George Abu Ahmad
Dr. Ahmad is a teacher at the University of Arizona. George Abu Ahmad is a pseudonym used out of consideration for the connections the author has in Syria.
My pseudonymous friend Musa al-Gharbi argued in these pages that without perfect knowledge of the definitive demographics of the deaths and politics of the Syrian rebellion, well-intentioned outsiders should give the benefit of the doubt to the Assad regime and err on the side of passivity and the status quo.1 A war-weary American public, realizing a decade too late the error of the Iraq war, needs little encouragement to "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil." But the United States, as a fully vested Middle Eastern power, does not have that intellectual distance; the longer the conflict goes on, the more deeply entrenched the processes of sectarian radicalization become. The way in which events are unfolding in Syria is of critical long-term significance to the world and, it goes without saying, of even more importance to the people of the region. Looking away may be a viable position for a philosopher who cannot personally make a difference, but as a collective attitude towards the Assad regime, it is immoral and strategically disastrous. Syria is not only a killing field in which most of the killing is done by the regime against its own population; it is also a testing ground for competing types of state sovereignty. As long as Syria is a proxy for regional and global powers, the outcome will be the generation of non-state sovereign actors on the extremist sectarian templates of Hezbollah and al-Qaeda.
INTERVENTIONISM AND ISOLATIONISM
The U.S. track record of intervention in conflicts in Eastern Europe and particularly the Middle East in the post-9/11 era is a cautionary study.2 The discourse of humanitarian intervention can be considered one of a variety of pretexts (WMDs, democracy promotion, terrorism preemption) that have masked strategic geopolitical gambits and resulted in disastrous outcomes of death, destruction and instability that are arguably far worse than a hands-off approach. Bolstered by decades' worth of evidence from catastrophic interventions and a U.S. public sated with international adventure and suffering compassion fatigue, the anti-imperialist left and the anti-war libertarian right have been echoing the regime's position: the Syrian rebellion is a sinister maneuver against a sovereign nation. It seeks ultimately to impose a "clean break" in order to take down the Islamic Republic of Iran.3 In this scenario, longtime critics of U.S. and Israeli expansionism rally round the "axis of resistance" stretching from Hezbollah's Lebanon to Iran and Russia, of which Assad's Syria is the keystone. The rebels are made out to be just as bad as the regime: at best, the creatures of U.S.-Saudi-Qatari reactionary manipulation; at worst, an undifferentiated lot of salafi extremists.
The typical presentation of this anti-intervention, pro-status-quo narrative also involves a selective reading of history. The nonviolent origins of the Syrian rebellion as a civil-society-based political-reform and human-rights movement are forgotten. The escalation of the regime's military and paramilitary violence against peaceful protesters (from sniping and torture to indiscriminate mortar shelling, helicopter-gunship attacks, MIGs and Scuds) is ignored. The rebels are presented as essentially Sunni extremist tools of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, rather than a range of Syrian citizens of all confessions.
A self-fulfilling moral equivalency minimizes the effects of the regime's indiscriminate, terror-inducing and disproportionate attacks on the people of Syria. This is consistent with its past and approaches a "blame the victims" position — generalizing, essentializing and predicting future atrocities by elements of the growing extremist rebel fringe. The Syrian blogger known as Maysaloon sums up this position: a "simplistic populist narrative that seems more concerned with NATO killing civilians accidentally than with Bashar al-Assad killing them intentionally."4 This perspective, even in its most thoughtful forms,5 dulls the critical edge of many of the most knowledgeable students of global power and Middle Eastern politics. It even approaches the position of neoconservative "defense intellectuals," who follow Israel's lead of silent, cynical watching as Syria descends into chaos.6
But the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan carry far more nuanced lessons than simply not to intervene. They are case studies in blowback, unintended consequences, and conflict perpetuation after destabilizing events. They illustrate how power vacuums work and how smoldering conflicts become what Nicolas Nassim Taleb might describe as "antifragile" systems, which not only survive but thrive on volatility.7 They illustrate entropy in massive, complex, open systems. As outside parties invested in either old-style authoritarian sovereignty or a newer, messier popular sovereignty sustain the conflict with arms and other resources, the only winners will be the extremists. The U.S. answer to the anti-interventionist mood is a patchwork of covert, outsourced, half measures that seems likely to bring on the worst of Afghan warlordism and Talibanization, on the one hand, and Iraqi sectarianism, on the other.
