Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Why support the Syrian revolution?

Many reasons are given for supporting either the Syrian revolution or the units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).  But while there is sympathy for the Syrian people, hardly ever do those reasons speak to or from Syrian needs.  Instead the appeal is to the quite narrow interests of others, always in negative terms:  not supporting the FSA will encourage Islamic extremism, invite a regional conflagration, squander opportunities to 'have a say in Syria's future'(!), counter-productively encourage uncontrolled arms proliferation, leave a legacy of anti-Western sentiment in Syria.  Syrians are essentially seen either as a menace, or as weaklings likely incapable of countering some menace in their midst.

Of course the idea here is that solid reasons can only rest on hard-headed realism, not sloppy sentiment.  But there may be at least two other reasons rooted in a less myopic assessment of the situation.  They invoke principles and large historical opportunities - which does not distinguish them from the sort of 'higher' motives that in fact drive a good deal of political activity.  They do have implications for the whole world, but they originate not only in the interests but also in the achievements of the Syrian people and their revolution  One reason is 'negative', the other, positive.

The negative reason has to do with what Syrians suffer.

It's taken me a while to realize that most people probably don't really know the full extent of Assad's cruelties, or how they compare to the cruelty we know has been inflicted in so many times and places.  It's not the sort of material that makes the front pages.  An appendix to this post gives some details.  For several reasons,  none solely sufficient but in combination decisive, the horrors of Syria have unique significance.

First there is the sheer barbarism.  Many régimes which have inflicted tortures perhaps as ghastly as Assad's - Chile's Pinochet and the Iran under the Shah come to mind - do not quite match his barbarism for one simple reason:  Assad's tortures are not confined to adults, much less to those who have ever posed any threat, but also to children not into their teens.  The torture of injured people in their hospital beds, and of medical staff, is also very unusual.  Sometimes victims are tortured in order to reveal information, or at least to admit to something, whether or not they did it.  Often they are simply tortured to death, simply to have them die in agony.

Second there is the scale of it.  Those tortured run into the tens, perhaps the hundreds of thousands.  Multiple deaths under torture are reported almost daily.  Perhaps as many suffered in Cambodia, or Rwanda, or the Congo; no figures are available.

In practicing such spare-no-one savagery on so vast a scale, Assad has had very few rivals - perhaps Saddam Hussein.  But in Syria there's another dimension to the nightmare - and it's no less significant for being less brutally tangible.  Never before have such atrocities been not only so visible, but so close to what might be called the mainstream world.

The torturers 'get' Twitter and Facebook.  They often record their torture sessions, down to death and mutilation, on their cell phones.  When the perpetrators are captured, these videos get onto Youtube.  In a world civilization that practically defines itself through its exposure on digital media, this sort of shamelessly public sadism gains a prominence unique in modern history.

Because Syria's atrocities are so open to the world - so much a part of that world - the failure to support the Syrian resistance is no mere strategic error.  Though history almost seems a succession of moral failures, this one is special.

Other evils, the mainstream world could ignore or minimize or pretend to ignore.  Not this one.  Nor can some ideology or reason of state be invoked as even a partial explanation or excuse.  Syria is not important enough to be strategically or economically key.  Assad is no longer a useful ally to anyone, and his régime represents neither a cause nor the pursuit of any ideal.  Indeed no cause can be invoked to support him.  If the type and scale of these cruelties are not worth opposing with determination and ferocity, what is?  What sort of justice or benevolence - for anyone - can be worth  pursuing if this evil is not worth confronting?

The  world's cowardice and passivity in the face of these crimes brings the mainstream political order into irredeemable disrepute.  No one can assess the consequences of this failure, but it's hard to imagine anything much less than a definitive loss of stature for every mainstream principle and every institution dedicated to uphold them, from the UN to the International Court of Justice to NATO and the whole panoply of apparently useless human rights organizations.  Here is an outcome whose dangers go far beyond such bogeymen as extreme Islamists, sectarian warfare, stray weapons or regional destabilization.  The danger, though occasioned by Syria's agonies, is of  the mainstream world's own making.  It will probably exceed by far whatever Syrians could possibly do to others.

