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Yes, I was right on Syria. (And what now?) September 30, 2012

Posted by Helena Cobban in Uncategorized.

I realize it is unseemly, in the world of international-affairs analysis, for someone to say quite bluntly “I told you so”. I realize, far more importantly, that the situation in which Syria’s 25 million (or so) people find themselves is one of deep and very hard-to-escape crisis– one that, whether Pres. Asad stays or goes, will (as I noted here in early August of this year) continue to plague them for many, many years to come… and any contention among non-Syrian analysts as to who was “right” and who was “wrong” pales in importance to that deeply tragic fact.

But still, looking back, I think I have been fundamentally correct in my evaluations of the situation in Syria– from March 2011 until today. And that, at a time when a large majority of people in the U.S. (and ‘western’) political class had a very different analytical bottom line than my own. Their bottom line was, basically, that the Asad regime was weak, hollow, deeply unpopular, and would crumble “any day now.” And since people holding to this belief– which was nearly always, much more of a belief than an analysis– have been extremely strong inside the Obama administration as well as in the western chattering classes (including among many self-professed “progressives” or liberals), their belief in the imminent collapse of the Asad regime has driven Washington’s policy all along.

Of greatest concern to me has been those people’s rigid adherence to the policy of not negotiating or supporting the idea of anyone else negotiating with the Asad regime. Instead of any idea of negotiations, the overthrow of the regime was their overwhelming and primary goal. Negotiations about the future of Syria could, they said, be held only after the President’s removal.

Now, I guess I can understand, in the rosy months after the street protesters in Tunisia and Egypt managed to topple their dictators through the use only of mass civilian organizing– and while they resolutely rejected all the attempts of their dictators to “negotiate” a way to stay in power– that many supporters of democracy in Syria thought that that line was not only principled but could also be effective in Syria.

Back then, in the spring of 2011, I said No: Syria’s different. The regime, I argued, had undoubtedly built its support in good part on a core of chronic and deep repression– and also by appealing to all the insecurities of all the religious and ethnic minorities in the country that they would do a lot better to hang together than to hang separately. But nonetheless, I argued, it did have other bases of legitimacy. And it did  have support even from several significant parts of the country’s majority Sunni Arab community… In sum, the situation there was very different from that in Tunisia or Egypt.

The opposition movement in Syria seemed to be, I argued in two public panel discussions in May and November of 2011, quite resilient. But so did the regime. Therefore, the only even possibly effective way out of the impasse between the two sides would be– as in South Africa or Burma/Myanmar– a grand negotiation among all the significant currents in Syrian society… That is, one including the regime, as well as the opposition.

So many people in the Washington DC commentatoriat derided my analysis. “The regime is hollow and will collapse any day,” they said… Oh yes, and then there was the nicely funded Mona Yacoubian, then with the U.S. Institute of “Peace”, with her bizarre idea of a “controlled regime collapse.”(I think one of the things that most riled me about that proposal was that she was purporting to “save” Syria from civil war while proposing policy steps that did nothing except escalate tensions and lead to civil war.)

Right, Mona, how’s the “controlled collapse” thing going?

Back in April of this year I had a conversation with someone inside the State Department’s structure who was working on this issue; and this person said s/he was “amazed that Mr. and Mrs. Asad hadn’t pulled up their stakes and left for a comfortable exile a long time ago!” This person, moreover, is one of the better-informed people inside the Obama administration… (I replied by noting that s/he should just have been reading my analyses more closely. Then s/he might have understood Syria’s internal dynamics a little better.)

* * *

When I said it was my judgment that the Asad regime had deeper resilience than, say Pres. Mubarak’s regime in Egypt or Pres. Ben Ali’s in Tunisia, I was basing that on long experience as a Syria-watcher, or more precisely as a watcher of the Asad family dynasty in power in Syria.

I was working as a journalist in Lebanon and Syria back in 1976, when Pres. Hafez al-Asad sent his own troops and those of his puppet-‘Palestinian’ organizations into tough, often brutal, battle in Lebanon against the combined forces of the PLO and their leftist, anti-Israeli allies. Many people in West Beirut back then said that the Asad regime– which still held to the pro-Palestinian rhetoric of the Jabhat al-Sumoud— could never survive the damage to his pro-Palestinian credentials that that move would cause.

It survived.