OLD AND NEW SOVEREIGNTIES
The umbrella designations for the warring parties in Syria are the jaysh al-nizami (the regime or regular military) and the jaysh al-hur (the army of rebels roughly corresponding to the Free Syrian Army [FSA] and its allies). These terms reflect popular usage. Rebels whose organizational structure and identity are lodged in a bewildering and fluid matrix of local brigades are collectively referred to by noncombattants on the ground as the jaysh al-hur. These terms are also used in the pro-rebellion regional media (most notably, Qatar's al-Jazeera and Saudi Arabia's al-Arabiyya). The two sides have been stalemated for much of the last two years. Defections from the jaysh al-nizami into the loose structures of the jaysh al-hur have transferred manpower, matériel, professional skills and leadership, and morale from the established military to the rebel side.8 Regular resupply of the jaysh al-nizami by Iran and Russia have allowed it to survive the hemorrhage of resources and escalate the conflict. Counterescalation by Qatar and Saudi Arabia has seen weapons and foreign fighters, in addition to humanitarian aid, flow into the country — especially in the Croatian arms deal launched after the U.S. elections9 — playing an ever-larger part in the resistance. The increasingly radical sectarianism and militarization promoted by the two sides' suppliers accelerate the entropy rather than the resolution of this attrition.
The jaysh al-nizami stands for the old order of inviolate dictatorship, its mukhabarat (intelligence service) and its party-based endurance, stability and predictability. The jaysh al-hur stands for popular autonomy, the Syrian opposition's professional and secular center, and its commitment to reform and revolution. Outside parties can be seen as supporting not just their strategic allies in Syria, but particular forms of sovereignty aligned with these cultural and philosophical orientations.
A revolution or a civil war is, by its nature, a contest over the sovereignty of a state. So, too, is the question of intervention or outside support. The decision to intervene is a high-stakes gamble on the outside player's ability to project power that impinges on its own domestic affairs and future global conflicts. The conflict over order versus autonomy implicates the external players who prolong the stalemate and supply resources for the ongoing conflict in which the forces of radical sectarianism are incubated. The outcome in Syria has implications for global sovereignty regimes. The countries supporting the regime are not just backing a key regional ally; they are supporting their own form of state inviolability. The countries supporting the rebels are not just promoting "freedom" and human rights; they are weakly supporting a compromised, divided and messy form of governance in their own image.
Those on the side of the Assad regime are motivated to preserve old-fashioned nation-state sovereignty in its crudest form. Even as much of Europe has moved on to experiments with supranational alliances, and as Middle Eastern non-state actors play an ever larger role (see below), the state, with its de facto and de jure sovereign rights, is still the most valuable entity in the world today. Iran, Russia and China have an interest in preserving their jurisdiction over "internal affairs," be they Green, Chechen or Tibetan. In addition, Iran depends on Syria as its only regional ally, as does Russia for its Mediterranean access. For this constituency, control of state institutions is the prize of a revolutionary party's struggle. The state comes equipped with public economic and financial infrastructures, a military machine, and a seat at the international table of the United Nations. It guarantees the party faithful access to the best of both the public and, increasingly under neoliberal practices, the private sectors. It provides a cloak of inviolability for repressing internal enemies in the name of law and order. It provides title to mineral and other forms of territorial and strategic wealth. The Assad regime's allies, suppliers and protectors in the UN Security Council hew a tried and true model of sovereignty dating back to the seventeenth century in which they monopolize violence and preserve the integrity of their borders and spheres of influence. It is this side that the discourse of the antiwar left empowers.
Aligned on the side of the rebellion are those powers experimenting with new forms of shared sovereignty. Their support is correspondingly weak and compromised, since national interests are couched and muted within supranational structures, especially within the European Union. The question of intervention in protection of the Syrian people (even in the most R-2-P-friendly environment) is mired in the alliance systems of Europe and NATO. These are themselves in a permanent state of negotiation, if not crisis, over national political, economic and cultural sovereignty in an age of multilateralism. Treaty obligations and alliance pressures have forced the French, the British and others to temper their overt national foreign policies in a context of European statutes. Turkey's response to cross-border provocations by the Assad military was constrained by its role in NATO. Part of the logic behind the Croatian arms transfers to the rebels was that the source was a European country not subject to arms-trading restrictions.