In short, the refusal to support the Syrian revolution exposes the uselessness of every political entity -  every nation, every court, every assembly, every movement, every human-rights outfit - supposedly out to civilize the world.  If that sounds extreme, ask yourself by what date you'd expect these worthy institutions to protect us from savage repression.  You might also ask how long it will take to forget so prolonged and public a failure.

But there is also a 'positive' reason rooted in what the Syrian revolution represents.

If it prevails, the Syrian uprising will be the first truly popular revolt to succeed since 1789 - the first since the dawn of the industrial age.  Unlike the Russian or Chinese or Vietnamese or Cuban revolutions, it is not the design or possession of some élite vanguard.  Unlike the 19th century revolutions of Italy or Latin America, it did not coalesce around the leadership of, quite literally, a man on horseback.  It did not arise under the aegis of a military hero like Turkey's Kemal Ataturk. Unlike the Tunisian revolt, it did not succeed because the régime collapsed.  Unlike the Libyan revolution, it did not rely on outside participation.  Unlike the Egyptian revolution, it did not leave much of the old order in place, so that nothing happens without at least the passive approval of the armed forces.

When people go on about the disunity of the opposition, they haven't considered this difference.  Usually you speak of disunity in reference to something once united - a movement, a party, a state.  And normally, that's what you find when there is a revolution.  But no one tut-tutted that the French Revolution 'lacked unity'.  Like the Syrian revolution, that was a spontaneous uprising whose very disunity testified to the depth and breath of its roots.

This is no mere historical oddity.  It is proof of something quite unexpected:  that a people, starting with nothing, can prevail against a tyrannous modern state with as large and sophisticated a repressive apparatus and any tyrant could desire.  The key component of this proof is the courage of the Syrian people.  That too exceeds anything previously encountered:  never before have civilians refused to be cowed by such widespread cruelty, such firepower, and such slaughter.

The Syrian revolution brings new hope to the world, and therefore demands wholehearted, unqualified support.  Unqualified support does not mean heedless support.  It does not preclude resolve to address the very real dangers such a revolution poses.  Of course supporters also must be ready to work against sectarian infighting and other forms of extremist violence, both in Syria itself and beyond.  But these dangers must be countered in any case.  These frightening possibilities should blind no one to the compelling obligation, not to sit on the sidelines, but to help that revolution succeed.


What follows makes for very unpleasant reading.    Since it omits any results of artillery or aerial bombardment, it's only a very partial indication of what's inflicted on the Syrian people.  In part, its compilation is made necessary by the attitudes of the very humanitarian agencies from which some of the material is derived.

These agencies seem to adopted the dogma that we must never weigh one human rights violation against another - there is no better or worse.  Every nation gets its report and its scolding; every nation and every political group is culpable.   This stance suggests that if, for example, Syrian revolutionaries sometimes violate human rights, which they undoubtedly do, they are as unworthy of support as the régime they oppose.  To think otherwise then looks immoral, a sinister case of  'the end justifies the means'.  The severity of the violations doesn't seem to count.  After all, even 'persecution' on religious or cultural group, if 'consistent', is counted a 'crime against humanity' by the International Court of Justice, and that's without any reference to what form the 'persecution' might take.

This confuses morality with unreflective delicacy.  It makes no sense in principle:  is there really nothing to choose, for example, between the taking of one innocent life and the slaughter of several billion?  It makes no sense in practice  either.  We sacrifice innocent lives all the time, not just out of necessity but also for convenience.  We know, for instance, that innocent lives would be spared if we cut speed limits by, say, 90%, for non-essential vehicles.  But we don't even consider sparing them.  We're no more fastidious in our political judgements on the past.  Since we know that wars inevitably take innocent lives, was it wrong to resist Nazism, or to fight the perpetrators of the Nanking massacre?