Then again, in February 1982, Hafez al-Asad sent his troops brutally against the Muslim Brotherhood centers of influence in Hama and elsewhere. That time, there were many people questioning whether he could survive. He survived.

Just a few months later, his troops in Lebanon stood idly by and were completely humiliated when Israel launched a hard-fought invasion of and advance deep into the country. He survived.

From late 1982 through 1986 or so, his proxy forces in Lebanon fought terrible battles against the PLO’s remnants in Lebanon, including during the ‘Camps War’ of 1983-85t when his supporters from the Amal militia laid deadly siege to the very same two refugee camps– Sabra and Shatila– whose residents were still reeling from the massacres that Israel’s proxies had committed there in 1982.

Asad pere survived the negative political fallout that all those various actions had on his claim to some form of Arab-nationalist legitimacy inside Syria. His was a tough regime– but it always drew its legitimacy from a number of sources, not just one or two. In 2000, after his son Bashar succeeded him, many pundits in the west (particularly those who had never been to Syria and knew little about the country– but also some who did) confidently predicted that he “would not last long”, or “would not be able to control the generals”, etc.

Here we are, twelve years later. Pres. Bashar al-Asad has survived not only the many challenges of the past 18 months– but also the six years that preceded 2011, a period during which, as we now know, Washington was actively funding and supporting many Syrian opposition groups in pursuit of a covertly but resolutely pursued policy of regime change for Syria.

* * *

We can ask another day how it was that so many people– in Washington but also, importantly, in Ankara, which is a key player with regard to Syria– basically got it so wrong in their analysis of the strength and nature of the Asad regime and the resulting balance of power between the regime and the opposition. That “error of judgment” has had profoundly tragic consequences for the people of Syria– and threatens bad consequences for many of their neighbors. (Oh, we have already seen some of these, inside various parts of Turkey. Turkey’s longest land border, after all, is that it shares with Syria… )

Being a convinced pacifist, I am not a supporter of the idea that any war can be “just”. However, the fathers of the Catholic church who developed the whole doctrine of the “Just War” (one that has seeped deeply into the consciousness not just of the west, but of much of the rest of global society, too) did have a rough and realistic understanding of the always deeply harmful nature of warfare, especially when they stipulated that no war could be just unless (a) it had a clear chance of succeeding (rather than dragging on in an indeterminate and harm-inflicting kind of way), and also (b) that the “gains” to be won from the act of war were clearly greater than the harms which– as they well understood– warfare always causes.

The people in today’s “west” who have been arguing against any negotiations with the Asad regime– and therefore, ipso facto, for a continued escalation in tensions in Syria up to and including the use of violence against the regime– by and large have nothing like as vivid and well-informed understanding of the true nature of war as those historic fathers of the Catholic church. But still, they have generally been eager to present their escalatory policies as falling largely within the constraints set by the “Just War” doctrine. That has, all along, been the significance of their assurances that “Sure! The Asad regime is about to fall!”– along with their blithe avowals that (1) The opposition movements are wonderful, united, capable, and basically (apart from a few “rotten apples” who can easily be weeded out) lovers of peace, democracy, and apple pie; and (2) The regime has zero redeeming features; ZERO: It is all bad, and rotten to the core, and deserves no fate but regime change and persecution.

The people in the “west” who have continued giving blind support to the opposition movement despite the long-clear and growing body of evidence that it contains many advocates and practitioners of deadly violence have brought forth two major excuses for that violence. The opposition “had no alternative”, they said, faced with the horrible repression of the regime. Or secondly, they said that the deployment and activities of the men of violence was somehow necessary to “protect” the nonviolent demonstrations.

Both those arguments are mendacious. Yes, the nonviolent demonstrators in Der’a and elsewhere who started the mass, unarmed civilian protests against the regime met with terrible– often lethal– repression. But you know what? That was no different from what was happening along the length and breadth of Egypt during the days between January 25 and February 11, 2011. In that period, an estimated 800 unarmed demonstrators in Egypt were killed by the regime and its thugs– often in extremely brutal circumstances. (Many westerners tend to forget that.) Generally– in Egypt as during the early months of the uprising in Syria– the worst regime repression occurred far from the capital and the many TV cameras therein. But it certainly happened in Egypt.

