Syria Policy Review Part 2

In the  open-source struggle for reliable information, Chatham House is  a high-quality source on the process of developing a new constitution for Syria. The dateline, 17 May 2016, offers a perspective more useful than immediacy. Since then, there has been absolutely no political evolution. Carrion eaters cluster around Syria as with the corpse of megafauna on the African plains. History suggests that this death of a nation is more a part the process of regeneration than we would care to admit.

When the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating, a deeply intellectual life of national aspiration  evolved over the swath of land that includes the Levant, and adjacent regions, surviving until mostly exterminated by the Ba’ath Party. The remnants continue to comment plaintively from the sidelines, mostly, but not completely, drowned out by men-with-guns. An Al Jazeera editorial gives voice, lamenting the imposition of a process from the outside. Quoting,

What is most unfortunate is that the deliberation over the constitution will take place outside of Syria, among non-Syrians, and to the long-term, generational detriment of Syria and its people’s right to determine their future.

Intellectuals are not immune from disconnectedness with reality. The error of the quote is equating “people” with a body politic.  A “people” can be as impersonal as a census designation, or as poignant as a cultural group. But it can exist, as it does in Syria, without the possibility of political expression.

The existence in Syria of  isolated intellectual life may fuel the notion in the minds of our best thinkers that a body politic can be nurtured. In August, former U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford criticized the Obama Administration for not forging “consensus”, a word belonging to the  political lexicon. CNN:

“The United States does not have leverage to forge a consensus,” Robert Ford told CNN’s Clarissa Ward, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour. “And, frankly, the Obama administration is doing very little, if anything, to generate leverage to forge that consensus.”

Taken in isolation, the above seems blandly helpful. But it contains, in latent form,  the  presuppositions of the neoconservatives, when they tried to construct a political state in Iraq from the ground up after the 2003 war.

In October 2015, Ford was interviewed by the BBC. Although is an interpretive, not a neutral source, their transcription is accurate. The transcript is so revealing of the purest form of the diplomatic mindset, I have chosen not to redact (ellipsis due to

This is how I define as a moderate in the Syrian context, Stephen; a moderate is a group that accepts there has to be a political negotiation and there has to be a political process after a transition government is set up.. a political process to determine the future permanent government of Syria.. That there must be pluralism in that process… and it’s one that works with other groups/ factions in a pluralistic setting… I don’t agree at all with Ahrar al Sham’s desires to set up an Islamic State (in Syria).. but I have to admit that they accept the needs to be a political negotiation.. I have to admit they’re willing to work with other groups and they do on the ground with great effect…This is one of the reasons, they’re strong as they are, as you mentioned… It’s not a group I ever want my daughter to marry into… I don’t agree with their vision of society…but I would not call them jihadis, they’re not looking to impose an Islamic State at sword point… Different, they’re therefore, from al Qaeda… Different therefore from the Islamic State..And they’re willing to accept even such things as Parliament…and some kind of government institutions… So, yes they want Sharia … but the kind of Sharia they want may in fact, in the end, not look like the kind of Sharia the “Islamic State” already imposing over most of central and Eastern of Syria…

 Ambassador Ford has apparently not lived through an American presidential election, when some candidates offer and withdraw “promises” with the dexterity of a card sharp. With this kind of thinking, talk is the reality, and the reality is talk. It is an apparent residue of a diplomat’s education, and deep institutionalization of the State Department. It is not a particularly partisan phenomena. Not all diplomats think this way;  it is a hazard of “going native.”

The open source argument that Ahrar al-Sham is not benign, and would establish a “malignant” Islamic theocracy, has these points:

  • Cooperation with terror groups: transiently ISIS, and ongoing with Al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda brand name.
  • Intermittent atrocities of significance, without punishment, or even identification, of the perpetrators.
  • As discussed in Part 1, strong influence  and participation of Salafist elements, the ideology of whom tends to merge in the psychology of war with Salafi Jihadism. This makes all representations by Ahrar al-Sham of respect for plurality meaningless.
  • As men-with-guns, they have the power.

In response to the above argument, a  thinker committed to the doctrine of Syrian national sovereignty might enumerate these options, and even choose one:

  •  If Assad is to be overthrown, there is no alternative to support of Ahrar al-Sham. And overthrow of Assad is preeminently desirable.
  • The U.S. should support Assad, since the level of future atrocities by Ahrar al-Sham is likely to be similar to that of the Assad regime.
  • U.S. policy has no options that could be morally redemptive, so we should disengage.
  • The U.S. should pursue “influence” as a goal, so that we do not allow Russia to become more “influential.”
  • The argument is false.

Some still hark to the Cold War, when “influence” was a currency sought to be mined wherever the Russians were mining, a tool for breaking the adversary bloc. The game lingers, but the etiology is different. To have “influence” implies ownership of a problem, which is not as universally desirable as in the time of the Cold War.

The options list is not inclusive.  In June, VOA News reported, “US Diplomats Criticize Obama’s Syria Policy”,  Quoting,

The criticism came in a memo signed by 51 mid- to high-level diplomats involved in U.S. Syria policy. It calls for targeted airstrikes against the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The protest, filed through the State Department “dissent channel”, does not imply that the 51 mirror Ford’s credulity. There could be another thought option, the shaping of a situation by force, into one offering broadly different possibilities. It does not have to coincide with the views of Robert Ford on political evolution.

To be continued shortly.



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