By Kumar David –
Assad, Obama and the Citizens of the World: What shall we do about Syria?
First let me lay down my locus standi in addressing this topic. Those of us outside Syria, who seek to intervene physically, intellectually or as demonstrators on the streets, are entitled to do so as citizens of the world; we are our brother’s keepers, when Jesus said otherwise he blundered. I reject the notion of national sovereignty, fundamentally; it’s a deception used by rulers to crush people under a jackboot while thwarting outside intervention. Are we not familiar with GoSL playing the sovereignty card to hide war crimes? I said ‘fundamentally’, so what’s the caveat? Simply that a majority of people do take their national, ethnic or religious identity seriously (fools don’t see that “patriotism is merely the last refuge of the scoundrel”); hence I have to adjust for this unfortunate reality in practice. Not everybody is an internationalist; pretty darned few are!
Secondly, at this moment the most dramatic international concern is whether Obama will strike Syria. I am not an American, hence not a stakeholder, but it is of utmost concern to everyone because America’s actions will so change global dynamics (for better or for worse I will discuss anon) that it warrants apprehension. Every citizen of the world has as much right as any American to engage in the debate about US actions. Now let me state my frame of reference; Bashar al-Assad is a monster and I support the efforts of the Syrian people to overthrow him, though I am aware that the opposition consists of contradictory forces and there is no guarantee that once he is gone flourishing democracy will take his place. But if we wait for watertight guarantees no dictator will be removed; you have to take sensible risks. There were similar worries in Libya about the post-Gaddafi scene, but a after a period of chaos and turmoil, a new far from perfect but better than Gaddafi era, Libya is taking shape. Events have proved the risk was worth it.
I wish to make a few general remarks about foreign governmental interventions – previously I spoke on behalf of the citizens of the world, not governments. Now what about governments? States are motivated by their own interests, be it America in Iraq, Russia in Belarus or China in Lanka. Take that as given, then it is up to locals to choose allies and structure relationships wisely. Rebel leaders in Libya on the whole got the calculus right; maximise foreign support but retain leadership and decision making in your hands, that was their shrewd perspective. Get this equation wrong like the Sinhalese kings who played the Dutch against the Portuguese and the British against the Dutch and they end up vassals of their erstwhile allies. These are the guidelines revolutionary leaders and citizens of the world must use re foreign assistance, but also bear in mind that such assistance is a predicate without which struggles in modern times are fated to defeat. The Syrian opposition needs American, French and Arab help as desperately as Assad needs Russia and Iran.
This was a long but unavoidable ideological harangue about how revolutionary or rebellious movements, numerous these days, should think. In dealing with Rajapakse, Gaddafi, Assad or the Burmese regime of yesteryear, this frame of reference is basic. If we get this theoretical bit right it is easier to deal with particular cases and specific examples; in the present instance Syria.
Obama’s unintended game plan
The American game plan is the most crucial in the international scene today. Obama has two trivial concerns as well; covering up political inaction of two years and salvaging personal credibility after Assad defied his “thin red-line”. However, the prolonged inaction and red-line remark will soon be forgotten. The real stuff is the strategic Pandora’s Box that he has opened? The imperative for America (not me) now is how to keep the credibility of the United States as a super-power and a world leader in good repair. The objective of US foreign policy at this crucial moment is to retain American “world leadership”. Hence I expect Congress and President to rally together next week and work out a unity-consensus. Obama has in effect put aside his thin red line, Congress has become bipartisan, both are working towards a longer term strategy to keep US “world leadership” intact. Whether to attack, when to attack, what to attack etc. will be phased into a more carefully thought out and strategically oriented game plan – McCain type thinking. When America’s basic interests are at stake Republicans and Democrats, President and Congress come together. Hot-shot one-night stands are of passing relevance; any missiles Obama may or lob later this month are but the opening salvo in a wider drama. This is perfunctory Act-I; Act-II is the “political solution” (code for the overthrow of Assad, soon or after a while). But even this is peanuts; a much bigger game has commenced.
