Syria, Cameron’s crackup, and the virtual world of humanitarian war

A man carries a wounded child away from an anti-Assad demonstration after regime forces opened fire, Syria, 2011

A man carries a wounded child away from an anti-Assad demonstration after regime forces opened fire, Syria, 2011

The night air is full of hypotheticals these weeks, and reality feels like a far-off country.

David Cameron lost tonight. It was sweat-inducing drama, the kind that makes you focus so closely on the grimaces and rumors that you forget about the war. By 13 votes, his motion to give a loose preliminary OK to Syrian intervention went down. (He’d tried to scale it back as a vague non-binding slightly amnesiac go-ahead to his government, like a Dad saying “Sure, someday” to a preteen daughter who wants to marry Justin Bieber.) Most of the UK papers seem to focus on Cameron’s humiliation, and Labour leader Ed Miliband’s triumph, as though a lot of other people’s lives aren’t at stake in this one way or the other. Everybody agrees there is another, spectral loser: Tony Blair.

All over but the shouting: Cameron in the House of Commons, August 29

All over but the shouting: Cameron in the House of Commons, August 29

Not just Blair’s righteous policy of bringing freedom to the benighted, of shaking the world like a kid’s kaleidoscope and reshuffling the pieces. But Blair himself. Two days ago he stepped directly into the debates, with a piece in the Times that stirred up memories of mendacious arrogance in the worst way.

People wince at the thought of intervention. But contemplate the future consequence of inaction and shudder: Syria mired in carnage between the brutality of Assad and various affiliates of al-Qaeda, a breeding ground of extremism infinitely more dangerous than Afghanistan in the 1990s; Egypt in chaos, with the West, however unfairly, looking as if it is giving succour to those who would turn it into a Sunni version of Iran. Iran still — despite its new president — a theocratic dictatorship, with a nuclear bomb. Our allies dismayed. Our enemies emboldened. Ourselves in confusion. This is a nightmare scenario but it is not far-fetched.

And then he goes maundering about Egypt, seemingly his pet obsession these days, claiming that not bombing Syria would help the Muslim Brotherhood and hurt the military government in Cairo, which is striving to bring stability to the country despite “actions or overreactions” like killing a thousand people in a fit of pique. (Blair, immune to facts as ever, seems unaware that Egypt’s diehard secularists and the junta they helped to power generally look with favor on Assad; the generals overthrew Morsi in part because he opposed the dictator.) But Blair’s intrusion triggered all the wrong recollections in the public. Maybe if he’d shut up, Christian soldiers would be marching off to war.

Here’s a question, though. Why did Blair need to imagine this horrific post-non-intervention future to prop his argument? Isn’t the slaughter that’s already happened enough? More than 100,000 have died in the conflict, according to Syrian activists and the UN. Why can’t Blair rest his case on this vast carnage, instead of dreamy geopolitical speculations and “nightmare scenarios” about how things could get even worse? Isn’t the nightmare now?

Tony Blair as Prime Minister (L) and after (R): Forgive them, Father, for they know not who can replace me

Tony Blair as Prime Minister (L) and after (R): Forgive them, Father, for they know not who can replace me

The reason, I suspect, is that Blair knows, and we know, and he knows that we know, that the “humanitarian” intervention he imagines will not do much to help. The dead are past aiding — even Blair, with his propensity to impersonate Jesus, probably gets that — but what is the chance that the mechanized violence of Western powers can forestall more violence in Syria? Will more killing save more lives — killing in the self-protecting way the West does it? Iraq haunts Blair, haunts every word he says, not as a sin (he’s Godlike enough to absolve himself) but as a miscalculation. Humanitarian intervention there only accelerated murder. Better not to look at the past, and better not to promise the deaths will end. Instead, focus on the infinite horrors you can pack into an imaginary what-if. The hypothetical can always be worse than anything real.

It’s very striking how little the discussion in Britain dealt with what’s actually happening in Syria beyond the chemical attacks. It’s as if the proposed intervention had nothing at all to do with the civil war. “It is not about taking sides in the Syrian conflict,” Cameron told Parliament, oddly enough since only one side was slated for bombing.

It is not about regime change or even working more closely with the Opposition. It is about the large-scale use of chemical weapons and our response to a war crime – nothing else.

What an odd war he wanted, one with a motive but not a goalIt’s a bit hard, moreover, to square this with Nick Clegg’s assertion that “The sole aim is the relief of humanitarian suffering.”  (What the hell is “humanitarian suffering”? The adjective seems to have taken refuge with the wrong noun: surely he meant “humanitarian aim” or “humanitarian relief.” But out of such Freudian slips does truth step, naked.) How would Clegg relieve suffering? Would all the suffering stop if the chemical weapons were disabled? No; there have been plenty of other deaths. Something bigger, some kind of “taking sides” or even “regime change” would be required.