Here are the testimonies.  I have not included anything alleged against the Syrian rebels, but you can consult Human Rights Watch if you like, and judge for yourself whether there is no better or worse in this conflict.

·         "A while ago, one of my students was detained. They hung him from his hands for 7 days and tortured him brutally until he reached the point of insanity. He was being tortured in a room where blood and urine stained the floors; and dead, decayed, worm infested bodies littered the ground. They forced him to sleep atop the bodies. He fear drove him to insanity, but they were not done with him. They slaughtered him with knives in front of the other prisoners."  (Translated speech of Shaikh Moaz Khatib, President of The National Coalition Of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, delivered during the Arab League Summit in Doha Qatar on March 26, 2013-03-24.)

·         They had started out as 20 people in that room, but some had died. They had not been fed for the entire duration of their detention. In the room where I was held, an injured man on the bed next to me was beaten at least once a day. His leg wasn’t treated. I could see the worms and small insects crawling in and out of the wound with my own eyes. In the same hospital, they would use a drill to gouge out eyes. They also used an iron welder to burn the flesh off your body as you are awake. In some cases also, they would use brute force to pull your hair out. At the hospital, they also used the method of hanging you upside down. They kept people hanging like that for days. Sometimes they changed the method of torture according to your “crime”.  For photographers and videographers, they broke their arms, their wrists, and individual fingers. They also gore their eyes out.”  (Avaaz reveals scale and horror of Assad’s torture chambers)

·         "His captors drilled into his brain while he was still living, burned his body with a welding torch, poked out his eyes and mutilated his genitals, according to his brother. They tried to strangle him with a rope so hard his fingers that were trying to stop the choking were almost severed."  ( Physician tells of brother’s torture in Syria.)

·         A compilation of torture techniques.

·         One released detainee said that he shared a cell with a young man who had been forced to have a glass bottle with a broken top inserted into his anus. One said that his cellmate had been raped with a metal skewer. Others spoke of a detainee with whom they had shared a cell who, while hanging in the shabeh position, had a cord attached to a large bag of water tied around his penis.  ('I wanted to die:  Syria's torture survivors speak out.)

·         "One of them, Jihad Saleh, had his hands bound to his feet behind his back and was left lying on his stomach without food. He starved to death in the corridor outside my cell." (Military airport transformed into torture cells in Syria: activists.

·         One 15-year-old told the charity he had cigarettes put out on him when he was imprisoned in what used to be his school.

Another described being given electric shocks and sharing a cell with decomposing bodies, while a third teenager, Wael, said he had seen a six-year-old die after being tortured and starved.

The 16 year-old told the report's authors: "I watched him die. He only survived for three days and then he simply died."

"He was terrified all the time. They treated his body as though he was a dog." (BBC News - Syria child trauma 'appalling' - Save the Children)

  •  "We were 70 to 75 people in a group cell that was 3 by 3 meters. We slept with our knees to our chests. Some people had broken hands, legs, their heads were swollen. There were 15- and 16-year-old kids in the cell with us, six or seven of them with their fingernails pulled, their faces beaten. They treat the kids even worse than the adults. There is torture, but there is also rape for the boys. We would see them when the guards brought them back to the cell, it's indescribable, you can't talk about it. One boy came into the cell bleeding from behind. He couldn't walk."  (Syria: Stop Torture of Children | Human Rights Watch)

·        In his first media interview since he fled his position as head of the intensive care unit in an Aleppo military hospital, the doctor gave a chilling eyewitness account of secret wards where he said patients were tortured or sent to their death.

"Important arrested patients, those that had more information to reveal, had to be healed. Those that were useless to them were sent to a secret ward that we nicknamed "the dark room" where they were tortured, eliminated or left to die."

The doctor, who for security reasons can only be identified as Ahmed, worked in military hospitals in Aleppo, Deraa and the suburbs of Damascus each of which had these wards.

The patients were kept in "dire" conditions with their hands and feet handcuffed to the beds and their eyes blindfolded in windowless wards, often in a basement.

