Syria, savagery, and self-determination: what those against military intervention are missing

Military intervention, as regrettable and complicated as it may be, is the only way to stop Assad’s killing machine. This is what most Syrians are demanding from the international community. If we truly believe in the right to self-determination, then we are morally obligated to listen to them.

Nader Hashemi
20 September 2013
Syria Dilemma

This essay is reprinted by kind permission from the book The Syria Dilemma, edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel.

There is a wide body of opinion against arming the Syrian rebels. These voices, especially those on the left, argue that pursuing a military defeat of the Assad regime is mistaken and misguided because it increases civilian suffering and prolongs the conflict. Stephen Zunes, for example, has argued that “it is critical to not allow the understandably strong emotional reaction to the ongoing carnage to lead to policies that could end up making things worse.” In response to the question of what should be done about the nightmare in Syria, he has written that the “short answer, unfortunately, is not much.” [1] Alternatively, it is suggested that negotiating with Damascus and engaging Russia and Iran in diplomacy offer the only way out of the Syrian predicament.[2]

While these arguments appeal to our best Gandhian impulses, upon closer examination they represent a fundamental misreading of Syria. If pursued they will not end the conflict but will likely prolong it, mainly because these prescriptions ignore two key elements at the core of this dispute: 1) the nature of the Assad regime and 2) the right to self-determination of the Syrian people.

The Assad regime’s criminal enterprise

The revolution in Syria was born out of the 2011 Arab Spring. It began nonviolently and for the same reasons as the other uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. The core aspirations of the protesters were the same: hurriya (political freedom), adala ijtima’iyya (social justice) and karama (dignity). What was different, however, was the nature of the regime they faced.

A comparison of the human rights records of member states of the Arab League places Syria at the extreme end of a spectrum of repression. Arguably, only Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was worse. While the 1982 massacre in Hama is frequently cited to highlight the viciousness of the Assad regime, less well known are the horrors of Syria’s prison system. Tens of thousands have passed through its doors. Untold numbers never made it out. A 1996 Human Rights Watch report on the notorious Tadmor prison describes “deaths under torture” and “summary executions on a massive scale.” One former inmate described the place as a “kingdom of death and madness” whose emaciated prisoners were compared to “survivors of Nazi concentration camps.”[3]

But this was just one jail in a veritable archipelago. The full story of Syria’s prison system and internal human rights nightmare under the Assads has yet to be properly told. When the full truth emerges it will evoke the horrors Alexandr Solzhenitsyn chronicled in The Gulag Archipelago. Pieces of the truth, however, are slowly emerging. A recent Human Rights Watch report, revealingly titled Torture Archipelago, provided new details on the scale, breadth and depth of Syria’s human rights nightmare. These abuses are so enormous that they constitute, according to Human Rights Watch, “crimes against humanity” and have earned Assad a referral to the International Criminal Court.[4] Given this background, Damascus’ ruthless response to peaceful demands for change in March 2011 were entirely predictable.

In the first few months of the uprising - well before the creation of the Free Syrian Army and before there was an Al Qaeda presence on the ground - more than two thousand Syrian civilians were killed. Over ten thousand more were arrested during the same period and taken to notoriously ghastly detention centres.[5] By the first anniversary of the revolution Assad had crossed the proverbial Rubicon. All the leading human rights organizations -Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN Human Rights Council’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic - unanimously and unambiguously charged the Syrian government with a state-sanctioned policy of “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.”[6] As the carnage continued, according to the UN, more than 60,000 people had been killed by early 2013.[7] The Assad regime is now in the same moral category as the Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic and Rwanda’s Hutu generals.

Syria is unlike other countries that have experienced civilian revolts during the Arab Spring. The level of regime-orchestrated violence - replete with cluster bombs, Scud missiles, sexual violence, indiscriminate attacks on bread lines, hospitals, universities, homes, and children, and now apparently chemical weapons—is on an order and magnitude that is incomparable with other regional countries that have been shaken by the Arab Spring.[8] Thus what arguably worked in Yemen’s “managed transition” does not apply to Syria. The cases are qualitatively different from a human rights perspective. If the history of ending massive state-sanctioned atrocities is any guide - Tanzania’s intervention in Uganda, India’s in East Pakistan, Vietnam’s in Cambodia, the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s in Rwanda, NATO’s in Bosnia and Kosovo - massive bloodshed constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity are not brought to an end by negotiating with the perpetrating regime, nor by engaging in diplomacy with allied countries that are complicit in these events. Military force is required.

Dignity and self-determination

The theme of dignity, or its converse, indignity, and it relationship to modern Arab politics is a multi-dimensional phenomenon. It exists at both the individual and the collective levels. Syrians immediately identified with the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia, whose martyrdom ignited the Arab Spring.[9] His economic plight was theirs. His frustration, humiliation, and anger under the crushing weight of dictatorship resonated and struck a deep personal chord. But the theme of “Arab indignity” also exists on a collective level, and it is associated with a set of common historical experiences, which partly explains why it is such a potent force in the politics of the region.