In fact, Clegg and Cameron offer the lowest-common-denominator version of “humanitarianism,” in which it means no more than a mix of punishment and personal catharsis. We have to “respond to a war crime.” This won’t stop further war crimes, but we’ll have done our part. It’s barely a step down from that to “We want to bomb something, and Syria is there. In this light, “humanitarian suffering” really does refer, perhaps, to the suffering of the humanitarian himself, who feels impotent and guilty, who wants to do good and can’t imagine how, who has migraines from knowing that none of his actions will accomplish the ends he posits, and who would like a large explosion to relieve him. Bombing Damascus is a bit stronger than Alka-Seltzer, but it’ll do.

Demonstrator's sign outside the Houses of Parliament, August 29: AFP

Demonstrator’s sign outside the Houses of Parliament, August 29: AFP

The argument for humanitarian intervention inhabits a strange half-reality, not quite resembling anything else in the languages of democratic politics. It’s almost never a discussion about “What will happen if we do this?” It’s a fever dream about “What will happen if we don’t?”

Back two years ago when the Libyan bombings were bruited, the editors of n+1 asked: “Has there ever been a truly successful, truly humanitarian humanitarian intervention?”

 Not of the Vietnamese in Cambodia, who deposed the Khmer Rouge for their own reasons (the Khmer kept crossing the border, and also murdered their entire Vietnamese population), and then replaced them with Hun Sen, who has been ruling Cambodia with an iron fist for more than thirty years. Not the Indian intervention in Bangladesh, under whose cover the Indian government arrested all student protesters in India. And not NATO in Kosovo, which, while it stopped Milosevic and ensured the safety of Kosovo, could not make it a viable state … and also led to the ethnic cleansing of the Serb population. Too bad for the Serbs, to be sure; but the creation of a safe space for the expulsion of a civilian population cannot be what anyone had in mind when they launched the planes. That there has never been a successful humanitarian intervention does not mean that there cannot be one in the future. But the evidence is piling up.

All these misfortunes still have ample defenders in retrospect, though, and the justification always takes the same form: What if we hadn’t done it? Things would be worse. It is no coincidence that some of the best-known advocates of humanitarian war, like the power-worshpping Niall Ferguson, are historians fascinated by alternative histories. Ferguson has written whole books that rewrite the past; he defends the what-if approach to understanding because it refutes Marxism and other attempts to trace laws that make history make sense. Life is random. Something completely unpredictable could always happen, or have happened.

What are the implications of chaos for historians? … The counterfactual scenarios [that historians] need to construct are not mere fantasy: they are simulations based on calculations about the relative probability of plausible outcomes in a chaotic world. … Perhaps the best answer to the question, “Why ask counterfactual questions?” is simply: What if we don’t? Virtual history is a necessary antidote to determinism.

Slumming among the angry Arabs, Niall Ferguson rescues a brown person and shares killer-app lessons from the Western worldview

He surely hopes to sound oracular like Lawrence of Arabia, the imperial hero intoning “Nothing is written.” Instead, he ends up a bit like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, rambling on about chaos theory: Fuckups are inevitable, the dinosaurs will always get loose, leave while you’re still alive. His scenarios are more like movie pitches than histories. But the method’s utility in excusing policymakers’ catastrophes (like those of his idol Kissinger) is obvious. Who knows how much worse things would have been, without our fucked-up attempt at fixing them? If the US hadn’t invaded Cambodia and unleashed the Khmer Rouge, something else would have gone wrong. 

Everything settles into indeterminacy this way. There is no proving a hypothetical. You can always invent a rate of forced flight from a Kosovo where the NATO invasion never happened that’s satisfyingly much greater than the one we know. You can always find a way to say that Iraqi mortality for 2003-2013 would have been as great or greater if Saddam had stayed in power — because he would have nuked his own people, or diverted the Euphrates, or weaponized the Middle East Coronavirus. This spares you the unpleasantness of looking at what actually took place, analyzing the melancholy figures, seeing what caused the painfully factual deaths or displacement. So much more agreeable to understand the unreal than reality!