The United Nations has proved powerless to broker a political solution. It has been left to the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and their members to offer recognition to the political opposition and to provide a framework for various forms of material support to the rebellion. The Arab League offered symbolic recognition to the opposition National Coalition, while the GCC countries' individual commitments to supply and arm various opposition groups have provided a forum for competing Saudi/Qatari promotion of different forms of political Islam, as well as factions of the political opposition. But support is fragmented and politicized; different players support different political and military factions for ideological reasons, and their support tends to be conditional and easily canceled out. The Obama administration has moved away from the Bush-era model of U.S. unilateralism and towards a multilateral "leading from behind." This is exacerbated by electoral politics.
STATES OF EXCEPTION AND FALSE FLAG ATTACKS
The conservative German political philosopher Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) reflected the might-makes-right position playing out in Syria today: "Sovereign is he who makes the exception."10 This state of affairs is agreeable to partisans of the Assad regime and its intellectual apologists. The exceptional decision to attack the population is, therefore, not only a sovereign right of the twentieth-century state, but the paramount right that guarantees a state's integrity. Iran, Russia and China and their supporters on the anti-imperialist left use sovereignty as a cloak against the inquiring eyes of human-rights watchers.
The contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben (following Walter Benjamin [1892-1940]) asks what happens when the assertion of emergency exception is the primary and continuing mechanism of state legitimacy. What happens, in other words, when the permanent suspension of the rule of law becomes the norm? Here we have a distinctly contemporary form of the state under the emergency law of permanent warfare.11
Syria has been in an emergency-justifying state of war with Israel for over four decades, a rationalization for the iron grip of the Assad dynasty and the Baath party. Partisans of the regime are willing to make an exception to the rule of law when the state is under threat, but for the regime itself, this is no exception; it is business as usual. What happens when the right to kill "terrorists" is exercised openly, at full strength, and yet cannot overcome popular resistance?
Regimes whose only claim to legitimacy rests on their security function invest their debased political and military capital not in their people, but in the cultivation and manipulation of the "terrorist" entities crucial to their emergency security function. A key example of this is a very important death in Syria, which, unlike tens of thousands of others, can be investigated through conflicting media reports and social-media videos. In March 2013, Shaykh Ramadan al-Bouti, Syria's most prominent Sunni cleric and a key supporter of the regime, was killed while teaching in the Imam Mosque in a heavily guarded regime-held quarter of Damascus. The government immediately accused rebels of the al-Qaeda-type suicide bombing. Then, in April, a leaked cell-phone video surfaced suggesting that the regime had in fact carried out the hit. The video provides convincing evidence of what Syrian opposition members confidently asserted from the start: the regime killed its own supporter to discredit the opposition as al-Qaeda terrorists in the eyes of the world.12
Al-Bouti appears in the 29-second video uttering his last words when a small explosion from screen left knocks him to his right. He stirs, steadies his head as a crumpled sheet of paper falls from his left hand, replaces his turban on his head and appears to reorient himself when a man in a dark suit approaches through the smoke with an object in his right hand. The man appears to grasp al-Bouti's upright head in his two hands and walks rapidly away as al-Bouti slumps over, limp and fatally wounded, newly spilled blood on his left cheek and neck. Other men, dressed similarly, approach the shaykh as blood begins to pour from the left side of his mouth; they carry his lifeless body off to the right of the podium. The rolling camera and the chillingly businesslike demeanor of the apparent killers strongly suggest that this was a regime hit.
The dean of leftist Arab academics and political commentators, Asad Abu Khalil, sarcastically dismisses the video out of hand as a fake, without addressing the possibility of its authenticity. A more analytical blogger, Elliott Higgins, systematically addresses the question of whether the video might be faked and comes away convinced of its authenticity.13 The fact that the video was leaked and distributed by opposition websites, and that regime defenders declared it a fake, further confirms the possibility of a false-flag attack. There are similar suspicions concerning chemical weapons, in which the opposition has turned in vain to the international community for help, only to be told that investigations were pending as to which side had used the weapons. Such use, if proven, should trigger an international response. A widespread feeling among the opposition is that the chemical-weapons attacks and the al-Bouti hit were set-ups.
It is unlikely that tens of thousands of civilian deaths at the government's hands, the authenticity of the al-Bouti murder video, or the regime's opening salvos of chemical warfare can ever be proven definitively. But when the smartest critics of U.S. hegemony, like Asad Abu Khalil and Musa al-Gharbi, prefer not to see or hear an inconvenient evil, these crimes get the same kind of protection from truth seekers that the neocon intellectuals provided for the false intelligence justifying the Iraq War. The fact that serious people believe that the Assad regime is running its own Orwellian disinformation and al-Qaeda-style campaigns, and that the view of those on the ground is being dismissed in the public sphere, indicates a descent into fitna — a state of mistrust that destroys the ordinary person's trust in social structures.
