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Syrian Intervention: The Dearth of Favourable Options

As we move into the fall of 2013, the United States of America once again stands where it did ten long years ago: considering a military strike against a Muslim nation in the Middle East ruled by a brutal dictator who has targetted his own people with chemical weapons. Syria is not Iraq, Bashar al-Assad is not Saddam Hussein, and the Syrian rebels are not the Kurds (there are also Kurds in the midst of the Syrian conflict, by the way). The loose factional opposition to Assad’s Ba’athist regime may have sprung from the populist Arab Spring protests that so heartened Western liberals, but it now (and maybe always) included among its number Mujahideen and al-Qaeda splinter thugs, not to mention more above-board Islamic fundamentalist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood that has been at the heart of the painful upheaval in nearby Egypt.

If Assad’s chemical weapon attacks are judged to be beyond the pale by the international community (by which we mean the U.S. and whoever is willing to rattle sabres with them) and worthy of a robust military intervention, then the opposition can boast an impressive resume of similar if only slightly less horrible violations of its own. Most of the Euro-North American major players in this quickly escalating saga – the U.S., Russia, Britain, France – have experienced bloody internecine conflicts too distantly in their national histories, one supposes, to recall that brutality towards civilians is central to these sort of civil wars. What would the modern U.N.-NATO international policing machine make of, say, the monstrous, drawn-out savagery of the Russian Civil War, for example? Despite the stubborn insistence of Serious People throughout history that war can be contained and concentrated along productive vectors to achieve loftier political goals, in practice, the common people who find themselves in the path of this apparently focused destruction are sacrificed at its black altars. As it long has been elsewhere, so it is in Syria.

Will air strikes properly address the Syrian situation? No, because the situation cannot be properly addressed by any player in it, internal or external, when it is based in assumptions so inherently improper as are those that come with war. Wars must eventually have a winner, but until they do everyone involved in a loser, frittering away resources and goodwill and community and lives, ever so many lives, until one side or the other can sustain no further sacrifice. It’s a profoundly unnatural state that comes far too naturally to human beings. The Syrian situation is extremely complex; regime change is not an ironclad solution (and does not seem to be sought by the interventionists), and it’s hard to pinpoint local partners with whom a better administration could be collaboratively forged.

In this calamitous circumstance, U.S. President Barack Obama, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and once the most towering progressive hope in generations, faces no good options. Already bruised from both sides of the political spectrum by the revelations of the depth of the National Security Agency‘s domestic surveillance practices, Obama must think and think hard before taking action (and, it appears, run whatever action he hopes to take past the fractious Congress). Fortunately, he has shown himself to be a President who does nothing without careful, analytical consideration. Unfortunately, he has also shown himself to be thoroughly in the thrall of the seemingly omnipotent national security state whose influence he once sought to diminish, and war, however limited, is always quite on the table for its shadowy masters.

A second-term war, however limited in its scope, was a part of his political legacy that Obama surely would have hoped to avoid. But international affairs, particularly in a Middle East that is ever unstable in changing ways, do not always afford easy choices or preferable options; indeed, they rarely do. Neither acting nor not acting promises to improve the situation in Syria; indeed, there’s little agreement about what “improvement” would even entail in a civil war (at least mostly) between a secular despot and Islamist extremists. But the unforgiving choice between multiple unfavourable outcomes in Syria seems like a particularly contemporary one, after all.

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