Stuck in a jungle somewhere between lectures, Niall Ferguson (Jeff Goldblum) discusses chaos theory with crusty adventurer Henry Kissinger (Sam Neill) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (the ever-radiant and enlightened Laura Dern)

But an argument that’s merely flimsy when used to analyze history turns deadly when used to decide what to do here and now. The incessant drumbeat of “What will happen if we don’t?” drowns out the two more important questions: “What will happen if we do?” and “What is happening now?” Only the latter, because they deal with facts and with the consequences of a specific course of action, have even the possibility of instructive answers. The advocates of “humanitarian intervention” seem to turn every debate into a panic. It’s not just that the incited desperation overpowers the ability to judge. It’s that moving debate into a never-never land reached by the road-not-taken degrades all political discourse. The dreamwork starts to construct our daytime lives.

I can’t bring myself to stand in blanket opposition to any humanitarian intervention at all, in Syria or elsewhere. What I feel sure of, is that the arguments used to hawk the war in Britain are destructive and dangerous. They swivel our attention away from the reality of death in Damascus and Homs. Instead they insult the dead by imagining “nightmare scenarios,” ones somehow worse (at least for us, if not them) than what is occurring now, ones that suggest the ongoing disaster is not yet disastrous enough for minds acclimated to atrocity. They do this to conceal the poverty of their plan, which isn’t a plan at all and would help almost no one. They convince us that a dystopian future is the only alternative, because they are incompetent or unwilling to do anything about the present.

The Commons was right to vote these proposals and their shabby logic down. I would like to think there is a little interval of time for the rest of us to learn about life and death in Syria, and debate in concrete terms what can be done to support the Revolution. But the US is already heaving itself to action, greaved and ready, for the aimless killing — “nothing else,” “the sole aim” — the UK refused. I don’t need a theory to know chaos when I see it. I don’t need an alternative history to know there have to be alternatives.

Dead bodies, allegedly of rebel fighters, around the town of Qusair after its recapture by regime forces: images from Syrian state TV, June 2013

Dead bodies, allegedly of rebel fighters, around the town of Qusair after its recapture by regime forces: images from Syrian state TV, June 2013

Resources about Syria

An image distributed by the opposition Shaam News Network, August 23, 2013, shows a relative mourning a family member killed during an alleged chemical attack in the eastern Ghouta area on the outskirts of Damascus

An image distributed by the opposition Shaam News Network, August 23, 2013, shows a relative mourning a family member killed during an alleged chemical attack in the eastern Ghouta area on the outskirts of Damascus

Bombings killed 80 people yesterday in Iraq, the country the US and UK saved ten years ago. The night before that war started, President Bush spoke on TV and turned his ferrety eyes toward the Iraqi people.

We will deliver the food and medicine you need. We will tear down the apparatus of terror. And we will help you build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free. In a free Iraq there will be no more wars of aggression against your neighbors, no more poison factories, no more executions of dissidents, no more torture chambers and rape rooms. … We will not relent until your country is free.

That worked out so well. Iraq, where the news is mostly bad, doesn’t get much press anymore. The UN says violence killed 1,057 in the country last month. Putting all that in separate news stories — 20 dead Monday, 40 Tuesday, and so on — would only confuse readers, leave them wondering what day it was and why the headlines never seem to change, just the ads. Better not to bother them. Anyway, the old imperialists knew the truth about these things. To colonize is to forget, because after that anything that happens on the soil reflects your own crimes. And while it is permitted to know others, it is dangerous to know yourself.

In that spirit, the US and the UK are now lurching toward intervening in Syria. It’s so reassuringly changeless, how these things happen: the long delays, the agonizing reappraisals, the moral quandaries, the TV debates, and then the red line crossed and suddenly the bombs are falling. It’s like the line from Hemingway: “”How did you go bankrupt?” “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

Syria confuses me and leaves me in despair. I don’t know what to do; I’m not even sure what to feel anymore. Perhaps others are in the same darkness and uncertainty, particularly at this eleventh hour while the cruise missiles are being made ready. I don’t claim to know anything. But I can share some readings that left a few things less confused for me, in the hope that somebody else may make a sense of them that I’m denied. I don’t agree with everything here. And if you have other readings that taught you something and that you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.

Free Syrian army soldiers help a fighter wounded by a Syrian army sniper, Aleppo, 2012: AP

Free Syrian army soldiers help a fighter wounded by a Syrian army sniper, Aleppo, 2012: AP

General resources

Syria Deeply, a news aggregation site for all things related to the conflict, is “an independent digital media project led by journalists and technologists, exploring a new model of storytelling around a global crisis.” On Twitter at @syriadeeply.

