Dictatorship, Military Intervention, and False Binaries in Syria - Statehood & Participation

By Bassam Haddad

After almost five decades, when the time came to publicly oppose authoritarian rule in Syria, one would have thought that it was the rational and decent thing to do. And it is. More than that, it is incumbent on anyone who cares about Syrians (let us leave “Syria” alone for a moment) to struggle for the establishment of a political system that is free(r) of all forms of oppression. So, what is the problem?

Why Fighting Dictatorship is Intuitive

It is easy, rational and just to adopt unequivocal opposition to the Syrian regime’s authoritarian rule. It is equally easy, rational and just to condemn the regime’s crushing of protests. Regime supporters and some in the anti-imperialist camp retort that some of these protesters are agents of external forces or armed gangs.
While there may be a grain of truth in this argument, it is empty. It is, in fact an insult to the intelligence of any Syria observer. It overlooks the regime’s brutality in the last ten months of uprising. It erases the decades of oppression, detention, silencing, and torture that the regime has dealt to the mere hint of opposition. That regime which turns fifty next year.
Indeed, it is only Saddam Hussein’s relentless authoritarianism in Iraq that has surpassed the legacy of the Syrian regime’s repression. It is true despite Syria’s relative stability until March 2011. Its institutions were poor but sufficiently functional. Its cities were relatively safe. And after the late 1980s, its urban centers boasted an increasingly bustling life. The regime peddled these characteristics as a model of “social peace.” The threat of heavy reprisal along with the formation and state cooptation of an exceptionally corrupt business class were among the painful threads that held this brittle “social peace” together. Important too in this regard was the fact that the Syrian welfare state was able to provide the minimum needs for most Syrian citizens until the 1990s, though it largely neglected the countryside. It is precisely the relationship between the state and top business echelons after the mid-1980s that gradually exacerbated Syria’s social and regional polarization. After the 2000 succession of Bashar Assad and his team of “liberalizers,” the Syrian Baath (out of all places) introduced what they called the ‘social market economy’ in 2005. Within the still constitutionally socialist republic, the new announcement was intended as a near-formal blow to the remaining vestiges of a state-centered economy.

A resulting series of camouflaged neoliberal policies and bad fortune exacerbated existing structural disparities and social discontent among the less privileged. The increasing withdrawal of state subsidies and welfare, the gradual introduction of weak market institutions to replace the corrupt but functioning institutions of the state, combined with notorious mismanagement of the economy, became a recipe for social unrest. The scant rainfall during the past decade caused massive migration and loss of jobs in the country side, adding fuel, as well as location, to the fire of social protest potential after 2010. All it took was a spark. Bouazizi provided it. Syria’s social peace was exposed and decimated.
But it didn’t all start in March 2011. Beneath the serene streets of Damascus and Aleppo lie thousands of political prisoners. Stuffing Syria’s jails and solitary confinement units, even prior to the uprising, were Islamists and atheists, liberals and communists, and everything in between. Prisoners came in all shades and indeed comported with the Syrian regime’s official rhetoric. They included those who dedicated their lives to defend the Palestinian cause and to oppose the United States’ duplicitous policies in the region, its support of dictatorship, and its launching of wars on false counts. The prisoners’ fault was not that they were conspirators. It was that they opposed the regime. Their detention highlighted the fact that anti-imperialism has never been nor will it ever be the regime’s priority. Clearly, the Syrian National Council (SNC) will not be any better when it comes to related matters of autonomy from external actors.

The tragedy is that the rise of such a problematic body, the SNC is testament to the regime’s deep bankruptcy. Some may argue that the regime’s holstering of various legitimate regional causes, or the “cause,” as a subterfuge for its horrendous domestic repression created resentment even among the “causes’” proponents. Many Syrians are fed up with this duplicity that has come at their expense. They may even appear uninterested in regional issues. Many in the pro-“resistance” camp read this deprioritization of anti-imperialism, or even the domestic call for external intervention, only as a betrayal. They fail to see the exasperation, desperation, vulnerability, and ultimately the motive force of self-preservation. It is none other than the regime that has given birth to this imperative of self-preservation.

Imperialism is not the Issue for the Syrian Regime or the Protesters at all Times

It is one thing for analysts living outside Syria to oppose and condemn foreign intervention (which this author does unequivocally). It is another to assume that all those calling for it in Syria under the current conditions are part of a conspiracy.

Again, it is the Syrian regime’s brutality since March 2011 and before that has created the conditions for the street’s increasing support for foreign intervention to stop the killing. Certainly, some may have had ulterior motives and supported intervention all along. But the majority of those calling for intervention have been brutalized into doing so. They are not thinking in terms of supporting or opposing imperialism at this time.

