Thoughts on the Syrian Civil War

On May 19, 2011 the National Committee of the Social Democrats USA passed a resolution in support of President Obama’s no fly zone over Libya. However since that time the Social Democrats USA has passed no resolutions regarding the brutal suppression of the people of Syria by the Assad government. Why the strong reaction by the SD against the Qaddafi regime’s suppression of the people of Libya and the lack of response to the suppression of the Syrian people by Assad?

The difference in response was not caused by indifference to the situation in Syrian by the membership of the SD. Many in the SD have watched the conflict in Syria which has killed at least 15,000 people with an agonized concern. The difference has instead been based on a real confusion regarding what the US role should be in the conflict. The fact is that the answers to what the correct US policy should be toward the Libyan conflict in early 2011 seemed to be much more obvious than have been the answers to the Syrian conflict.

In the case of Libya we had the example of a very small, ethnically and religiously homogeneous nation of about 6 million persons in an armed rebellion to overthrow an obviously brutal regime with a very weak military. No doubt because of these factors, an international consensus developed  led by Great Britain, France, and the Arab League that some sort of military action in support of the people of Libya was both possible and desirable. When the Obama administration joined the consensus the no fly zone was implemented and Quaddafy was overthrown

However the situation in Syria is quite different from that of Libya. For one thing Syrian is an ethically and religiously diverse nation of over 22 million led by the Assad dictatorship which bases its power both on a  united military and the Alawite sect, an ethnic, religious minority which represents about 12% of the population of Syria. The Alawites a people who have been oppressed for most of their history have every reason to worry about their future if the Assad regime falls. Because of these factors the difficulties in determining how to respond to the Syrian conflict has led to a very weak response by an international community unsure and unwilling to take any bold actions in defense of a revolution which easily go wrong in many ways.

Thus if any international consensus has developed it is that NATO and the international community should not intervene as it did in the situation of Libya. Furthermore Russia and China clearly would veto such an action as they have already vetoed a three Security Council resolutions which suggested the possibility of sanctions against the Assad government. Given this situation the Obama administration clearly has been hesitant to “lead from the front” as has been recommended by leaders such as Senator John McCain.

Another fact of course in the Obama’s decision to not take a Libyan style intervention policy toward Syria is no doubt political. The reality is that the American people are tired of US military interventions, and the liberal wing of the Democratic party has an abhorrence of them. It is very probable that a Obama decision to support a full US intervention in Syria in the same manner as was done in Libya would certainly cost Obama the presidential election this coming November.

So the questions for members of the SDUSA who have been following the situation in Syria have been complex. We in common with most of the American left want to see an Obama victory in November. Yet simultaneously we have an activist view of American foreign policy which believes that the United States should strongly oppose governments which brutally kill their own peoples. We are willing to call for international interventions in support peoples who are struggling to throw off the chains of their oppression. On the other hand we value a pragmatism that does not take actions that would seriously damage the national interests of the United States or which have only symbolic but not real value. All of these impulses seem to be at war with each other in the case of Syria.

How then do we resolve these seemingly conflicting inner directives. Well first the SDUSA can not just jettison some of its principles so that others can be realized. The SDUSA does want the Obama administration to be re-elected this November. Therefore we are not going to ask the Obama administration to make decisions on US foreign policy which would probably insure a Romney victory. SD pragmatism and its sense of reality should not be sacrificed. We will not support unilateral efforts by the Obama administration to intervene in the Syrian conflict.

However does this mean that in the name of political realism that the Obama administration should do nothing to support the Syrian people? Fortunately other options exist. The other best option I believe was recently articulated quite well by Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Enquirer.

In her article “Annan’s plan for Syria is dead; Washington needs a Plan B” Rubin argued that while the US should not attempt to unilaterally enforce a no fly zone over Syria, we could play a much more significant role in supporting the Syrian rebels against the regime than we are now. If the forces of the decentralized Syrian rebel forces are to defeat the Assad regime they will need much more effective weapons than they are currently receiving. They “will need help with intelligence and communications, along with antitank and antiaircraft weapons.” Furthermore the United States should take a strong role to insure that the most responsible and potentially democratic forces against the Assad regime are strengthened and unified and that the most reactionary are diminished. This means that US military, intelligence, financial and diplomatic resources do need to be invested in the revolutionary movement against the regime.

The advantages of such a policy would be numerous. If as is probable, the Syrian revolution with US help, triumphs the United States will be in the role of a strong  supporter of the new revolutionary regime. We would be in a situation in which we could help it move toward liberal democratic directions that we advocate. We will simultaneously be able to help marginalize the potential Islamic and other anti western forces that are also in revolt against the Assad dictatorship.

The negatives? Of Course many will call even such a policy “imperialistic” as they do all US foreign policy initiatives. Furthermore the policy also does not guarantee the defeat of the Assad regime as would the more activist policy recommended by John McCain. However at least we will have made a serious effort to aid the Syrian people in the time of their need. We will have done what we realistically can do. That would be at least be a moral achievement. If however we do nothing and simply allow the Assad regime escalate its violence to the degree that it overwhelms the democratic forces in blood than we will earn nothing but shame.

The link to Trudy Rubin’s article is http://www.philly.com/philly/columnists/trudy_rubin/20120624_Annan_s_plan_for_Syria_is_dea d__Washington_needs_a_Plan_B.html

Glenn King

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