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The dream of "managing militarization" in Syria

What should be the international approach to resolving the Syrian crisis, and does diplomacy or military aid to the rebels offer a better chance of progress? Mariano Aguirre responds to the criticisms of Steven Heydemann and Reinoud Leenders.

Also in this oS Analysis debate:
Read Robert Matthews on the decades-long consequences of militarization.

Mariano Aguirre
11 May 2012

My article "Syria's crisis: negotiations vs weapons", published by openDemocracy on 7 April 2012, argued "that funnelling weapons to rebel groups would only intensify the conflict and give the Syrian president a pretext to intensify the repression". Any effort "to deliver weapons and secure protected zones", it continued, "would require an aerial military intervention that would be more complicated than in Libya and could cost many civilian lives." A responsible approach "lies in taking a step backwards from escalating the violence" and avoiding "big mistakes with terrible consequences."

In their response, "Syria's crisis: a credible threat is what is needed", published on 8 May, Steven Heydemann and Reinoud Leenders criticise my analysis and propose their own strategy for bringing the conflict in Syria to an end. Here, my brief reply focuses on three points: the need for political judgment in face of the regime's violence, the importance of taking all circumstances into account to assess where progress is possible, and the limits of the idea of "managing militarization".

The first point is that Heydemann and Leenders wrongly interpret my approach as, in effect, blaming the victims, Syria's protesters, for the deeds of the perpetrators, the security forces of Bashar al-Assad's regime. Here they miss, or misunderstand, a central theme of my article, which is directed less to the Syrian people (and I deeply sympathise with Syrians who consider that they need to react to their predicament with force) than to foreign analysts who imagine that encouraging Syrians to resist violently and pushing the United States and Europe to provide weapons to a weak opposition will bring about the fall of the regime.

The heart of my case is that the opposition to a powerful regime such as Syria's must measure its forces and construct an effective strategy based on the realities of its situation - something that requires careful political judgment. The evolution of the Syrian conflict so far has highlighted the capacity of the regime to resist and the complex divisions of the opposition. This suggests that neither pressure from the streets backed by the army's withdrawal of support from the regime (the Egyptian model) nor foreign intervention that reinforces the mix of peaceful demonstrators and militias on the ground (the Libyan model) would lead to Bashar al-Assad's removal. The idea, born of the Arab awakening, that one of the most vicious regimes of the MENA region will collapse easily when faced by demonstrators in the streets, social media, eventually some tidy and coordinated militias, and as a last resort Nato's air force, is a dangerous fiction.

The second point follows, namely that to dismiss any chance of diplomatic progress is to ignore both the lessons of the political fights against other authoritarian regimes in the region and the difficult conditions of Syria itself. Some governments in the MENA region have found ways to absorb the protests; others respond by implementing limited reforms; several, for example Yemen and Bahrain, and notably Iran in 2009, react by intensifying repression at crucial moments. Most have employed a combination of different tactics. This variety means that there is no "one-size-fits-all" template for achieving change, as the myths of the Arab "spring" or of the efficacy of Nato military intervention imply. It also makes essential an understanding of the particular character of each situation.

So where Heydemann and Leenders accuse me (wrongly) of paying too little attention to the violence of Bashar al-Assad's regime, and even of presenting a kind of trade-off (the cost of saving lives is acceptance that the regime will remain in power forever), my answer is: precisely because of its brutality, it is vital to organise a wise opposition, one based on reality not myths. My argument is neither pacifist nor indifferent to suffering, but just political: based on the notion that you need to know the enemy that you are confronting.

When a state is killing people and destroying their cities, it is tempting to play war games from a safe distance. Perhaps though, taking a step back and adopting a more cautious and less macho-oriented stance will have better results than confronting the regime with violence in turn. The use of international diplomacy and the deployment of observers to try to stop violence may seem less heroic, but in the Syrian context it offers at least the chance to create a political space and dynamic for change.

The third point is that Heydemann and Leedners's notion of "managing militarization" presents two problems of its own. First, they assume that there are no opportunities to negotiate with the regime, that the sanctions are ineffective (they don't even mention the United Nations observers) and that international diplomacy is useless. The only option, they conclude, is organised violence. I share their frustration, but in the same way that they charge me (wrongly) of adopting a moral stance against violence, I suggest they are dangerously and irresponsibly wrong in assuming that more violence is the only way to confront a brutal regime.

Second, they take it for granted that the armed opposition will be capable of acting together, "under a degree of command and coordination that would reinforce the principle of civilian control over armed actors, and could require the adoption and enforcement of discipline and accountability by the armed opposition that would constrain criminality by its members". Here, they are describing an army, or even more, a series of small armies. Leaving aside that this is completely detached from reality, who will take the lead in the command and control of such forces? Who will provide intelligence, medicines, supplies, and the ever more weapons that would be needed?

They do not provide the obvious answer: foreign trainers. The kind of armed responses that Heydemann and Leedners (and other authors and politicians who take a similar view) recommend lead straight to a foreign intervention. They must know that the immaculate militias that they are talking about do not exist. But if the way to topple Bashar al-Assad is through an external military intervention that achieves regime change, then it is better to be honest and say it clearly, rather than finessing the proposal with a number of tortuous and bloody shortcuts. For however it is presented, the cost will be many more Syrian lives.

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