The “resistance” camp seems to want or expect hunted and gunned down individuals and families on Syrian streets to prioritize the regime’s anti-imperialist rhetoric over the instinct of self-preservation and their fight for freedom from authoritarianism. Again, the fact that some inside Syria are abusing this dynamic to call for the kind of external intervention that the regime’s regional and international enemies have long dreamed of does not negate that fight. If die-hards among the pro-resistance camp feel indignant or distraught by these calls, they should recount the modern history of Syria. Indeed, it is the anti-imperialist, pro-resistance camp that has some accounting to do at this stage. Any type of anti-imperialism must necessarily include a rejection of authoritarianism. Supporting resistance to imperialism at the expense of an entire community’s most inalienable rights can only spell defeat.
Finally, the regime’s priority above all else has been and continues to be its own preservation. If it engages in or enables resistance to imperialism, that’s all the better. If not, well, staying alive is good enough, even if it required siding with the United States or reactionary Arab regimes at times. This is similar to the self-image that the United States maintains of supporting democracy: If it can engage in promoting democracy, that’s all the better. If not, promoting dictatorship to serve its interests (as is the case in the Arab world) will do just fine. This is because the objective was never to create democratic regimes, but compliant ones.

Why Foreign Intervention is Loathed

Protecting and defending authoritarianism on the political grounds that it serves resistance has become desperately short sighted. By the same token, to not understand the implications and consequences of foreign intervention in Syria at this moment is patently short sighted. This moment of regional turmoil and unsavory political alignments linking the worst in the foreign policies of “east” and “west,” dating several decades now (longer than the Syrian regime’s record of oppressing its own citizens), is cause for caution. In other words, Syria is being used by various powers, including the United States and Saudi Arabia and their chorus, as an occasion to accomplish their own objectives in the region - reactionary ones, to be sure, in terms of the interests of most people in the region as the decades behind us attest, and as the current uprisings against the “fruits” of such objectives make even clearer. That does not mean that we should withdraw our opposition and halt the struggle against dictatorship in Syria. It only serves to remind us how not to do it.

One must start with the simple assertion that the Syrian situation is more than just the Syrian situation. This should not come, however, at the expense of Syrian lives. Since the mid-twentieth century, when mainly European designs for dominating and influencing the countries or politics of the region through schemas such as the Baghdad Pact, Syria was an important regional prize, but mostly in a passive manner. After Hafez Assad took power in what is called the “Corrective Movement” in 1970-1971, Syria became a more fortified regional actor that not only determined its own internal politics, but also those of other countries at times.

Syria became a leading member in what was called the rejectionist front. That front sought to confront Israel without succumbing to bi-lateral peace plans that did not aim at a comprehensive and just settlement of the Palestine-Israel conflict. Save for a brief stint of confrontation between Syria and Israel in 1982 - when Israel downed several Syrian jet-fighters - the story goes that the Syrian-Israeli border was the safest place on earth, despite the occupation of the Golan Heights. However, by proxy, and mostly via non-state actors such as Hizbullah and Hamas, Syria remained the last and only state in confrontation with Israel. Regionally, the Syrian regime acquired a reputation of bravado. This was not because it actively fought Israel. It was because all the other Arab states became non-confrontational.

In 1993, Syria’s stance as lone confronter state was further fortified. This was due on the one hand to Iraq’s military irrelevance and defeat. On the other hand “peace” with Israel proliferated on multiple fronts: The Oslo accords the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty, and deeper flirtations between various Arab countries and Israel, notably Qatar and Morocco. It was also the time when Qaddafi paid off the UK and the US for being a bad boy and promptly joined the community of lawful nations.  
The Syrian regime continued to support Hizbullah as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad (both of which had offices in Damascus). It opposed the invasion of Iraq in a manner that no Arab country did. It continued to be the only well-endowed secular and explicitly, if only rhetorically, anti-imperialist state in the region.
But for the United States, Israel, some European countries, Saudi Arabia and its mignons in Lebanon and the Gulf, it is the Syria-Hizbullah-Iran axis that constitutes the most formidable challenge. Taking out Syria as it stands would weaken Hizbullah and isolate Iran. With Syria out of the way, Hizbullah would be starved of its safe arms transport corridor and less able to meet a strike against Iran with reprisal.

