The False Equation of Supporting Resistance and Authoritarianism in Syria
By: Issa Khalaf
Published Friday, December 21, 2012
It is false and misleading to assert, as some do, that resistance to foreign design and control suggests support for authoritarianism in Syria; that it downplays the right of the Syrian people to resist a fearsome regime that brutalized them for half a century; and that it implies dropping opposition to the regime and the struggle against it.
Equally false is the assumption that criticizing the armed opposition means accepting the regime’s narrative of its role as an anti-imperialist frontline. The paramount goal of the Syrian Ba’ath is self-preservation above all.
It is true that, in addition to opposing American dominion, the Syrian regime has cooperated with Washington when it deemed it necessary, as it did with the reigning autocracies in the region – apparently to no reciprocal avail, and in exchange for threats, hostility, and subversion. This also applies to the Palestinian Authority, as it does to Arab regimes in general who’ve put their people’s fortunes in Washington’s care. Even Islamist governments, such as the one in Egypt, find themselves working and coordinating with Washington on several issues, from preserving the security state and the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty with Gaza.
Perhaps the Syrian regime’s perceived hypocrisy is a manifestation of a consummate realpolitik, reflecting the tactical moves and calculations that the Syrian state – whether it’s authoritarian or democratic – has to make to preserve the country’s political independence and integrity.
The Syrian state’s interests, dictated by its relative weakness and vulnerability, include: stability, a quiet border with Israel, moderation, some measure of military power, and alliances with state and non-state actors to balance Washington’s hostility and Tel Aviv’s regional depredations. This strategic constant is after all a function of Syria’s geographic and political role in the region as well as its diversity.
The argument that anti-intervention somehow means rejection of the armed rebellion or support of the regime constitutes a tautological straw horse. One can oppose the regime and external intervention. Logically, there is no contradiction in supporting Syrians’ rights to rebel against authoritarianism and opposing military intervention. Why pose a false opposition that doesn’t exist and attribute this dichotomy to those who wish, say, to see a negotiated political settlement?
In any case, it’s nonsense to assume that criticizing the armed opposition means supporting the regime because of its anti-imperialist stance. We all know that “socialist” and monarchical regimes equally stifle democracy, freedom, and dignity. The argument that the government has many supporters among a cross section of the population and that rebels, extremists, and the regime itself have violently shut down the voice of the Syrian “silent majority” is eminently plausible. After all, among the many affected by the violence are tens of thousands of refugees who fear rebel reprisal upon returning to their homes.
The regime’s elite benefactors and security services aside, are all the Syrian people unified in the goal of violently overthrowing the state? Perhaps the majority desires a peaceful change or transition. Openly inquiring into the armed opposition’s goals, its level of popular support and sources of arms should not be summarily dismissed just to sustain an idealized version of the Syrian conflict.
The false-equation analysts offer little by way of solutions. They only assert that the Syrian people must rebel and the regime must go while also rejecting external military intervention, even though the rebels, themselves, are calling for such intervention in one form or another.
How to extricate Syria from this conundrum? The Syrian uprising must remain, or more accurately become, a national uprising with a program for transition and a vision of the future. This means that a unified opposition must be pragmatic and stop insisting on regime change as a precondition to ending violence and be ready to negotiate a political settlement. Given the Syrian people’s great suffering, this is a moral imperative.
Internal unity is the only – I repeat only – option Syrians have to avoid the further dismemberment of their country. This can’t be achieved by striking a devil’s bargain in the name of procuring arms and eliciting military intervention. The essentially Sunni Muslim rebellion – led by assorted Islamists from the Brotherhood to Salafis to foreign global Jihadi types – is ready to embrace and cooperate with those it reflexively distrusts and vilifies: Western imperial states and Arab autocrats. Is this a result of a desperate, brutalized rebellion, or cynicism and self-preservation of the highest order?
Aside from the destructive role played by external powers to destabilize Syria, internal Syrian realities have been utterly disappointing. These realities manifest themselves over and again: that the Arab lands are hopelessly divided by sectarianism and ethnicity if not regionalism and tribalism, or Islamism and secularism; that the Arab lands are incapable of building democratic, stable coalitions to achieve a collective end.
In any case, these intellectual arguments, including the one I’m making here, are inconsequential, for events in Syria have sidelined internal political cohesion and succumbed to the inexorable momentum of violent regime change. I see little relief for Syria except continuous, large-scale human suffering, destruction, and dislocation from this dreadful war, maybe even after the regime falls.
Issa Khalaf, a Palestinian-American, has a D. Phil. in Politics and Middle East Studies from Oxford University.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.
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