral to the International Criminal Court’. Last week, the US State Department issued an ill-defined threat to Assad: ‘If the Syrian regime continues to resist and disregard Arab League efforts, the international community will consider other means to protect Syrian civilians.’ Foreign Policy magazine reported last week that these ‘other means’, from helping opposition groups to enforcing a no-fly zone, are already being formulated in Washington.
If America, and no doubt its European allies, is not all that keen to get sucked into yet another intractable, large-scale military venture, especially with domestic elections looming this year, no such qualms are bothering the laptop bombardiers who, over the past few days, have been busily tapping out entreaties to Western powers for full-on, planes-and-everything attacks on Syria. For example, in the British liberal broadsheet the Observer, one columnist argued that ‘the West has a moral duty to intervene in Syria’. And why? Because bad things are being done by Assad. And we all know what happens, pace Edmund Burke, if good Western states sit idly by: evil natives prosper. Also to the interventionist fore was the editor of Left Foot Forward, who declared: ‘Unless action is taken, and soon, thousands more will die, with many more tortured, jailed and injured. Following the overwhelming success of Operation Unified Protector in freeing Libya, the time has surely come for the West to give voice to the voiceless, heed their calls to strike against Assad and undertake its responsibility to protect.’ As an op-ed in the New York Daily News baldly asserted, ‘the world, led by us, should put Assad’s regime to an end’.
While the ‘we must do something’ brigade has been upping the interventionist ante in recent days, the ‘we must have nothing to do with it’ counterargument has also made an appearance. As a December statement from the Stop the War Coalition made clear, its objections to intervention appeal less to principle, not withstanding a token nod to Syrians’ democratic rights, than to what looks like pragmatism. That is, any intervention ‘will increase Arab and Muslim alienation from the Western powers’, and will cost far too much to be acceptable to the British public, ‘especially at a time when government austerity policies pose a growing threat to living standards’. The heart of this all-too-dominant strain of anti-interventionism is entirely inward-looking, combining a fear of some anti-Western backlash with an appeal to the UK’s budgetary constraints.
This is not to oppose intervention itself; it is to cower before the possible consequences of intervention. To those who argue against the West’s involvement in these terms, if intervention did not secure the enmity of the Muslim world or bankrupt Britain, would that then make it okay?
This ‘we must have nothing to do with it’ approach has far more in common with the ‘we must do something’ clique than its advocates realise. For both are united by a similar ‘it’s all about us’ narcissism. It is just that that where the bomb-happy interventionist is eager to see his moral superiority reflected in the act of intervention, the not-in-my-name anti-interventionist does not want to see himself in it at all. He wants absolutely no association with it.
In many ways, self-regarding isolationism is little better than self-loving, look-how-good-we-are interventionism. What both sides ignore is the basis of the principled rejection of intervention – namely the struggle of the Syrian people themselves. The reason military involvement in Syria ought to be opposed is that the only people who can achieve a measure of freedom in Syria, the only grouping that can realise democracy and forge a better society of their own choosing, are the Syrian people themselves. This is not some abstract theorem; history has shown time and again, be it in the American Revolution in the 1770s or the anti-colonial struggles of the mid-twentieth century, that freedom is not something to be conferred upon from without; it is something that is fought and striven for from within.
As soon as the dead hand of an external force, be it Western or Arab League meddling, starts to dictate matters, it is no longer a case of Syrian people freeing themselves and constituting themselves as a public; rather it is a case of the Syrian people having a form of ‘freedom’ and society imposed upon them. And to impose ‘freedom’ on a people is no freedom at all.
Contrary to the thinking of both those banging the interventionist drum and those who express a make-it-all-go-away opposition to Western involvement, the Syrian people, who at immense existential cost are fighting for democracy and freedom, ought to be celebrated, not pitied or feared. They are not victims in need of the guiding hand of the great and not-so-great powers of the West, but are everyday people who share our democratic aspirations. And to support their struggle for freedom means that we must also stand resolutely against the increasingly vociferous coterie of liberal interventionists who want to see the struggles of the Syrian people co-opted by external powers.
Internationalism, as those working men and women who joined the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War understood, has nothing to do with urging the state to intervene in another country, despite what the Observer’s liberal interventionists might believe. Rather, internationalism proper not only cuts across nation-state boundaries, but also cuts against the nation state itself. To support the Syrians’ struggle abroad, then, a good place to start would be to oppose at home any prospective involvement of the British state in Syrian affairs.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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