And that game is a re-evaluation of American foreign policy in the Middle East, just as the Obama-pivot signalled an overhaul of foreign and military policy in Asia. What Obama has kicked-off, unintentionally, is a major discussion to reposition US foreign policy in the Middle East. When he shifted the Syrian intervention question to Congress as a deft move to get himself out of hot water he unleashed a wholesale debate in the media, in Congress and among scholars about long-term policy and perspectives in respect of Syria and the whole Middle East. It is very likely Congress will give him authorisation to act, but it is no longer about popping off a few bombs. It is about what action and what continued policy orientation is appropriate on a big scale and a sustained period. The discourse is spilling over into the wider public domain.
A new opportunity has opened before the American public, but it remains to be seen whether people will grab it. I can understand that a war weary public, disillusioned by Bush’s lies and the Iraq War, doesn’t want to be drawn in again. However, US Middle East policy has been in shambles since 9-11. Military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan failed; the former a complete disaster. Worse than that, America is and has been backing all the wrong horses from the Shah of Iran to Hosni Mubarak. It failed to capitalise on the Arab Spring and Libya and made no progress on Palestine. Its friends still are dictators like the Saudi Monarchy and Gulf State autocrats. Above all, the vital issue which will shape the future is that the United States has still not worked out its modus vivendi with Islam. Unless it squares its relationship with 25% of the world’s population (1.7 billion people) the US will remain a stunted superpower.
The decisive readjustment that Americans can make with the Middle East is to grow people to people relationships. During the revolution in Egypt in 2011 there was a fragment of contact between young American IT-nerds and Egyptian youth. This was but fleeting; there is no people-to-people rapport of significance between Americans and Arabs. Consider the contrast with Britain; the special relationship is not government-to-government but a historically, culturally rooted intermingling of peoples. Of course collective roots, a common language and a shared ethos cannot be artificially recreated, but people-centric connections between Americans and Indians (and to a visible extent Chinese) is in stark contrast to the standoff with the people of the Arab world. Americans have to reengineer themselves in the Arab world, and for that the relationship with Islam must be recalibrated. These are not things governments can do, though they can help; people-to-people connections can.
The Syrian Opposition
The opposition consists of dozens of organisations which it has been difficult to bring under a common political structure. The situation is chaotic and fluid as alliances change, new movements emerge, old ones wind up. There are five entities to use as a frame of reference; the National Coalition Council (NCC), Supreme Joint Military Command (SJMC), Syrian Liberation Front (SLF), Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) and Jabat al-Nusra (JaN). The NCC is the political leadership to which most organisations except SIF and JaN owe allegiance; it is secular, in words democratic, and an umbrella liberation alliance but riddled by leadership conflicts.
The SJMC is the command structure of fighting units, including a large number of deserters from the Syrian Army. Technically the SJMC falls under the NCC; actually the SJMC is the source of power, not the other way round. This is not the CCP and Mao leading the forces of the Chinese Revolution (the forerunner of the PLA); in communist organisations the hegemony of the political leadership is absolute. The most important element in the SJMC is the Free Syrian Army, the largest force in the opposition, but it has neither the tight structure nor combat ability of the Islamists. The moderately Islamist SLF too is technically under the SJMC but since it is an aggregation of hundreds of units arranged in 20 loosely knit brigades there is not much control the SJMC can exert.
The two Islamist forces (SIF and JaN) stand outside the NCC and the SJMC, ideologically and militarily. The SIF consists of conservative Salafists who would like to see a religious content in a post-Assad state, but thankfully they are more Syrian nationalist than religious zealots calling for a global Islamic confederation or caliphate. The nigger in the woodpile is the JaN, an al-Qaeda affiliated secretive organisation, which despite its small size, is a formidable fighting force. There is tension between JaN and others who are under pressure to distance themselves from JaN in exchange for US support. It’s all very complicated, but welcome to the real world!