Saturday, February 11, 2012

What Exactly is Going on in Syria?

The Missing Narrative

It was bound to happen. A standoff over Syria! One big prize, two clashing camps, two contrived narratives and a singularly cynical game that has shoved out of the arena anyone and anything remotely moral or principled or ethical or halfway decent about Syria.

Bashar, as they like to say in gringo land, is one lucky S.O.B. Syria simmered while the rest of us got to watch the Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan, Bahraini and Yemeni scenarios—and each is indeed a scenario unto itself—unfold, leaving along the way a trail of instructive lessons, and not only for the Chinese and Russians.

No one, least of all us Arabs, plunged into this uproarious year expecting only the best of intentions or outcomes. Opportunities here, even a sentiment as ridiculously novel as hope, come with warning signs stamped all over them. Only this raw fact could be relied upon as a constant from the moment the people began to openly demand something different, better.

The push for change in this region was always going to be messy, complicated and morally taxing, forcing good souls into terrible choices. Do you remember that scene in Sophie’s Choice, when the Nazi officer at the train station, with the trains waiting to depart for his killing fields, asks Meryl Streep to pick between her son and daughter? “Take the girl! Take the girl!” she finally cries out, when the officer was about to take both.

Only the matter of an unbearably hard existence that finally prompted rage to dare rise against variously vicious Arab systems can be romanticized in the current mayhem. The rest of the story is all about the unavoidably distasteful and hardnosed haggling between the shapers of our future destiny. What the uprisings have so far achieved for the people is a possible seat at the table. And that for some of our patrons is already offensive enough.

Long before the blatantly opportunistic Syrian Muslim Brothers or comically inept Syrian National Council (SNC) or the “fictional” Free Syrian Army (FSA) pretended to believe in the righteousness of Western intervention, the genuinely Syrian and unarmed uprising was racing towards that most God awful question: What will we do, who could we turn to when the going gets really tough with a monstrously tough regime?

And imagine, just imagine, a possibly “revolutionary” mood in the Arab world, with regional and international forces happy to cheer on or tusk-tusk from the sidelines. Imagine something even more extraordinary: Qatar and Saudi Arabia wanting and seeking change in Syria because they’re just appalled by Assad’s brutality and are so very keen on a “democratic” Syria. But imagine something even more extraordinary still: that the people’s battle could actually be won without foreign powers squeezing and isolating, through sanctions and other such non-military means, Assad Inc.

I am not asking you to suspend your disbelief just to score a rhetorical point. I am calling on those making the arguments for each side to actually make them. Because those who warn against foreign intervention, as a matter of principle, and those demanding it, as a matter of life and death, have conveniently elected to sidestep the context that makes the Syrian case the ugly dilemma that it is. 

The very sad truth for the Syrians--for all of us Arabs--is that there is no easy or honorable answer. That’s why practically every single article is so rich with why or why not and conspicuously poor on the practical options left to a people approaching midnight.

The sorriest irony about Syria is that the chatter is all about foreign intervention, or what is referred to as the next best thing—arming the opposition--when, from the outset, neither was ever an option for the powers that be. Because Syria is not Libya, as numerous experts continue to point out, foreign military intervention is just not feasible, while militarizing the rebellion would be tantamount to lighting up Syria, the one scenario everybody wants to avoid at all costs. If Bashar understood one thing, he understood this, and then cleverly proceeded to turn the uprising into a military conflict, inflaming sectarian divisions, egging on vengeance, radicalizing Islamist insurgents, mining minorities’ fears, and pushing regional and international forces to confront the one eventuality they were least keen on for the country.

Astonishingly, the so-called anti-imperialist camp is obsessing about foreign military intervention as if that is the only door open to foreign meddlers. The fact is the West already has quit a bit of what it wants, as I wrote back in May. For them, a weak Bashar is almost as good as a gone Bashar, because the Assads’ regional weight was always an extension of their internal strength. Undercut the latter and you will have contained the former. And that is where Bashar is today: isolated, embattled, trapped and economically enfeebled, with time and energy only for saving his and his family’s neck.

True, the Qataris and Saudis gradually became keen on regaining Syria for the Sunnis, but that, for the West, is hardly a prerequisite to stealing Iran’s (and Hezbollah’s) thunder.

As for Russia, the US, Qatar, the Arab League, the UN and that great piece of theater, regrettably, of all the impertinences we’ve been hearing about, the only one that counts is that of the West insisting that Russia cede its cards in Syria as well, because, you see, it’s all a matter of principle. 


Syrians are dying and will continue to die in greater numbers as Assad stacks up for himself enough chips for that ultimate bargain. And bargain he will. Russia came in to help him do precisely that. Of course, it is all high stakes and very risky, but then that’s what Syria has always been about.

Meanwhile, bizarrely, seasoned observers continue to busy themselves in heated discussions about the pros and cons of foreign intervention, when Syria, whatever it was, is already lost. Soon, brace yourself for the horse-trading, out of which we will begin to see the shape of the new Syria—hopefully still intact.