Deprived of antibiotics and painkillers, and often left to lie in their own faeces, many of the patients sported gaping infected wounds."  (Syrian prisoners left to die in military hospital 'dark rooms')

·         "The discovery of the charred and mutilated bodies of three young medical workers a week after their arrest in Aleppo city is yet further evidence of the Syrian government forces' appalling disregard for the sanctity of the role of medical workers,  Amnesty International said.

All three men were students at Aleppo University – Basel Aslan and Mus'ab Barad were fourth-year medical students and Hazem Batikh was a second-year English literature student and a first-aid medic.

They were part of a team of doctors, nurses and first-aiders who have been providing life-saving medical treatment in makeshift "field hospitals" set up to treat demonstrators shot by security forces and who could not therefore go to state-run hospitals for fear of being arrested, tortured or even killed.

They had been detained by Air Force Intelligence since their arrest in the city on 17 June.


The three students' burned bodies were found in the early hours of 24 June in a burned-out car in the Neirab area of Aleppo's north-eastern outskirts.

Medical personnel who saw the bodies at the morgue told Amnesty International that Basel Aslan had a gunshot wound to the head and his hands were tied behind his back.

One leg and one arm were broken, several teeth missing and the flesh was missing from his lower legs, leaving the bone exposed. Some of his fingernails had been removed." (AIUK : Syria: Detained medics tortured and killed amid Aleppo crackdown)

·         "The woman was arrested at a checkpoint in Homs late last year.

As part of the torture, she alleges, rats and mice were used by interrogators to violate women. She described an assault on another prisoner which she says she witnessed.

"He inserted a rat in her vagina. She was screaming. Afterwards we saw blood on the floor. He told her: 'Is this good enough for you?' They were mocking her. It was obvious she was in agony. We could see her. After that she no longer moved.""  (BBC News - Syria ex-detainees allege ordeals of rape and sex abuse.)


  1. The Syrian uprising, in its current militarized form, is almost entirely the result of foreign support, financing, arming and training. So how can you describe it as "not relying on outside participation," particularly when you urge foreign support for it? Presumably this support would not just be political or humanitarian, otherwise the current level of support is enough?

    The current debate on Syria is about military help — increasing the current amount of military help the rebels are receiving, including from the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies (i.e. just because the Qataris are paying for the guns etc. does not mean the Syrian rebels are not receiving Western military aid in various forms.) The obstacles to more help, or direct military engagement with the Assad regime, are a) international law / UNSC approval for Chapter 7 action; b) lack of desire by any power to get dragged into the Syrian conflict due to human and financial costs. For Americans in particular, there is a desire (shown in recent polls) to avoid a new foreign military adventure after Iraq.

    Part of the complication of the Syria case is that it appears the regime is quite military resilient and enjoys the support of a not inconsiderable number of Syrians — whether in an absolute way for sectarian reasons, or in a relative way due to preference for the regime to the fear of Islamist alternatives. And this despite the horrors you highlight. So the compelling reason for foreign military intervention (which would further negate the argument you are making about the revolution being sui generis, etc.) cannot be humanitarian alone. It has to have a plan for what happens after Assad is gone, and a willingness to endure many long years in Syria. Personally, while opposed to US intervention for essentially American reasons, I would support intervention by Syria's neighbors, most particularly Turkey (ideally, a full-fledged invasion, disarmament and stabilization campaign under occupation for say five years). But the Turks themselves are not willing to endure the very high costs of that - see recent ICG paper on the matter.

    Bottom line: "helping the revolution succeed" can only be done through military means — direct action against the regime or arming the rebels with sophisticated weaponry. Advocates of such a solution need to explain in much greater detail how that would be done, exactly, and not indulge in romantic vision of a self-starter uprising when it is very clear they need outside help.

  2. reply, part I:

    Given the knowledge and sophistication of its author, I am frankly disturbed by this comment.

    The Arabist's assertion that the Syrian resistance is "in its current militarized form, is almost entirely the result of foreign support, financing, arming and training" sounds almost like an outburst of prejudiced fantasy. There isn't the slightest hint of evidence that the resistance is primarily armed from abroad, and the idea that it benefits from any extensive training is frankly ludicrous.

