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Stay Out of Syria!

David Degner/Getty Images
Syrians singing anti-government songs, Homs, May 2012

And each day adds a new reminder of the futility of allegedly pragmatic solutions. A Times report on May 15 by Anne Barnard and Hania Mourtada (“An Atrocity in Syria, with No Victim Too Small”) told of the sectarian “cleansing” by pro-government forces of Sunni enclaves, in the village of Bayda and the city of Baniyas, both located in a mainly Alawite and Christian province. Three hundred twenty-two corpses have been identified, many of them horribly mutilated. As a pledge of retaliation, a rebel commander filmed himself “cutting out an organ of a dead pro-government fighter, biting it and promising the same fate to Alawites.” It is a saccharine optimism that says the country has begun to fall apart and a more “proactive” US could hold it together.

Syria has already largely disintegrated. The government and its Alawite and Christian supporters have secured the west, the Kurds are in the northeast, and the Islamist rebels are in the east (where the al-Nusra Front has already begun to enforce sharia law). The grossness of the chatter about intervention is suggested by a recent debate between American advisers on Syria and the “moderate” rebel forces they are best satisfied with. The question in dispute, as Phil Sands revealed in a May 9 report in The National (“America’s Hidden Agenda in Syria’s War”), turned on whether the moderates should go into combat first against the Assad loyalists, or against the al-Nusra Front whom they will eventually have to kill.

But the untold story of Syria concerns something beyond the atrocities on both sides. It has also to do with the sinews of war—the financial motive and muscle that keeps it going. A Financial Times article by Roula Khalaf and Abigail Fielding-Smith on May 17, “How Qatar Seized Control of the Syrian Revolution,” quoted persons close to the Qatari government who estimate that $3 billion has thus far been spent bankrolling the rebel groups. Sources inside Syria had guessed only a third of that. But the money must keep coming, since Qatar is buying up the loyalty of networks of rebel forces as an investment in the divided Syria of the future. This is calculated for geopolitical and economic influence, without clear religious or ideological motivation: the rulers of Qatar have no apparent common ground with the Islamist sects they are subsidizing. Nor does their involvement bode a peaceful future order: the flow of money, according to Khalaf and Fielding-Smith, “has already created many enemies inside Syria, and not just among pro-regime supporters.”

Against Qatar and Saudi Arabia stand the Shia powers including Iran and its ally Hezbollah, along with numbers of Iraqi Shiites whom the war of 2003 displaced. All these groups support the Alawites—related to Shia Islam. All of them except the Alawites are outsiders to Syria who for religious, cultural, and political reasons do not believe that they are outsiders. The US, by contrast, is seen throughout the region as a perfect outsider. The violence has now taken almost 80,000 lives, yet it remains a reasonable fear that disorders sprung from another American war could lead to still more ferocious bloodlettings. Our ally Turkey, which has supported Syrian rebels, is troubled by the prospect of separationist energy driving the Kurds of Syria to form a state of their own; and the International Crisis Group report on Syria’s Kurds (issued on January 22) contains an entire section uneasily entitled: “From Arab Uprising to Kurdish Opportunity.”

Americans for a long time have tended to think (when we think of other countries at all) that the more new nations spring up, the better. This goes with our relaxed communitarianism but bears little relation to realities elsewhere. Our latest siege of optimism, which followed the collapse of the Soviet empire, has now been given a fair trial over a quarter of a century. It has not always worked out well. Not in the Balkans, not in the former Soviet republics, and not, it seems, in the Middle East.

The high-pressure bid for intervention in Syria may have come to a temporary halt. (The quickness of its start and stop recalls those weeks of March and April 2007 that witnessed an equally sudden press for war with Iran.) On May 7, John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced their plan for an international conference on Syria, possibly as early as the end of May. And barring the extreme possibilities—a White House panicked from other causes and desperate to prove its potency; another Israeli bombing of Syria that succeeds in dragging the US in—it might require a breakdown of negotiations to prompt Barack Obama to follow the militarized advice he is getting now from sources that do not include the US military.

An article on the Kerry–Lavrov meeting by Peter Beaumont in the May 5 Observer of London made clear, as no American publication yet has done, the extent of the damage to the US from the miscarriage of NATO actions in Libya. The powers outside NATO whom we must rely on—Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa—eventually realized that in Libya the three leading powers, France, Britain, and the US, were all bent on regime change rather than merely the enforcement of a no-fly zone. Those countries, as Beaumont pointed out, felt betrayed and they will be understandably harder to move on Syria.

The difficulty of uniting so distrustful a group will be matched, in any negotiations on Syria, by the disunity of the Arab League. They are divided between Shiite and Sunni loyalties and often further divided within. But theirs is the region that will bear the burden of the nearly one and a half million Syrians who are now refugees, most of them in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. Iranian involvement, qualified observers have said, will be necessary for a lasting peace agreement, given the role of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran in the hostilities; and by keeping Iran in the outer darkness, Obama’s lack of imagination may have served his cause as poorly as his insistence on saying again and again that “Assad must go.” A good result of negotiations would be a transitional governing body that offers Assad a slow exit, but the obstacles to such an outcome are formidable.

The refugees of the Iraq war were the great unspoken disaster of the bombing, invasion, and armed occupation of Iraq, during the first five years of our nine-year stay. Two and a half million fled that country, out of a population of 27 million. Thus far the US has admitted as immigrants 64,000: a little under 3 percent. The vast majority of those displaced lives have become the unasked responsibility of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and other Arab nations. And the scale of the crisis of the refugees from Syria is only beginning to be recognized. Of the nearly one and a half million refugees scattered by the civil war into foreign lands, 500,000 are in Jordan alone, more than half of them under the age of eighteen.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote about the millions of stateless and rightless persons cast up by the early wars of the twentieth century and the imperialist manufacture of new nations before and after World War I. A whole generation of the displaced were brought into the world so lacking in hope, so without access to elementary rights that, for them, to live within the law presented no advantage over crime and for that matter terrorism. “The calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Arendt wrote, “but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever. Their plight is not that they are not equal before the law, but that no law exists for them.” The disasters of the twentieth century, as she judged them, had proved that a globalized order might “produce barbarians from its own midst by forcing millions of people into conditions which, despite all appearances, are the conditions of savages.” An end no happier, if we do not take care, awaits us down the road of the “carefully choreographed” violence and the “symphony of diplomacy” conducted by the last of the great powers.

—May 23, 2013


The War in Syria July 11, 2013

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