Book Forum - <i>The Syrian Rebellion</i> by Fouad Ajami

Syria is the worst kind of crisis - simultaneously heart-wrenching yet mostly ignored by the international community. One cannot help but see the photos of the destruction (for a great selection, see this gruesome slideshow from the Atlantic) and want to do whatever it takes to try to direct the crisis to its end. The on-going destruction reflects our own psychology and helplessness, a failure of the modern international system to protect human rights in the face of pure evil.

Yet, the complexity of such situations - the ambiguity of a society that seems so distant, so impossible - is perhaps the most interesting story. The lack of action by Western powers from America to France does not reflect a missing capacity for power projection, but rather a lack of willpower on the part of politicians who abdicate their role of moral leadership.

This issue gets at the heart of The Syrian Rebellion by Fouad Ajami. Ajami complains, almost bitterly, about an Obama administration that simply refuses to put the effort behind the Syrian opposition like it did in Libya just a few months earlier.

There was no shortage of alibis for American passivity: America did not know the protagonists and couldn’t trust the Free Syrian Army, there was no United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing foreign intervention, and more. On February 26, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an interview with CBS in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, all but took away any hope that there would be rescue for the Syrians. It was a stunning performance, a measure of the ability of power to avert its gaze from places in trouble. (Ch. 9)

This sort of frustration is perhaps obvious for a neoconservative-affiliated scholar like Ajami, who was one of the major supporters behind the Bush administration's wars in the Middle East. And really, who can blame him? The scenes of horror that are coming to us from Syria boggles the mind and challenges our very conception of human decency. The situation cries out for action, any action.

And yet, that is precisely the danger of intervention. For all of the right-wing attacks against Obama about "leading from behind" in Libya, the strategy was incredibly sound. Augmenting Libyan forces in their own strategy and tactics with international military forces, thereby allowing local, on-the-ground troops to choose their own destiny in the military campaign, allowed American policymakers to defer to knowledgable generals without the sort of fog of war that proved so costly in Iraq.

What are the options in Syria? Ajami notes that Syria has been the cradle of Arab nationalism for decades, and savors its sovereignty after years of colonial domination. The Syrian opposition forces, while certainly welcoming of assistance, hardly desire to request help from their former colonial masters to win the war. This relationship is even more complicated given who the opposition represents, namely, the former Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni Islamists.

I am an interventionist, and I generally subscribe to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. But I also believe that diving into an ambiguous situation could be far more costly than anticipated. This isn't the Hutu and Tutsis in Rwanda, or the Serbs in Srebrenica. There was clarity in both cases, a moral path illuminated for all to see.

Despite Ajami's attempts, I finished The Syrian Rebellion with less conviction to intervene than I did before starting the book. Despite the horrors perpetrated by the regime, it is unclear what the next government would be. Assad's regime is gruesome, but would the next phase really be better? Interestingly, the same question gets asked about Iraq, and it is not at all clear what the answer is, even today. "It depends" is probably the right response.

Syria gives me strong echoes of the Congolese war of the past two decades, which started in the fallout of the Rwandan genocide. Despite on-going international intervention, the war continues unabated, with little solace coming to the heart of Africa. The sad reality is that the environment described by Josef Conrad more than a hundred years ago in Heart of Darkness remains a startlingly close depiction of Congo today.

After years of strife, it is hard for countries to rebuild and move forward. The civil infrastructure is lacking, and the sort of normal course of society simply can't function without the centralizing effect of the strongman dictator. Iraq's transition to democracy has been difficult precisely for this reason, similar to Congo and today, Syria. Despite the length of Hosni Mubarak's tenure as leader of Egypt, his regime never stamped out the vibrant political culture that today is completely lacking in Syria. The transition for Egypt will still be difficult, but manageable.

This state of affairs isn't lost on Syria's neighbors. Israel, which has faced decades of treats from Syria, remains relatively mum on the affairs happening across the border. Ajami describes the situation well:

True, no binding peace accord had been made with the Syrians, but the Assads had delivered the most quiet of borders. There was no way of knowing who and what would replace this Syrian regime. Populism and chaos could threaten that subtle working relationship developed over four decades. (Ch. 6)

So, what are the next steps for Syria and the international community? More efforts directed toward China and Russia seem obvious, if perhaps futile given the results of the last UN resolution on the outcome in Libya. Turkey has slowly evolved into a more aggressive foe of the Assad regime, and could be used as the launch pad to provide greater assistance for the Syrian opposition.

But it is the opposition itself that has the most power in this engagement. They set the tone, and could provide the political space to allow for intervention. Reducing the ambiguity of the new government, providing better support and political representation of the minorities who benefitted from Assad, and building a clear consensus on human rights would go a long way to assuage the fears in foreign capitals of engaging in the crisis. It is their future, and they have quite a bit of control on the outcome.

For the rest of us, vigilance is needed. Despite the atrocities underway, it can be all too easy to read the latest story on Black Friday (Wal-Mart strikes!) and develop a shroud of silence around the events transpiring in the Middle East. These changing battle lines are never easy to follow, but we have a responsibility to keep the pulse on the issue and ensure that the story doesn't disappear. As we have learned from so much evil in the past, these situations can go from horrible to hell almost overnight. We have to learn these lessons, and continue to push for a pluralistic, democratic Syria that works on behalf of all of that country's stakeholders.