    On the matter of arms, see these recent posts:

    As for training, no one has even alleged that it is substantial. It certainly all but non-existent in the North and West, where the opposition's strongest forces are found.

    There has indeed been some financial aid, some of it from Syrian expatriates. How much and how much difference it's made is highly debatable - see the posts linked above.

    The Arabist asks how, in the light of outside support, one could say that there was no 'outside participation' in the uprising. I chose the word 'participation' carefully. In Libya, outsiders 'participated', that is, took part in the fighting with an air force. Nothing remotely comparable can be said of the Syria resistance. Outside funding doesn't refute the post's assertion that the Syrian revolution is historically distinctive. Even the French Revolution received support from the officially neutral US through food shipments to France. The British certainly saw it that way; they captured over 350 American merchants ships engaged in that activity.

    The contention that the reason 'for intervention' "cannot be humanitarian alone" doesn't quite address the point of the argument. It is not just humanitarianism that is discredited by the refusal to help. It extends to a whole range of international agencies which address all sorts of international disputes and other non-humanitarian issues. The UN itself is the best example: its impotence resides, not just in Soviet and Chinese obstructionism on the Security Council, but in the shameful behaviour of its 'peace envoys'. The damage to its already not enormous prestige certainly has more than humanitarian significance. The US, too, will in its display of fecklessness suffer more than damage to its reputation for humanitarianism.

  3. Reply, part II:

    The Arabist shows surprising confidence is his military expertise when he asserts that 'ideally' what is called for is 'a full-fledged invasion'. This is certainly not the judgement of anyone I've heard of in the Syrian resistance, nor have any opposition commanders requested any such thing. Perhaps this is why, in the subsequent paragraph, The Arabist re-introduces the possibility of 'arming the rebels with sophisticated weaponry'. If this is a possibility, then why maintain without qualification that 'millitary intervention' has to involve "a willingness to endure many long years in Syria"? (The Arabist tacks on to intervention a "disarmament and stabilization campaign under occupation for say five years" - as if to reinforce our certainty that his preference is for something that won't happen.) Why build a case on the basis of difficulties attached to an alternative no one wants?

    It is also odd that, having brought up Syrian fears of 'Islamist alternatives', The Arabist should then come down in favor of an invasion by Turkey - an Islamist state. (The Arabist is well aware that 'Islamist' doesn't mean 'Salafist' or 'Wahabist'.) Indeed any action which overthrows Assad will certainly open the way to Islamist power and to sectarian conflict. If this "complication" is a deal-breaker, shouldn't it incline us not only against intervention, but towards helping Assad suppress the uprising? That said, The Arabist might have acknowledged the very widespread and outspoken concern voiced by many in the opposition about extreme Islamists within the ranks of the Syrian resistance. And it is decidedly odd for him to note that Assad has his supporters "despite the horrors you highlight"- as if I had highlighted horrors visited on Assad's supporters!

    Finally The Arabist's response is skewed by a failure to consider which problems are appropriately addressed at what points. Post-Assad Islamism and sectarianism are likelihoods, but they are nonetheless possibilities, not immediate realities. Nothing prevents Western powers, as they deliver meaningful support to the resistance, from preparing to deal with the consequences of deposing Assad. Indeed, in one direction or the other, there is a good chance of sectarian strife no matter who wins. Why then associate this disturbing prospect only with an opposition victory? Are we to suppose that, if only Assad is victorious, sectarian peace and tranquility will prevail?

    The Arabist's comment, no doubt quite contrary to his intention, is an argument against serious efforts to stop Assad's atrocities. That is the net effect suggesting we wait for others to make the case of action 'in much greater detail', especially since the case has been made in much greater detail already. It is also curious that someone who "would support intervention" without, apparently, a need for 'much greater detail', should then request it of others. The lack of any sense of urgency in this matter is distressing.