Did the leaders of the opposition movement there– who knew a lot about the killings in provincial towns throughout the country even as it was happening– conclude that they had “no alternative” but to resort to violence? Indeed, no. They concluded just the opposite: Namely, that given the overwhelming imbalance of access to arms between their own supporters and the regime’s, their very best bet was to hew even more closely to the policy of “salmiyan, salmiyan” (peaceefully, peacefully!)

So they saw that they had an alternative to violence; and with amazing discipline, dignity, and courage, they took it. And they won. Pres. Mubarak was forced to leave office in ignominy; and despite the country’s many remaining problems Egypt’s people are now on the path to building a new Egypt.

So I don’t give any credence to that argument of “no alternative but to use violence.”

I also don’t give any credence to those claims that the armed men were somehow “necessary” in order to “protect” the peaceful demonstrators.

Once again, remember Egypt, and those amazing scenes of unarmed people, en masse, peacefully challenging the power of the regime. If those demonstrators– in the square, on the bridge, everywhere that those confrontations took place– had had snipers or other armed men standing at the corners of their demonstrations, how differently everything would have turned out!

* * *

I am still very surprised at the abruptness and vehemence with which the Turkish government turned against the Asad regime in August 2012 and committed itself to strongly to his ouster. When I spoke at this panel discussion at the Turkish-American SETA Foundation in Washington DC in November, I expressed my basic view about both the opposition and the regime having resilinece and said that in that circumstance, if Syria was to escape from its conflict then it needs a broad, serious intra-Syrian negotiation involving leaders from both sides. But I noted too (as I had done in this May 2011 panel discussion at the Middle East Institute) that the demonstrated lack of leadership capabilities on both sides– as contrasted with, for example, the situation in 1990 South Africa– meant that the Syrian sides themselves almost certainly would not (or perhaps could not) get themselves to the table for this negotiation… So the negotiation would need a midwife.

At SETA, in November, I somewhat naively tried to make the case that the Turkish government was the party the best placed to play that midwifing role. (And I adduced a whole of reasons why. Read them there, on their website.) Certainly, one of the reasons I adduced was the fact that over the past 15-20 years Turkey itself has undergone an admirable transition from military/security rule to a becoming robust democracy. “If we want to see a democratic outcome in Syria, who would be best positioned to help midwife this process– Turkey, or the very non-democratic Gulf states of Qatar and Saudi Arabia?” I asked.

I pointed out, too, that not only was Turkey well qualified to play this midwifing role; but it was also in Turkey’s interest to do this, since any descent into further escalation and bloodshed inside Syria could not but blow back and affect Turkey, a country with a very hard-to-control, 500-mile-long land border with Syria.

So yes, I was naive. Mainly, because the die has already been cast in Ankara, where the government had– as it soon became clear– already cast in its lot precisely with the Qataris and the Saudis and their hangers-on among the “Free Syrian Army” and the other fighting groups. And there was zero interest in Ankara in November– or since– in the idea of exploring a negotiated outcome for Syria. And Turkey has been having ever worse problems– in its ethnic-Kurdish areas, in Hatay province, and elsewhere, ever since.

* * *

I am not going to say “I told you so.” I am going to say that I think that on all the major points about the current situation in Syria, I gave a better analysis than the vast majority of the people who get quoted day-in-day-out in the western media (and that of other countries, like Al-Jazeera and the BBC– both of which have acted as shrill and uncritical mouth-pieces for the some of the worst elements in the Syrian opposition throughout most of the current crisis.) I will say, too, that I’m sorry that I have not done more in recent months, pro-actively, to build on my decades of experience as a Syria watcher– including the publication of two books, in 1991 and 2000, that dealt centrally with aspects of the country’s politics– and my multi-layered understanding of the dangers of war and escalation, to get my analyses of the Syrian situation well disseminated. But there is only so much that one person, who is not backed up by any fancy money, position, or staff such as those enjoyed by the warmongers at places like the Council on Foreign Relations or Brookings, can do. And by and large, too, I have been busy with building my publishing business.

But I weep for Syria and its people, caught up as they are in the madness of this internal/external war… A war that is horrifyingly similar to the one that I lived through in Lebanon 35 years ago– and to the one that Iraqis went through in 2006-2007– and indeed, to some extent until today.

