To liberate Syria, the West must curb its savior fantasy

While it is increasingly evident something must be done to stop the violence in Syria, the history of intervention in internal conflicts has shown there are no quick fixes. Western powers must realize that in order to liberate Syria all they can do is help the Syrians help themselves. 

By Yoni Eshpar | From Hebrew: Dimi Reider

The situation in Syria is getting worse, and the focus of the debate has shifted from “to condemn or not to condemn” to “military intervention: yes or no.” Hardly a day passes without a new article, usually from the left side of the map, calling for military intervention in Syria. All are asking the same question: How can we remain silent while the world is stranded in “inaction, failure, abstentionism, and turning its back on the Syiran people?”How can such a momentous crime be taking place right next door and we’re not even trying to help? How will we be saved from the “moral catastrophe” non-intervention will bring upon us?

What all these articles have in common is that they deal more with “us” – “the world”, “the west,” the Israelis, Arabs and Jews – and less with them, the citizens of Syria. What will help us sleep good at night? What will we tell our children? How will we save the moral image we have of ourselves? And all these come instead of the more difficult questions, like: How can we really help from the outside toward stopping the violence, protecting human rights, and help the Syrian decide their own future themselves?

It’s hardly surprising that the shock and sense of urgency push us to “act first, think later.” Nor should we give up the moral instinct that sends us plunging into the water when we see someone drowning (and someone else when we are drowning.)  But experience shows that in complex situations like civil wars and violent conflicts, the cry “we gotta do something” has often led to actions that caused much greater harm than good to the very people for whom the cry was voiced. The recurring global campaigns “to do something” have become so common they deserve a common name: Somethingism. And here’s a draft definition for the term: An approach according to which realizing the natural yearning for a dramatic intervention that would end suffering and injustice forthwith is more important than the consequences of that intervention.

Before I get to saying something about the situation in Syria and before I get accused of appeasement by any of the readers, let me just say that my criticism of “somethingism” does not stem from support for reconciliatory oversight of wrongs, or from blind worship of the idea of national sovereignity and the principle of non-intervention.  I think individuals, organisations, media, states and international institutions have critical roles to play in preventing such human catastrophes and that they are morally bound to play them. But the same duty forces us to make the effort to try and find the actions that can actually help, not just the ones that will make us feel a bit better when we look in the mirror.

So what is happening in Syria? Assad, without a doubt one of the most oppressive tyrants of our time, is indiscriminately massacring his own compatriots, who are protesting to be freed from his grasp and to establish a free democracy in their country. But this doesn’t seem to be the entire story. From the start of the events reports have grown that the Arab Spring inspired civic struggle has gradually become a guerilla war between official and semi-official forces of the state and various armed groups, who don’t have a shared political vision or even an agreed action course.

Although the picture the Internet draws for someone who does not read Arabic, like myself, is limited, it still seems fair to say even the Syrian democratic camp itself is sharply divided between those who feel that the protests have been hijacked, that the regime should be given a chance to reform, and that foreign interventions only make things worse, and those who believe the president missed every opportunity he had and should be toppled at once. It seems there’s also an internal debate between various opposition elements on the question of intervention. Most of the exile leaderships are still opposed, while fighters on the ground, by contrast, threaten that if NATO jets don’t appear overhead anytime soon they’ll turn the conflict into a holy war- not exactly a recipe for a liberal democracy. So who should we listen to? Which version of “the will of the Syrian people” should we endorse?

The media coverage of Syira, much like of any violent conflict, helps us forget that the overwhelming majority of the population is not involved in the violence – neither as soldiers, nor as militias, nor as guerillas, nor as protesters and not even as direct and innocent victims. The positions held by that majority are hardly headline-grabbing material. Journalists don’t risk their lives to tell us about the general mood in the streets of Aleppo and Damascus. Twitter keeps informing me of the protests and the violence, but it’s hard to tell how many of those dreaming to wake up tomorrow to a new Syria are ready to take the risk that the way there goes through war, maybe regional war, maybe sectarian war, but a long and bloody one whichever way. This, it seems, is precisely the fateful gamble supporters of military intervention wish to press upon the Syrians.