  4. Dear Michael Neumann,

    Thanks for your replies and I want to reiterate that I am no Syria or military expert. My professional expertise is in media and North African politics. I have a blog where I venture beyond this as an amateur, and while I lived in Syria in the mid-1990s I do not claim expertise about it. I raise this issue because you highlight my "expert" status, I do not claim authority on these matters. I am informed, on top of commonly available information, by Syrian experts I have talked to in the last year on various occasions, some foreign, some Syrian, all opposed to the Assad regime. I trust their analyses, and some are backers of the rebels who nonetheless privately admit to doubts about the opposition leadership.

    On your first comment - I was countering your argument that there is no outside participation in the Syrian uprising. There clearly wasn't in the remarkable wave of civil dissent, mostly in the form of peaceful protests, that initially took place. I think it's commonly established now that the regime encouraged the militarization of the opposition by excessive brutality because it felt more comfortable on military grounds. I think it's also established that various powers have given the opposition substantial diplomatic, financial and military backing — but excluding advanced weaponry for the most part. The role of Gulf states in providing financing, and of Turkey and Jordan in providing a staging ground, is important. I do not mean to be flippant about or dismissive of the opposition — I'm simply pointing out that from the FSA to the Muslim Brotherhood to Jabha al-Nusra, many have relied on foreign support of some kind. I am NOT arguing that this makes them any less Syrian, simply that one cannot say that foreigners have nothing to do with it. Overall, the SNC has received remarkable diplomatic backing by being recognized as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people by many countries, despite lingering uncertainty about who or what it represents. Bottom line: I am not convinced by your take on the Syrian uprising as “historically distinctive”. That does not make the situation any less morally atrocious.

    You raise the issue of the discrediting of international agencies like the UN, and criticize its special envoy’s “shameful behavior.” I think Lakhdar Brahimi is motivated by his experience of civil war in his native Algeria and in Iraq, and fear of a regionalization of the conflict, hence his pursuit of a negotiated ceasefire/settlement. One may certainly criticize him for believing that Assad wants to negotiate, although I suspect his strategy is to force him to negotiate. The issue with civil wars is that they are likely to linger and be quite bloody — a negotiated settlement represents a distasteful, politically and morally unsatisfactory outcome that nonetheless might save many lives. I would not presume to rule it out altogether, particularly as a likely alternative right now appears to be encouraging the conflict to continue: the West and the Gulf backing the opposition, Iran and Russia and perhaps China backing the regime, with no resolution in sight.

  5. [continued]

    In your second comment, you mistake what I am saying. I am not saying that Syrian opposition commanders have requested a full-scale invasion. I am saying that this is what I would prefer, because it would be better disarm all sides — carrying out the disarmament and demobilization that is necessary in all post-conflict situations. Right now, an opposition victory is likely to end up with a number of militias controlling various parts of the country and perhaps fighting for the spoils.

    It’s a fantasy scenario, I readily admit, since the Turks clearly don’t want or can’t. At no point do I mean to say it’s either that or nothing. A partial no-fly zone could certainly protect some areas from aerial bombardment, although it would not solve the artillery shelling and land-based conflict if it is strictly a no-fly zone. What I like about the Turkish scenario (say, substantially backed by NATO and giving the Turks all sorts of other diplomatic support against Russia and Iran as well as in its handling of the Kurdish question) is that it would be a regional power that takes on the responsibility of stabilizing post-Assad Syria, in a manner analogous to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978. That Turkey is friendly to Islamists is not so important, its government does not encourage sectarianism like, say Saudi Arabia’s.

    You also misunderstand what my phrase “despite the horrors you highlight” — I meant that the regime appears to have some support beyond its narrow Alawi sectarian base despite the way it has acted towards fellow Syrians.

    Finally, on the point that I am essentially arguing against stopping Assad, my basic point is that what has to be foremost is stopping the conflict. Stopping Assad is just one part of that. After that, there is stopping conflict between the regime’s remains and between the various militias that now exist, stopping retribution, and restoring a working Syrian state of some sort.