Fitna is fomented turmoil in which previously coexisting groups begin to fear and then kill each other as enemies; both affinity and difference feed the dynamics of vendetta. Fitna is an antifragile system that is not weakened but, indeed, strengthened by volatility. Assad's shabiha (ghosts), or paramilitary plainclothes thugs, who butcher at close range and in cold blood, represent mayhem in the service of fear and provocation. They are rumored to be steroid- and testosterone- enhanced, pathologically loyal to the house of Assad and unleashed from the confines of the mukhabarat bureaucracies. Their core numbers are limited, but if they are supplemented with sympathetic Hezbollah fighters, Iraqi Mahdi Army remnants and even possibly Iranian Revolutionary Guards, they form the vanguard of fitna. The rapid growth of al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and various other extremist Islamist organizations and freelance foreign fighters form the complementary wing of the fitna. These are more and more Sunni foreign fighters and combatants from around the region driven by ideology rather than survival. More and more beheadings and other anti-regime war crimes are being committed by those with no memories of Syrian intersectarian tolerance and no interest in a future of reconciliation and coexistence.14
In a closed fitna system, the extremists on each side would burn themselves and each other out. But in an open system fueled surreptitiously by numerous outside parties following different interested logics, chaos can be perpetuated for a long time. This is where the U.S. failure to act or even declare its intentions as clearly as Iran and Russia accelerates the process. Political scientist Steven Heydemann puts the bravest face on U.S. policy, which, like that of Assad's Syria itself, is twisted by its dependency on a permanent state of exception. In 2012, Heydemann floated the concept of "managed militarization." Building on a model of multilateral leading from behind, tested when critical NATO support was provided to Libya's revolution, this policy involves covert indirect provision of resources, especially arms, to selected and vetted clients on the ground.15 But leading (covertly) from behind in order to assuage volatile domestic public opinion — grown uneasily aware of the vacuum of reason and morality in matters of security and war — is a poor substitute for simple leadership. It provides cover for all the frustrated national sovereignties within the European and Arab international organizations to tweak their particular subcontracts. It starves the most moderate factions, sponsored by the most cautious patrons. As blogger Elliott Higgins has shown in his careful analyses of YouTube video evidence, arms are fungible. Anti-aircraft weapons from the Croatian deal were filmed in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra fighters within weeks of entering the country.16 All this hearkens back to Charlie Wilson's war in Afghanistan.
In an atmosphere of rising fitna, de facto sovereignty emerges in the form of what political scientists call non-state actors. Their members control small amounts of arms and territory and possesses the even more elusive sense of mission, fraternity and trust that are missing elsewhere in the social landscape. The most durable of these groups approach the practical functionality of the early Hezbollah or Hamas. The chronic conflicts in Palestine and Lebanon and more recent experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen suggest that small "emirates" are a viable short-term organizational structure, not just for warfare but for a variety of other state functions (food distribution, welfare, crude law enforcement, even diplomacy). The longer any of these groups survives in the Darwinian stew of the Syrian fitna, the more intractable, ideologically rigid and independent it is likely to be.
Much of the critical left is willing to stand back and give the worst perpetrators of violence against civilian populations a pass. While at first blush this position is consistent with a critique of the deployment of U.S. power and global hegemony in Iraq and Afghanistan, it actually exacerbates the violence as resources and power flow from various interested outsiders to the most extreme parties to the conflict. Those who would avoid a leadership role out of fear of responsibility must watch the Assad regime desperately escalate towards chemical warfare as the sectarianism of post-invasion Iraq settles over Syria. The dynamics of the contest for sovereignty are those of Afghanistan; the outcome could look shockingly like Yemen or Somalia.
As this essay goes to press, developments inside and outside of Syria illustrate the argument about the clash of old, new and emergent sovereignties heightening the stakes in this brutal war. The sinister, silent wafting of chemical weapons across the Obama administration's "red line" continues as the UN struggles to assign responsibility for the escalation. International investigative and legal procedures (themselves rituals of fragmented and compromised sovereignty) confound the fractured and beleaguered Syrian opposition and play to the established tactics (escalation, obfuscation, false-flag attacks, and deadly-focused sovereign action) of the Assad regime and its backers, who know all too well how to game the glacial proceedings of the international governing bureaucracies. Occam's razor suggests that the Assad regime is by far the most likely perpetrator of these tentative chemical forays. However, with every passing day that an encumbered UN tries to prove with absolute certainty the authorship of this latest type of atrocity, the more motivation, access to their own chemical stockpiles and sheer power vis-à-vis their moderate rivals the extremist parties of the armed opposition will have gained.