This war inside Syria was absolutely avoidable. And if the vast majority of the peaceful opposition people from inside the country had had their way, it would have been avoided. But no. The Sunni-ist ideologues of the Syrian diaspora– many of whom had been living in the Gulf countries since the horrors they escaped in Hama and elsewhere back in 1982– backed up by their co-ideologues from the governments of Qatar, Saudia Arabia, and sadly also Turkey seemed determined to make this an armed conflict. Washington, which under Obama as under George W. Bush has been fundamentally supportive of “regime change” in Syria, gave them all a green light. And, most shockingly of all to me, large numbers of people in the “progressive”, “human-rights”-oriented movement inside the United States– including large portion of people who had been in the movement that always opposed the U.S. war in Iraq– were cheering them all on from the sidelines.

How to explain this?

By and large, most of these people do not know a lot about Syria and its history. They (like me) had cheered on the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Then, regarding Libya, most of those people had cheered on not only the multifaceted popular uprisings there but also the NATO attacks that led to Pres. Qadhafi’s collapse. In Libya, the use of external (in that case, western) military force was presented to and by many people on the “left” in the west as not only “necessary” but also speedy, decisive, and effective in “saving thousands of lives”.

(Right, Libya. How’s that going?)

But supporting NATO in Libya was those people’s gateway drug to supporting Saudi and Qatari-instigated acts of violence in Syria. That and the whole thing, as noted above, about “no alternative”, “only protecting peaceful protesters”, etc etc.

What makes me incredibly sad is just how quickly so many of those people who were at the forefront of the antiwar movement regarding Iraq seemed to have forgotten what they seemed to know so well in 2002-2003 about the dysfunctional, quintessentially anti-humane nature of war.

After everything that we’ve seen in both Iraq and Afghanistan over the whole of the past decade, there are still so many armchair “liberal interventionists” in the United States who think that a salutary little war could be good for Libya’s people, or for Syria’s???? What on earth are they smoking? And why should anyone anywhere in the world take their views and their analyses seriously?

* * *

So, as promised in the headline here: What now?

Actually, from me, nothing new. Nothing different from what I’ve been saying almost nonstop for the past 18 months: Syria’s people need a negotiated end to their terrible current tragedy. Violence and continuing escalation or maintenance of tensions in Syria is not going to do anything to improve the currently terrible situation of the country’s people.

People! UNHCR is telling us today that “There are 294,000 Syrian refugees registered or awaiting registration in neighbouring countries, compared to 41,500 Syrians in March.” And that is only those who are registering for refugee status in other countries. It doesn’t count (as UNRWA’s basic 1950 census didn’t count, for the Palestinians) the large numbers of cross-border refugees who for whatever didn’t even seek to register as refugees. And it doesn’t count the far larger number of Syrians who have been displaced within their own country…

The proud nation of Syria is becoming– like Mozambique or Nicaragua in the 1980s– a country torn apart, rent asunder, torn limb from limb. And for largely the same reason: the deliberately anti-humane and anti-infrastructure activities of brutal, western-backed insurgent forces. The Contras and Renamo… Okay, in the case of Syria, the regime itself is much more violent than either of those other governments. But as an American citizen I am not in any way responsible for the violence of the Damascus regime (though I dearly wish there were more that i could do to stop it.) I am in some way responsible for the violence of my government: Both the violence that it engages in directly, and the violence undertaken by others that it supports. Plus, the longstanding and also harmful violence– in the case of Syria, as of Iran and, earlier, Iraq– of punitive economic sanctions wielded for more than three decades now against Syria’s people by a U.S. Congress acting at the behest of the pro-Israel lobby.

All those forms of violence, from all parties, need to end. Our government should join all the other governments and non-governmental bodies in the world who are searching for a negotiated end to the impasse in Syria. The principal parties in and to the negotiation should be the representatives of Syria’s people– all of them, absolutely not excluding the current regime. But to get to the negotiation they need, they need to see wise leadership from all the important outside parties. Turkey turned out to be, from my point of view, a weak and unwilling reed on which to build a negotiations-based strategy. Now, I guess that the mission of Lakhdar al-Ibrahimi is the best hope we have. But he can only ever be as effective as the Security Council allows him to be. We need to add our voices to those raised by so many people (of all political stripes) inside Syria: An end to the violence; let the real negotiations over how to build a better Syria and heal the wounds of the past begin.

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