IN THE YEARS leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a commonplace indictment of Saddam Hussein was that he was guilty of using chemical weapons against “his own people.” The notion that Iraqis, to say nothing of Kurds or Kuwaitis, could be considered the people of the Ba’athist regime was not lost on the dictator. The Hussein family indeed treated all of Iraq as its personal property, inclusive even of the private lives of Iraq’s citizens, and revealed itself ever eager to extend these possessions beyond its own borders.
I confess that by beginning a piece on Syria with a mention of Iraq I’ve fallen for an easy temptation: for who isn’t thinking of Iraq as the Americans once again produce retaliatory military action against a rogue regime and its use of WMDs? The analogy I have in mind, however, lies elsewhere. Syria’s 1966 coup produced the splinter of a once whole, pan-Arab Ba’athism among whose other factions was the Baghdad regime. Saddam Hussein throughout his nasty career attempted to revive the pan-Arabism first fractured within Syria, but otherwise the Syrian and Iraqi Ba’athist regimes (as well as the countries within which they operated) would share their principal features. After 1970 the Syrian Ba’athist party would be subsumed under the dynastic and dictatorial Assad family, and both regime and family would become inseperable and indistinguishable from the state — the same totalitarian process undertaken concurrently in Mesopotamia.
Further to this theme of attacking “one’s own people” — a charge now leveled against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — it is worth remembering that the French Mandate of Syria produced for a time what we would today term a Balkanized territory. Part of this sectarian-derived Syria was an autonomous Alawite region (later named the Government of Latakia) whose later absorption into the Republic was protested in 1936 by the current Syrian President’s grandfather, Ali Sulayman. In what must now be considered a historical irony, the French set aside a coastal Alawite State to protect its inhabitants from the Sunni majority. Again one may discern a parallel with Iraq (the eventual product of the British Mandate in Mesopotamia), whose ruthless Ba’athist regime was constituted by a small clique of minority Sunnis who for decades would terrorize the Shiites.
To draw even this rough analogy is to suggest the limitations of a Syrian intervention, especially of the expedient kind. We in the West tend to see the Middle East in broad sectarian terms, forgetting that even to use the phrase “Middle East” (coined in the nineteenth century by the American Alfred Mahan) is to indulge in ethnocentricism. The factionalism of Syria is real, as it is in Iraq, but it is also an insufficient and often misplaced analytical tool. More to the point is the trans-sectarian human misery and the internal civilian displacements, whose current scale and depth invoke Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the most wicked acts of the twentieth century’s closing scenes. A symbolic military strike will not solve this sort of problem; indeed, the only problems it will address are guilty consciences and the psychic headache created by the American President’s diminishing credibility.
Nothing of the above can absolve, nor should be construed as absolving, Bashar al-Assad and those fighting against him of crimes committed. The war in Syria is now a suicidal confrontation in which the gutting of Syria for a generation to come is a credible prospect. Furthermore, the regime has employed a deliberate strategy of attacking civilians and civilian life to further isolate and undermine oppositional forces. I recall well the rise of Bashar al-Assad and the international adulation and great expectation of democratic reform which followed, which is to say I know what sort of difference a day can make. In the same manner, may the notion of miltary stalemate and futility soon sink in, providing the much tarnished international community an opportunity to introduce a face-, as well as skin-saving, prospect of a negotiated way out. As unlikely as this appears, less likely still is the improvement of Syrian conditions by the late application of a quick bombing campaign. Meanwhile, the people of Syria need potable water, food, physical safety and the prospect of a post-war home and homeland.
The war, we do well to remember, did not begin with the dirty business of factionalism: it began with the ordinary human desire for a better life and a better country in which to live it. The way ahead therefore remains embedded in the principles of the “Syrian Manifesto of the 99,” demanding the end of a hereditary and dictatorial state, cancellation of the decades-long emergency rule, the re-introduction of political parties and of civil society, and the release of critics of the regime. In short the end of Syria as the property of the Assad family or some similar successor. In principle a cause worthy of a fight, it is in practice awaiting those who can credibly explain why and how to undertake the battle, on whose side, and to what end.