An Iran-strike would also confront Turkey with a dilemma. Quite aside, from its two-faced posturing on the Syrian authoritarianism at the same time that it oppresses Kurdish resistance, Turkey would have to balance two conflicting desires. On the one hand, the Turkish government hopes to nourish its vision of regional hegemony through the consent and admiration of the Arab street. But it is that very street that rejects the United States-Saudi Arabia alliance that Turkey is implicitly supporting in its drive to isolate the Syrian regime.
In any case, precluding Turkey, the actors that are amassed to benefit from the fall of the Syrian regime are in the final analysis no less problematic than the Syrian regime. In sum, these actors are certainly more violent, discriminatory, and anti-democratic, in reality and in terms of their collective or individual long-term vision for the region. Whether one supports the Syrian regime or not, the fall of the Syrian regime is more than the fall of the Syrian regime. That does not mean that it should not be opposed or overthrown by domestic means. Syria’s past or potential regional role should not be an excuse for supporting its sustenance. Conversely, supporting the demise of the Syrian regime by any means, including external military intervention, is extremely reckless if the objective is to save Syrian lives or set the stage for a post-regime path of self-determination.

Any external military intervention supported by the above array will devastate Syria, because of a host of intended and unintended consequences. It will exponentially increase the death toll of Syrians without achieving any discernable conclusive outcome. Moreover, the external factor will reignite another local and regional struggle rather than simply end domestic authoritarian rule and pave the way for democratic development.

One can be moved by the urgency of saving Syrian lives today, but if this is the ultimate purpose, and if Syrians’ self-determination is the desired outcome, one can easily see the perils of military intervention. Ideological considerations aside, the magnitude of the complexity and mayhem can be discerned simply by anticipating a conflict that will involve Iran, Hizbullah, and a substantial chunk of the Syrian population. Internal and regional opposition to external military intervention in Syria will swell the more an attack is imminent. Unless the regime brutality reaches even higher proportions prior to the intervention (apologies for the coldness of the calculation here), it will be counter-productive to say the least. As for the question of no-fly-zones, as opposed to full scale military intervention, it is safe to say that a no-fly zone is a code of sorts for more active military intervention in practice, as the case of Libya makes clear.

The Residual Problem with this Article

It is crucial to point to a flaw, or lack, within this article, and to introduce an anti-climactic caveat. First, I must admit that the tenor of the position elaborated in the lines above lacks a clear agency (e.g., institution/party/movement) that might convert it to an actionable path. The Syrian National Council is certainly not it. But that has never been the object of debate. This article is a very modest and insufficient attempt at engendering a discussion about locating or catalyzing such a collective. According to independent protesters on the ground in Syria, there is room for the growth and effectiveness of a truly democratist opposition that is not always in line with the SNC. True, both parties may be benefitting from each other for their own purposes today, but there is growing concern among many activists about where the SNC is headed and how it is run, now and in the longer term. This tension, which is also evident between the SNC and other smaller opposition groups outside Syria, has not become explicit yet. Perhaps the most bright ray of light are the reports that the larger part of the Syrian opposition inside Syria does not take its cues from anyone outside Syria, and for good reason, despite some appearances to the contrary. It may only be this indigenous force that can solve the problem of leadership.

The anti-climactic caveat is that no one outside the SNC and part of the domestic opposition is calling for external intervention in an inexorable manner. That is not for lack of want or desire. Besides the arguments suggested above from a general standpoint, the lack of readiness for external intervention is manifold and not always intuitive. Largely, it’s because of the low pay-offs, and a bit of cynicism, among the anti-Syrian (regime, geostrategic importance, and people) camp. First, Syria is not Iraq or Libya. It does not have ample natural resources to be used as mortgage for future reimbursement for the West’s “noble” deed to liberate people. Second, unrest in Syria may potentially spill over to the new champions of democracy in and around the Arabian Peninsula, not to mention Lebanon and the thorny derivatives of further instability in that godforsaken country. Third, the current Syrian regime protected its borders with Israel (actually, itself, considering the occupied Golan) for decades.

Finally, as the venerable Kissinger used to say in the 1980s (I’m paraphrasing), let the Iranians and Iraqis kill each other, for it facilitates things for the United States thereafter. Thus, some would like the Syrians to continue killing each other for a while longer. They would be happy to see Syria weakening even further its institutions and infrastructure while exacerbating social/political divisions and undercutting possibilities of collective action for a long time to come. Syria’s long-term trajectory after the Baath had fallen is an unknown quantity regarding the question of anti-imperialism and the struggle for restoring the Golan. So, from their perspective, why not wait for Syria and Syrians to disempower themselves further instead of having a swift conclusion?

For the moment, external military intervention is not seriously on the table yet. But the discursive conflicts on this question continue unabated and merit a discursive treatment.

About the Author

Bassam Haddad is Director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University, Visiting Professor at Georgetown University, and Visiting Scholar at Stanford’s Program for Good Governance and Political Reform in the Arab World. Haddad serves on the editorial committee of Middle East Report and is co-founder of Jadaliyya.com. He has co-produced several documentary films, including the award-winning “About Baghdad”. He is the author of Business Networks in Syria: The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience (2011).