Syrians deserve better than international hand wringing
We have already failed the people of Syria so much over the past three years
The military had ousted Hosni Mubarak only days before. I had been in Tahrir Square the night his removal had been announced, and had the good fortune of travelling from Cairo shortly thereafter for a conference. On the way from Egypt to the U.S., I stopped in on friends in England and met with a Syrian acquaintance at a restaurant. He was skeptical about the Egyptian uprising and said: “what about us, then? Should we revolt against our ruler?’ I hesitated to give an answer, and simply said “that’s not my call. That’s Syria’s call.” Three years later, his country is burning – and the blood continues to spill.
I say I had the good fortune to travel just a few days after Mubarak was forced out because it meant that I could see friends and colleagues who had been glued to their television screens, wondering what was going in the “mother of the world.” I remember seeing that Syrian chap very well – because I’d been warned by another Syrian that I ought to be careful with what I said. We were in the UK, he said – but this fellow, he thought, had links to the Syrian secret service. Well into the uprising, I visited that restaurant again, and saw Bashar al-Assad’s picture still hung up.
I answered his question truthfully, though. In February 2011, I wondered whether or not a revolution would be the way to go – whether in Libya or Syria - before they actually got under way. With all my affection for the people of Syria and Libya, and my lack thereof for the regimes of Muammar al-Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad, I wasn’t about to recommend an uprising – peaceful or otherwise. The price, I was sure, would be very dear – such was the brutality I was certain both regimes would employ, rather than allow their people that inalienable right of freedom.
But when it starts – it starts. When Libya began, so quickly after Mubarak’s ouster, it quickly went from a peaceful protest to an armed rebellion, in response to vicious cruelty by the Qaddafi regime. Supporting Libyan freedom was always going to the only moral choice that could be made once Libyans themselves decided to stand up and say “no” to Qaddafi. But the Libyan revolutionaries had the blessing of forming ranks quickly, and the revolution freed a whole sector of the country in the east fairly quickly – so quickly, it was easy to speak of, physically, two very distinct areas in Libya. When the NATO intervention began, it had the advantage of identifying a solid geographic area that could be supported – and Benghazi was essentially the capitol of the free Libyan forces. Months later, the free Libyans were victorious – via a NATO intervention, as opposed to wisdom by the Qaddafi regime, or an intervention by a friendly Arab force – but victorious, nonetheless.
The Syrian morass
When it came to Syria, however, it was different. On the one hand, it was clear that the only moral choice was to stand by the people of Syria against a vicious tormenter. On the other, it was also clear that tormentor was so vicious, he would never let go – that he would rather have Syria burn to the ground than let it go voluntarily. Moreover, it was clear that the outside world would do little or nothing to intervene in a way that might save Syrian lives, even if, as the cynics might argue, inadvertently or coincidentally. Syrians had to have the ability and the chance to express themselves and their desires for their future without fear of death – but against the Assad regime, it would always come at a great price.
I would venture to say the fate of Syria is not simply their fate. On the contrary – it seems it may be the fate of many of our own consciences and moral compassesH.A. Hellyer
I shan’t question their decision. Sitting in Cairo, as Egypt’s own revolution unfolded, I was in Tahrir Square when the free Syrian flag was flown through the crowds in 2011 and 2012. Revolutionary Egyptians were always clear – their revolution would never be successful if Syrians continued to suffer under the boot of a tyrant. Indeed, one could even tell who was truly committed to the ideals of the Egyptian revolution by how they related to the revolution of Syrians. Syrians had the right to live free – and if anyone is to blame for turning that simple, peaceful demand into a violent armed struggle, it is not the Syrian revolutionaries. Rather, it is the regime, that responded to peaceful protests with such callousness, that ought to bear responsibility.
There have been many disappointments in these past three years. I’ve witnessed many of the anti-war left within the UK and elsewhere, comrades in arms in many ways, make apologies for the Syrian regime – presumably because the West and its allies generally stood opposition to it. Even further afield on the left, there are many objections, often well-grounded, to certain types of Western intervention – but there’s rarely any alternative provided. I’ve seen Western powers be so incredible feeble and ineffectual in terms of applying genuine pressure on the Assad regime, and its allies, although at least that was not particularly surprising. Even men (and women) of religion and faith defend Bashar al-Assad and his forces – in a way that no person of any ethical compass should have been able to do. It is not that there is no legitimate critique of the forces fighting Assad – of course, there are many and the religious extremism that now so deeply festers within Syria might take a generation to deal with, with much pain along the way. But, that extremism was released as a consequence of Assad’s own actions – when free Syrians rose up, they were certainly not Jabhat al-Nusra or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. They just wanted to be free.
I would venture to say the fate of Syria is not simply their fate. On the contrary – it seems it may be the fate of many of our own consciences and moral compasses. Syrians deserved, and deserve, better than our simply wringing our hands and saying, “Well, we’d like to do something, but it’s awfully complicated.” We have already failed the people of Syria so much over the past three years. I still believe they had the right to at least try to have a choice – even though the price of simply trying was so dear. But the international community also has a choice – a choice to leave Syria to continue to suffer, and a choice to save its generations from yet more devastation. I hope it makes the right choice – better late than never. And then we can all pray for forgiveness. #FreeSyria
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.
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