  6. Thanks for your further response. Not to quibble or prolong arguments, I'll focus on your well-taken "basic point" that "what has to be foremost is stopping the conflict. Stopping Assad is just one part of that. After that, there is stopping conflict between the regime’s remains and between the various militias that now exist, stopping retribution, and restoring a working Syrian state of some sort."

    However one assesses the will and ability of the resistance to 'stop the conflict' post-Assad, it would be crazy to discount this concern, often voiced within the opposition itself. How this should affect support for the resistance is another matter.

    You agree that a full-scale ground invasion and occupation is not a live option. I'm not even sure it would work given the resources anyone would actually be willing to devote to the venture. (In my view it wasn't so much the lack of plans that was 'the problem' in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was the unwillingness to commit resources sufficient to implement *any* viable plan. The strategic experts and think tanks generally calculated that the 'allies' would need five or six times the troops they actually deployed to secure their objectives.) If an invasion won't happen, the West won't do any conflict-stopping until after Assad is gone. Only then, when the military obstacles become less formidable, does some sort of intervention become more plausible.

    If post-Assad problems will in fact be addressed only post-Assad, how can caution dictate any delay his overthrow? Is delay supposed to make time for mature reflection? I'd distinguish between caution and hesitation here. The former prepares for danger. The latter simply recognizes it and lapses into indecision.

    I think the West presents mere hesitation as caution. It's been over two years, and the West has had all sorts of 'assets' in the area for decades. Surely there's been time to prepare for contingencies if that's really what you want to do. Whatever preparation means - I'm no expert - it doesn't mean wishing for the Ideal Syrian Opposition that can be trusted with weapons. Given the radically decentralized and diverse nature of the resistance, given the shifting fortunes and desperate character of the fight, the idea that you could control weapons distribution was absurd, as was the expectation that somehow, this would change. If Western decision-makers actually expected this to happen, rather than used it as an excuse for inaction, Western populations should be very worried about their leaders.

    Maybe the West is disinclined to prepare. From their short-sighted point of view, not much is at stake in Syria. What if there's slaughter? What if the fight spreads to Lebanon? Would that really be such a threat of Western interests? Middle Eastern oil supplies would not be endangered, nor would Western bases in the Gulf States, nor would the Suez Canal - this in a region which, with the explosion of new energy projects elsewhere, is of decreasing importance to the West. As for the US' good friend Israel, it is more than capable of looking after itself.

    I've argued that stopping the conflict is indeed worthwhile. It doesn't call for hesitation about supporting the rebels. It calls for accepting the inevitable risks attached to a post-Assad future and committing resources to minimize them . It is far too late to stand by and fuss. The West could simply have said its 'vital interests' were not at stake, and done nothing. Now, after so many fine words and empty threats, that would be a dangerous capitulation. Inaction, hesitation, is now itself a risk, no less for being long-term. A reputation for callousness is one thing. A reputation for weakness and cowardice, quite another. Inevitably, the West will be defied over issues much closer to its heart.

  7. It is a big challenge for me to be critical of writings by Prof. M. Neumann. I hesitated a lot but I could not hold myself especially that I have never published anything before.
    To begin with I have to be clear that I was never a fan of the Syrian regime. Frankly I am not a fan of any Arab regime, even the ones that show tolerance and freedom. But going back to the Syrian regime let me start with generalities.
    First, I believe many will agree that since America,the west in general and many of the regional states involved in the war against the regime are by and large considered enemies of the Arab masses then that makes the Syrian regime a lesser evil. It seems to many that the support, to say the least, of the west and their allies is a right with bad intentions, as the Arabic saying goes. Having said that, the least one can end up doing is not supporting the west, nor supporting the regime. If that is hard to do that then the choice would be the lesser of the two evils: Syria.
    It is also a fact that many other countries in the region have severe human rights violations but are still supported and protected by the west. That adds hypocrisy to the situation at hand.
    In another perspective, if the attack on the Syrian regime is to break the Iranian hold on Syria and eventually Hezbollah, which I believe is a central reason for the war on Syria, then it is more reason that many of the Arabs should be worried about the defeat of Hezbollah. I do not believe I need to elaborate on this issue as Arab masses see in Hezbollah as the only hope in standing against Israel. Here, and as a distantly related issue, one may see the stupidity of ending the Saddam Hussein regime and opening Iraq to more Shiite power growth in the region.
    I come to the Syrian revolution and revolutionaries. There clearly is Syria opposition, and that existed many years back. But it is also true that the involvement of the west and regional countries in arms and money as well as opening the door to the Islamic fundamentalists and related ideologies also exists, and maybe in big numbers. We cannot hide this fact. Thus had the revolution been and remained a true and pure popular revolt, it would probably would have met much more support from those who may now be supporting the regime. Moreover, a true popular revolt lasting as it did, would have most probably broken up the army, which is made up of Sunnis as well as Alawites and other minorities, long ago.