The opposition: Under the acronyms

Some overviews of the factions:

Economist,Who are the Syrian opposition?” (June 2013)

BBC, “Guide to the Syrian opposition” (transcript of a broadcast, March 2012)

Elizabeth O’Bagy, “Syrian opposition fragmented by choice,” Gulf News  (July 2012; O’Bagy is an analyst at the ominously named Institute for the Study of War)

Who are the Syrian opposition?Global Post (November 2011) 

A more detailed account: “The Syrian File: The Role of the Opposition in a Multi-Layered Conflict,” a report by Cinzia Bianco for the Istituto Affari Internazionali (June 2013)

Chemical attack and intervention

What happened in the last few days? What happens next?

Julian Borger, “Syria Intervention: Key Questions Answered,” Guardian UK (August 28)

Frank Ledwidge, “Syria intervention: The 5 questions MPs should ask,” Guardian UK (August 28)

Omar Dahi, “Chemical attacks and military interventions,” Jadaliyya (August 2013). “It is hard to avoid the hopeless feeling that Syrians have lost almost all agency over their collective future….Whatever actions take place, continuing to claim them in the interests of the Syrian people is simply an exercise in public relations and deception.”

Musa al-Gharbi, “Toxic discourse on chemical weapons,” Your Middle East (August 27; from SyriaReport.net, a pro-Assad website).  It is disquieting that these chemical weapons incidents seem to occur at these critical moments of progress for the regime, when the rebels find themselves in desperate need for more assistance.”

Juan Cole, “At Hussein’s Hearings, U.S. May Be on Trial,” TruthDig (2005). Cole recently drew attention again to this article on how the US both abetted and alibi’ed Saddam’s chemical slaughter in Iraq, back when his regime was an ally. It’s particularly relevant today.

Citizen journalism image from the Media Office Of Douma City: a man mourns over a dead body following an alleged chemical attack in Douma, August 21, 2013

An image distributed by the Media Office Of Douma City shows a man mourning over a dead body following an alleged chemical attack in Douma, August 21, 2013

Blogs

Razan Ghazzawi is a friend, feminist, and sterling human rights activist, arrested repeatedly for her brave part in the anti-Assad struggle. Her blog is worth reading in its entirety. For a sample, a recent post, “Back,” lyrically describes her return to the beleaguered country after months of absence.  

Maysaloon is a well-known Syrian blogger who writes mostly in English. For recent posts, see “Airstrikes on Syria” and “A rant for Syria” (“That’s how it always is in Syria, we never hear of good news until it’s too late”). Also read “How to Square a Circle“: “One can oppose Assad and still support the Palestinian cause, not because of a contradiction but because the issue is one and the same. It is a sense for justice which makes the death of all innocent people equally outrageous, and whether it is Gaza or Homs that is being bombed, the condemnation of those doing so should not be subject to geopolitical convenience.”

Syria Freedom Forever is a blog, partly in English and partly in Arabic, run by Joseph Daher of the Syrian Revolutionary Left Current. See an interview with him on the site, “Imperialism, Sectarianism, and Syria’s Revolution.”

A man carries a wounded girl, after an explosion targeting a military bus in the Qudssaya neighborhood of Damascus, June 2012: AFP

A man carries a wounded girl, after an explosion targeting a military bus in the Qudssaya neighborhood of Damascus, June 2012: AFP

Other articles

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, “How to Start a Battalion (in Five Easy Lessons),” London Review of Books (February 2013). “Last November, under pressure from the Americans, and with promises of better funding and more weapons from the Gulf nations, all the opposition factions met in Doha. A new council was created, called the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. … But the promised flow of weapons never materialised: there were small amounts of ammunition, but no major shipments.” 

Aslı Ü. Bâli and Aziz Rana, “Why There Is No Military Solution to the Syrian Conflict,” Jadaliyya (May 2013).  “But the failure to take diplomacy seriously underscores a profound moral hazard generated by the international community’s prevailing framework. While basic international commitments to provide humanitarian assistance … have been honored in the breach, external actors fulfill and exceed their pledges of military support.”

David Bromwich, “Stay out of Syria!” New York Review of Books  (June 2013). “The untold story of Syria concerns something beyond the atrocities on both sides. It has also to do with the sinews of war—the financial motive and muscle that keeps it going.” 

Patrick Cockburn, “Is it the End of Sykes-Picot?London Review of Books (May 2013). “By savagely repressing demonstrations two years ago Bashar al-Assad helped turn mass protests into an insurrection which has torn Syria apart. … The quagmire is turning out to be even deeper and more dangerous than it was in Iraq.”    