Even more important, the decisive action of Israel in its bombing of the Jabal Qasyun Presidential Guard posts is a warning of fitna to come, should Syria become more of a free-for-all. Israel is the sovereign state par excellence, as jealous of its old-order prerogatives as Iran, Russia or Syria, but one that shares (some might even say guides) the strategic vision of the sovereignty-compromised Western powers. And it moves with the military nimbleness (born of its own permanent state of emergency and exception) of an enormously powerful Middle Eastern non-state actor. The super blast that shook the entire city of Damascus produced short-lived excitement among ordinary people there — perhaps a decisive blow had at last been dealt — until its Israeli authorship was understood. The Assad regime crafted and disseminated talking points about Israel as the sponsor of its "terrorist" enemies, a line that will resonate with the armchair strategists of the distant academic left. But the specter of an Israeli-Hezbollah war rocking Syria and Lebanon, or the opening gambit of a looming Israeli-Iran conflict, as sectarian warlords scavenge through the ground-level destruction on the Syrian side of the new Golan border wall is fitna on steroids. No wonder U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suddenly found it worth his while to wait three hours for an audience with Russian President Putin.
1 Musa al-Gharbi, "Syria Contextualized: The Numbers Game," Middle East Policy 20, no. 1 (Spring 2013).
2 D. Gibbs, "Kosovo, a Template for Disaster: The Idea That Kosovo Is a Model for Humanitarian Intervention in Libya Is Based on a Series of Myths," Guardian, March 21, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/21/kosovo-template-for…; and D. Gibbs, "Libya and the New Warmongering," Foreign Policy in Focus, January 12, 2012, http://www.fpif.org/articles/libya_and_the_new_warmongering.
3 J. Raimondo, "Syrian Back Door to War with Iran," http://www.original.antiwar.com/justin/2013/02/28/the-syrian-back-door-….
4 Maysaloon, "Narrative around Foreign Intervention 'Veers More towards the Hysterical Than Rational," http://www.beta.syriadeeply.org/op-eds/2013/04/narrative-foreign-interv….
5 Asad AbuKhalil, "Syria: Shameful Performance of Western Media," July 30, 2012, http://www.english.al-akhbar.com/blogs/angry-corner/syria-shameful-perf….
6 John Arquilla, "Would Captain Kirk Intervene in Syria? What 'Star Trek' Teaches us about International Relations," Foreign Policy, April 1, 2013.
7 Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Random House, 2012). Also, Nassim N. Taleb, Philosophy: 'Antifragility' as a Mathematical Idea (Nature, 2013), 494.
8 E. O'Bagy, "The Free Syrian Army," Institute for the Study of War, 2013.
9 C.J. Chivers and Eric Schmitt, "Saudis Step Up Help for Rebels in Syria with Croatian Arms," New York Times, February 25, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/26/world/middleeast/in-shift-saudis-are-….
10 Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (MIT Press, 1985).
11 Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (2005).
12 J. Muir, "Syria 'Death Video' of Sheikh al-Bouti Poses Questions," BBC News, April 9, 2013; T. Pierret, "Syrian Regime Loses Last Credible Ally among the Sunni Ulama," Syria Comment, March 22, 2013, http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/?p=18242.
13 The video is dismissed out of hand without evidence by Asad Abu Khalil, "Video of al-Buti Explosion: The Sad Decline of the Work of Jim Muir," http://www.angryarab.blogspot.com/2013/04/video-of-al-buti-explosion-sa…. The video is analyzed and authenticated in frame by frame analysis in "Questions of Authenticity over the al-Bhouti Assassination Video," http://www.brown-moses.blogspot.com/2013/04/questions-of-authenticity-o….
14 M. Barber, "The Raqqa Story: Rebel Structure, Planning, and Possible War Crimes," Syria Comment, April 3, 2013.
15 S. Heydemann, "Managing Militarization in Syria," Foreign Policy, February 22, 2012, http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/02/22/managing_militarizati….
16 Elliott Higgins, "Evidence of Jabhat al-Nusra with Croatian Weapons" Brown Moses Blog, March 23, 2013, http://www.brown-moses.blogspot.com/2013/03/evidence-of-jabhat-al-nusra….