No Winners in Syrian Civil War

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Members of the Free Syrian Army attend their daily training in Sarmada, north of Idlib province, 4 July 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Shaam News Network - Handout)

By: Antoun Issa

Published Thursday, July 5, 2012

Discourse on Syria in recent months has been dominated by pundits of war from both sides of the fence. Anti-regime ravings for NATO intervention are countered by pro-regime arguments of a war in self-defense against imperialism. The two extremes, while cheering for opposing forces, are advocating the same inevitable outcome a full-scale war on Syria would bring: the total destruction of the country.

Supporters of both camps ironically argue the same line to justify their case for war. Both insist that “their” war is a just cause for the greater good of Syria, and war is the only solution to salvage the ideal Syria they envision. Unfortunately for both camps, the ideal Syria they seek will not be waiting for them by the time a bloody war tears at the fabric of Syrian society.

But neither side is willing to listen to reason, and they have successfully snuffed out an alternative to war in the current discourse on Syria. Columns, YouTube videos and tweets championing the cause of war against President Bashar Assad are met in kind, only against “terrorists” and “conspirators.” Propagandists of both sides have suffocated the chance for maneuvering within Syria, and slandered positions that do not pander to the case for war, but rather emphasize the shortcomings of both hard-line regimists and opposition supporters.

The “with or against us” dichotomy has characterized the debate on Syria over the past 16 months, and has been erroneously imposed on observers from afar as well as on the Syrian people themselves. But despite the proponents of war successfully filling the media space, a significant portion fails to be categorized within this narrow paradigm that believes war is the only way out of Syria's mess.

Rather, it is necessary to establish a new dichotomy by which to determine the best approach to the Syrian crisis: either with Syria's national interests, or against. And as far as this measurement is concerned, supporters and opponents of Assad beating the war drum are equally working against Syria's national interests.

War, regardless of the exhaustive theoretical or moralistic arguments used to justify it by both camps, is not in Syria's national interests. The complete destruction of cities and villages, the mass murder of civilians, the ethnic cleansing of neighborhoods, and the total, violent fragmentation of society can in no way be deemed as a conducive, let alone necessary, route to achieve some idealized image of Syria. Academia is not required to recognize that a nation at war with itself is not in its interests.

A civil war in Syria, which will inevitably be fought along sectarian lines, will send the country so far back that it will take generations to recover. Those advocating war today will most likely be dead before they see their ideal Syria arise, if it ever does. None of the main armed protagonists in Syria at present have the country's interests at heart. It is abhorrent to argue that the regime is fighting for Syria's greater good when it sends its security forces to level neighborhoods and carry out unspeakable atrocities against its own people.

It is equally unjustifiable to back uncontrollable armed groups, backed by Gulf dictatorships and whose numbers are undetermined, that mimic the regime's tactics through a similar level of brutality, including horrendous crimes against minority sects. While daily death tolls are a constant source of contention between the opposing camps, atrocities from both sides are indisputable and have been documented by a number of human rights organizations.

Those Syrians waving the NATO intervention flag also seem to have short memories. This is a region not new to conflict and cries for foreign military help. Greater Syrians jumped at the opportunity when Britain and France intervened in the region to oust the Ottoman Turks. Instead of self-determination, the people were carved into mini-states, with Israel planted in the region’s heart.

Israeli troops were welcomed with showering rice in certain South Lebanese villages, while local Christian militias thought Israel's intervention would be its salvation. What the South received was 22 years of brutal occupation and bloodshed, while the Christian militias were abandoned on the mountain top.

Certain sections of Iraq's Shia and Kurdish communities were ecstatic to see American tanks roll their way into Baghdad in 2003, only to be left with a crumbling state, worsening living conditions and endless security woes as its rich natural resources are siphoned away. NATO's intervention in Libya in 2011 indeed dislodged Muammar Gaddafi, but brought with it an influx of heavy weaponry now in the hands of countless rogue militias, plunging the country into chaos.

This region has seen its fair share of foreign interventions, and the course never changes. States will not intervene in a conflict unless there are considerable gains to be made and the costs are low. And the interests of the intervening powers are seldom in line with the aspirations of those it purports to support. Indeed, advocates of intervention fall into the confines of the current discourse, which has limited Syria's options only to war.

Full-scale war cannot be Syria's only solution, and it is necessary to break the boundaries on discourse established by the proponents of war in order to seek an alternative that respects Syria's national interests and saves it from oblivion. The initial step is to reinforce in this discourse the basics of Syria's national interests, which are no different to any other state’s.

Syrians, as all people, have the right to self-determination and full self-expression. Syria's ethnic and religious diversity must be enshrined under a unifying Syrian identity that does not distinguish between the various creeds of its citizens. Additionally, Syria's sovereignty must be respected. These are basic assumptions of a nation's interests applicable to all states, and can serve as a platform in resolving the current Syrian crisis, and establishing a future Syria beyond autocracy.

It is not obligatory for observers, or even Syrians, to choose a side if a full-scale war passes. A third option that respects Syria’s national interests needs to remain steadfast, and provide an escape to the orgy of violence currently ravaging the country.

Ordinary Syrians do not want to live through the horrors of war that befell their neighbors Iraq and Lebanon, and nor should they be condemned to such a fate. If the extremes of both sides are advocating war, then a third stage must be established for those who are vehemently anti-war. For it will be those loyal to Syria’s national interests who must be ready to pick up the country from its ruins.

Antoun Issa is the News and Opinion Editor at Al-Akhbar English.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.


The foreign intervention imposed this war on every syrian citizen. Citizen! That is the paradoxal property of a war, that has been conceived and promoted along sectarian lines. So the best syrians can do is to make this a civil, a republican war, that sets an end to the allegiances of the syrian estate system, that is articulated by tribes, clans and ethnic / religious boundaries; because that's the only way, their children might one day judge, the war was worth all that blood. The alternative is capitulation under the condition of a balcanizing fragmentation, that would see the sunni population as the looser in a landlocked area.

Good stuff, Antoun.

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