It’s a well known paradox: The people who tend to pride themselves on their pure-as-snow humanism (cf Gideon Levy, Bernard-Henri Lévy) are also the first to sketch the makeup of the assault force and fantasize about fighter jets descending from the sky in divine violence to deliver the rebels fighting with nomad-like sleekness against the Evil Empire. The dangerous thing about this message is precisely its seamless adherence to the fantasy we all have – to join the hobbits to vanquish Sauron, to fight alongside Jedi knights against the empire, to help the residents of “Zion” to set themselves free of the Matrix, and to receive strange missions from Jacob in “Lost”. The bottom line of it all is when true evil shows its face in the world, you shouldn’t think much. You should join with the Sons of Light and vanquish it, immediately and at any price.

To be fair, some interventionists sound saner than that. Take Ann Marie Slaughter, until recently a senior U.S. Administration official, who presented a detailed plan for a military intervention in a New York Times op-ed that will be constrained entirely to protecting civilians. If the rebel army should go on the offensive, she pledged, international assistance will be curtailed. If vigilantism takes place, it will be met with zero tolerance. In other words, the international players will find themselves at a political dead end, fighting against both sides. Sounds like a plan? To me, personally, it sounds like a humanitarian cover for an externally forced regime change, the very approach that for the past two decades has been wreaking havoc both to the principle of humanitarian aid and to internal processes of democratization and conflict resolution. One of the risks in talking about military intervention is that such talk tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy: The louder it gets, the more stimulated the weaker side is to reject any political compromise and even to raise the bar, which leads to an escalation of the violence, and to more pressure for a military intervention.

But there are plenty of examples to argue that the awareness of the damage caused by such interventions is greater than before: Whether it’s the expert who warns us that “arming the rebels and bringing about a civil war will prolong the regime,” or a seasoned diplomat who maintains that a military intervention will be “a guaranteed recipe for disaster,” or a well-known lecturer on human rights who thinks that arming the rebels and carving through humanitarian corridors will play into Assad’s hands. It’s also interesting to read the strongly-worded article penned by David Rief, formerly an exultant supporter of humanitarian interventions. Add in the clearly demonstrated reluctance of western leaders to send troops into what would almost certainly be a quagmire, and what you get is very little likelihood such an intervention will take place in the near future.

So if it’s neither silence nor attack, then what? In my opinion, the democracy train has left the station and is steaming toward Damascus. As always, the train will take considerable time getting there, and the only ones who can make it get there are the Syrians themselves. The transition from a police state to a democracy is always complicated, sensitive and slow. History holds no rule for it, but it does provide us with some tips. One of them is that external pressure, especially one manifested in military intervention, does little to help the democratic forces. Political interest will always draw states and superpowers to pick one side or the other in the clash between the regime and its opponents, and this is exactly how an internal process of political change deteriorates into bloodshed. The more I read about it, the more I am convinced that this was a major factor in the making of the bloody mess of Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990’s.

I’d like to suggest an alternative fantasy on international cooperation to end the violence in Syria. Not arms flow and creeping military takeover, and not a tug-of-war between regional and global powers, but coordinated and massive pressure on all sides to stop all violent action, and providing them with guarantees and stimuli to begin a process of negotiating reforms. In parallel, mechanisms acceptable to both sides for protecting civilians, evacuating the wounded and assisting refugees must be established. The uncompromising demand for an end to the targeting of civilians must be supplanted with a demand for residential neighborhoods and non-violent protests not to be used as a cover for armed guerrilla activities.

Suppose this fantasy comes true. Will it immediately solve the Syrian crisis? Probably not. But the very thought that we know how to solve it or should solve it ourselves is about as preposterous as the thought of all those well-intentioned people the world over who are sure they know how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that it’s up to them to do it. After all, they “must do something.”


Yoni Eshpar is the director of the public department at Gisha, the legal center for freedom of movement. The views expressed above are his own and do not represent Gisha in any way.