Bassam Haddad, “The Growing Challenge to the Syrian Regime and the Syrian Uprising,” Jadaliyya (June 2013). “Divisions within the Revolution: It was bound to happen. And we are simply witnessing its tip: growing opposition to the militant opposition, on similar ethical grounds used to critique the regime.”

Bassam Haddad,  “Perpetual Recalculation: Getting Syria Wrong Two Years On,” Jadaliyya (March 2013).  “If I had a dollar for every time someone wrote about the “End Game” in Syria during the past eighteen months . . . .”

Bassam Haddad, “The Idiot’s Guide to Fighting Dictatorship in Syria While Opposing Military Intervention,” Jadaliyya (January 2012).  “It is one thing for analysts living outside Syria to oppose and condemn foreign intervention (which this author does unequivocally). It is another to assume that all those calling for it in Syria under current conditions are part of a conspiracy.  … Imperialism is not always the issue for everyone. To not recognize this is to lose the fight against imperialism.”

Syrian men carry a wounded protester who was shot during an anti-regime rally in Dael on the outskirts of Daraa, October 2011: AFP

Syrian men carry a wounded protester who was shot during an anti-regime rally in Dael on the outskirts of Daraa, October 2011: AFP

Amal Hanano, “The real me and the hypothetical Syrian revolution,” Jadaliyya, Part 1 (February 2012) and Part 2 (March 2012). “Our real names have been swallowed by our pseudonyms; our real faces have disappeared from our profile pictures — replaced with flags, historical figures, or composites. We erased the key components of our identity to use our voices in a way they have never been used before. We encoded ourselves so we would stop speaking in codes. To call things by their real names, things like murder, torture, rape, repression and humiliation. And to call for what we never thought we would dare to in our lifetimes: freedom, justice, and dignity.”

Peter Harling and Sarah Birke,The Syrian Heartbreak,” MERIP (April 2013). “There was a distinctive sense of national pride in Syria. … Syrian pride, too, fostered a strong national identity and a calm self-assurance, even among Palestinian refugees, chased from what is now Israel.”

Yusef Khalil, “Why the left must support Syria’s revolution,” Socialist Worker (April 2013), and “Understanding Syria’s revolution,” Socialist Worker (July 2013).  “The vital question facing the Syrian opposition is how to get aid from sources that can provide what the revolution needs, including weapons, while maintaining independent Syrian decision-making. This is a tough question to answer, but not impossible. But those who support the regime because they claim the uprising is being manipulated by the West are dishonest.”

Ghayath Naisse, “Prospects for Syria’s Revolution,” Socialist Worker (March 2013). “The traditional left in Syria, as well as regionally and internationally, has a miserable and opportunistic position towards revolutions … During the last three years of revolutions in our region, there has been a realignment of the left … This mirrors to some extent — without exaggeration — the realignment of the international left after the First World War.”

Yassin al-Haj Saleh, “Open Letter,” Syrian Observer (July 2013). “Every now and then we hear from American and Western politicians that there will be no military solution for the Syrian conflict, but where is the political solution?”

Citizen journalist image, provided by Lens Young Homsi, shows buildings destroyed by Syrian government bombing and shelling, in the Jouret al-Chiyah neighborhood of Homs, July 2013.

Citizen journalist image, provided by Lens Young Homsi, shows buildings destroyed by Syrian government bombing and shelling, in the Jouret al-Chiyah neighborhood of Homs, July 2013.

Finally

A friend showed me a poem by Mahmoud Darwish a few months ago: “Iraq’s Night Is Long,” published in 2008, the year he died. There is not enough poetry to confront the prevalence of catastrophe in this world. What he wrote for Iraq will have to do for Syria, for now. The wreckage is so hard to distinguish, and I doubt that he would mind.

Iraq, Iraq is blood the sun cannot dry
The sun is God’s widow above Iraq
The murdered Iraqi says to those standing at the bridge:
Good morning, I am still alive.
They say: You are still a dead man searching for his grave …

Who is killing whom in Iraq now?
Victims are shards on the roads and in words
Their names, like their bodies, are bits of disfigured letters
Here prophets stand together unable to utter
The sky’s name and the name of the murdered

Iraq, Iraq. So who are you in the presence of suicide?
I am not I in Iraq. Nor are you you
He is none but another
God has abandoned the perplexed, so who are we?
Who are we? We are nothing but a predicate in the poem:
Iraq’s night is long
Long!

Translated by Sinan Antoon, from Athar al-Farasha (Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2008)

Mahmoud Darwish, drawn by Ismail Shammout, 1971

Mahmoud Darwish, drawn by Ismail Shammout, 1971