The events in Syria and the intervention debate

By the Guardian's inimitable Steve Bell

After today’s amazing events in Damascus — the bombing that decapitated at least three senior regime figures, the fighting inside of Damascus itself, rumors of regime splits, defections and escapes — it is little wonder that the debate over what the international community should do has flared up once again. For the interventionists, it appears to have been an occasion for misplaced snark.

Take this exchange between Shadi Hamid and Jeffrey Goldberg:

This misses the point — earnestly or not — that the case against intervention in Syria is not about how violent the conflict would get. It is about not getting involved about something that will be inevitable violent and bloody and could be further complicated by intervention. The survey statistics that came out today about how Americans feel about intervention in Syria, for instance, show contradictory data: on the one hand a majority of Americans are for imposing a no-fly zone, but on the other a majority is against carrying out the attacks on Syrian air defense systems that would be a necessary precondition to imposing a no-fly zone. It’s obvious that most respondents do not necessary make that link, but pro-intervention people like to spin it that in fact Americans would back an intervention. But you can just as easily, and in fact more plausibly, spin it the other way around: if they knew that it would involve an attack on Syrian military installations, Americans would not back a no-fly zone. After all, the strong trend in that survey is one of opposition to military intervention in Syria.

Taking things a step further, neocon editorialist Max Boot — who appears to have never heard of a country he didn’t want to invade — makes the case that early reports that the bombing was a suicide bombing (which is contested by the Free Syrian Army, remains unproven, and in any case either way the bombing is still an act of terrorism by any international standard) is another argument for intervention:

So now in Syria there is a great danger that America’s hesitancy to get involved on the rebel side has ceded the momentum to jihadist suicide bombers. They by no means represent the mainstream of Syrian opposition. But they will increasingly gain the upper hand, quite possibly with Saudi and Qatari help, unless the U.S. does more to help the secularists and moderates. And that, in turn, means the Obama administration will have to stop waiting for the blessing of the UN and Moscow before getting more involved. Only greater American-led intervention can end the fighting and stop Syria’s descent into greater barbarism.

Likewise, Michael Weiss, of the neocon British Henry Jackson society, appears to inadvertently make a case against armed intervention:

As for continued diplomacy, British Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the bombing and U.N. envoy Kofi Annan asked the Security Council to delay a vote on a resolution calling for sanctions against Syria. He might have done so via carrier pigeon to underscore just how behind the times the international response is to this crisis. The United States, Britain, France one side, and Russia and China on the other, are in a pitched war of words over a country that exists only in their collective imagination, where a “political solution” is still thinkable and we’re only one stray comma away from the Chapter VII resolution that will bring lasting peace and stability.

This is either supreme fantasy or deep cynicism underwriting what is in fact a consensus that no one has the desire or will to sort out Syria. Rebels I spoke with recently in Istanbul – they were there to attend a bomb-making seminar – told me that even if Assad were to renounce power, they’d fight on because the institutions of state terror, including the 27 torture dungeons recently anatomized by Human Rights Watch, would inevitably remain in place. No one abroad seems to want to listen to them. Maybe now they will.

So if the rebels will continue their fight to achieve their own aims no matter what is done, perhaps it is best to get out of the way. Weiss is right when he says there is “a consensus that no one has the desire or will to sort out Syria” — that consensus is evident among NATO member states including the US as well as much of the neighborhood (if they are so keen on intervention, why don’t the Qataris or Saudis do it themselves with all the armaments they’ve been buying over the last decade?) No one wants to pay the potential price, not after Iraq.

Finally, David Ignatius mixes apples and oranges on when he argues:

The most urgent question for CIA officers is how potent are al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the Syrian opposition. The answer seems to be that, while al-Qaeda is a factor, other opposition groups are promising the United States that they will root it out — once they have disposed of the Assad regime. That’s somewhat reassuring, similar to the alliance Gen. David Petraeus formed in Iraq with Sunni militias against al-Qaeda.

Not so reassuring: in Iraq al-Qaeda had some support among Sunnis because the invasion changed the sectarian balance and Sunnis could plausibly argue that Shias had sold out the independence of Iraq to the US to get rid of Saddam. In Syria, if al-Qaeda (or more accurately, jihadists who use the al-Qaeda label) is involved in attacks such as today’s, they’ll be heroes to all those are rejoicing about the death of key regime figures. Big difference.

The truth is that commentators rush out their opinions based on their preconceived notions before they know the full facts. What if it turns out that today’s attack was indeed carried out by one of the better-organized, better-funded elements of the opposition that perhaps had an inside reach into the regime (via recent defectors…), and this had nothing to do with al-Qaeda (indeed the regime itself may have invented the Jihadist group that took credit for the attack, for all we know.)

The important thing is that the Syrian opposition appears to have struck a major blow to the regime today, perhaps even a near-fatal one precisely because it is so unexpected. We do not know if they are ready for the blowback that is likely to come, or what else comes next. In the meantime it is petty to belittle the “political solution” that will be needed eventually (when both sides are ready or the rebels have won decisively) because one of an abstract enthusiasm for liberal interventionism that the international community is clearly not interested in.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.