    1. Let me first say something about the US and its position in the Middle East.

      Support for Israel aside, I do not think the US is much of an enemy any more. Sometimes change comes quickly, and things have changed since America's lumbering, unprovoked attack on Iraq. The utter failure to suppress Iraqi resistance, coming on so many other military failures, has finally and decisively deflated American morale. The US is timid and rightly held in contempt throughout the MENA.

      It isn't even clear to me that the US ever was as much an enemy of the Arab masses as the Arab régimes themselves. Even Nasser, for instance, fought and suppressed both the communists and the Muslim Brotherhood - in very different ways, defenders of 'the masses'. Virtually every Arab régime has done something similar. The Ba'ath states did do something for the people - though many would say they did even more against them. And the Syrian régime, after its bloody confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982, became too broadly and indiscriminately tyrannous to be considered any friend of the masses. The US has played a pretty minor role in these developments.

      Today, the US - again, except for Israel - really doesn't care much about the Middle East, not least because it now contemplates a future independent of Middle East oil. And Israel has become so powerful it doesn't need the US any more. Opposing the US is no longer the priority it once was, and has little prospect of doing much for the Arab masses.

      The Syrian revolution is itself as close to a movement of the Arab masses as history can offer. It is not only a revolt of the majority. It is a revolt that in large measure embraces Syria's poorest and most oppressed. Its lack of unity and structure reflects its genuinely popular nature. So if you care for the Arab masses, the revolt has a claim to your support.

      What then of geopolitics? The revolt doesn't pit the US against Assad. The US is the main obstacle to arming the opposition effectively, and there is not the slightest sign that the revolutionaries harbor any affection for either the US or Israel. As for Assad himself, there is certainly debate concerning how much he ever intended to help the Palestinians, or how much he accomplished if he did intend it. But wherever you stand in that debate, his usefulness is over.

      Though there was never anything sectarian about the Palestinian resistance, there is something sectarian about Assad's repression and Hezbollah's intervention. It's had consequences. Hamas has broken with Assad and the PLO was never close to him. Hezbollah has shown itself as an Iranian proxy and cast itself as a Shia fighting force: it will never again have the support of the Arab world, nor even the undivided loyalty of Shiites - Muqtada al-Sadr has dissociated himself from Nasrallah.

      On top of this it is extremely unlikely that Assad will be anything but a crippled ruler even if - as is unlikely itself - he stays in power. There will be years if not decades of massacre and fierce resistance. The Gulf States, Turkey and Jordan will remain hostile. His sadism and unpopularity will make him a liability to the Russians and Iranians. He will be no help to anyone in the Arab world. A Syria without him, despite all the uncertainties, has a much better chance of fulfilling that role.

  8. I'm not sure why you assume that the Syrian rebels will be any better than Assad if they come to power. Assad's regime is a murderous left-wing dictatorship like Stalin's or Mao's, but the strongest rebel factions are Islamists, so a rebel regime will be a murderous right-wing dictatorship, like Hitler's or Mussolini's, if it comes to power. It's like the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930's: whichever side won, Spain was doomed to lose. So too is the case in Syria.