For the Arab-Islamic world, in which Syria figures centrally, the twentieth century was an extremely bitter one. European colonialism and imperialism thwarted the aspirations for self-determination of millions of Arabs. The desire to create one pan-Arab state from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire’s Arabic-speaking provinces was dashed at the altar of British and French ambition. The state system that emerged after World War I reflected the economic and geostrategic interests of London and Paris more than it did popular preference on the streets of Cairo or Damascus. The birth of the modern Arab world thus engendered bitter memories and poisoned relations between Muslim societies and western ones. This was compounded by western support for the national rights of Jewish settlers in Palestine over those of the indigenous Palestinian population - the legacy of which continues to afflict the region and indeed the world to this day.

The aftermath of World War II saw the gradual loosening of European control of the Arab world and the emergence of a brief moment of optimism. Many thought that an opportunity had finally arrived for the realization of meaningful self-determination. But this opening did not last long. The region soon found itself awash in military coups and single-party states. Syria got the Ba’ath Party. Within the span of a couple of decades, a new post-colonial elite came to power and a familiar political landscape took shape. Yes, the new rulers were na- tive to the soil and had Muslim-sounding names, but they behaved in ways that were eerily familiar. A new chasm between state and society developed that replicated the old colonial one, only this time the ruling elites were Arabs rather than Europeans.

The term neocolonialism is an apt description for this state of affairs. The Syrian writer Rana Kab- bani has used the phrase “internal colonialism” to describe the authoritarian rule of postcolonial elites in the Arab world. She explains that 42 years of one-family rule in Syria is “much like the external colonialism of the past, [it] has robbed them and bombed them and impeded them from joining the free peoples of the world.”[10] The Syrian human rights activist and opposition leader Radwan Ziadeh has similarly argued that we “need a second independence in Syria. The first was from the French and the second will be from the Assad dynasty.”[11]

Commenting on this core feature of Arab political life, the historian Ilan Pappé has referred to the Arab Spring as the “second phase of decolonization.” What recent events have demonstrated, he notes, is the collective “assertion of self-dignity in the Arab world” after decades of humiliation, despotism, and despair.[12]

This is what the Syrian revolution is fundamentally about and why Assad and his mafia state must go. The Syrian intellectual Burhan Ghalioun picks up on this point that negotiations with Damascus are futile. The “existence of the [Assad] regime is like an invasion of the state, a colonisation of society” where “hundreds of intellectuals are forbidden to travel, 150,000 have gone into exile and 17,000 have either disappeared or been imprisoned for expressing their opinion . . . It is impossible (for President Bashar al-Assad) to say (like Mubarak and Ben Ali) ‘I will not prolong or renew my mandate’ like other presidents have pretended to do - because Syria is, for Assad, his private family property, the word ‘country’ is not part of the vocabulary.”[13]

It is precisely this point that the anti-interventionists are missing. This is a fascist regime embodied in the oft heard slogans: “God, Bashar, Syria, and Nothing Else” and “Assad or we burn down the country!” It is not amenable to compromise or negotiation. For them it is a zero-sum game and a fight to the finish. It cynically manipulates sectarian identity and anti-imperialism to maintain its criminal enterprise. Military intervention, as regrettable and complicated as it may be, is the only way to stop Assad’s killing machine. By doing so it may also open the door for the people of Syria to exercise, arguably for the first time in their modern history, their right to self-determination.

But there is a further compelling reason why military intervention in Syria is required: this is what most Syrians are demanding from the international community. The most inclusive and representative body of Syrians is the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (the Syrian Coalition, for short). While far from a perfect group, it harbors the best prospects for leading Syria to a democratic future. It includes Syrians both inside and outside the country and spans the religious-secular divide. More than 110 countries have officially recognized it as “the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”[14]

The Syrian Coalition has been pleading for a Libya-style intervention (no boots on the ground, a no-fly/no-kill zone, arming the moderate elements of the Syrian rebels). On April 24, 2013 they issued the following clarion call to the world:

The Syrian Coalition finds it tragic that NATO has the power to stop further loss of life in Syria, but chooses not to take that course of action....The international community must rise to its great moral and ethical responsibilities and put an end to this bloodshed. History will not only condemn the murderous crimi- nals, but also those who had the power to intervene but chose to be idle.[15]

Today, Syria is a litmus test for the left, which has long championed the rights of oppressed peoples in the developing world. If we truly believe in the right to self-determination for these people - the Syrian people included - then we are morally obligated to listen to them. We must follow their lead when it comes to deeply divisive issues such as military intervention. In the end, their needs - at this critical moment in their history - are far more important than our preferences and need for ideological purity.


Putting Syria back together again will take a long time. There are no quick fixes or easy answers. The trauma and devastation wrought by the Assad years will take generations to overcome. Populations that have lived under a police state for decades rarely emerge from the experience with liberal sensibilities. New political habits and social mores will have to be cultivated.

And the legacy of the current war and its wounds will take a long time to heal. A formidable challenge that lies ahead is accommodating the legitimate fears of minority communities, especially the Alawites and Christians, and assuring them that they will have a secure future in a post-Assad Syria. This challenge is compounded by the rise of radical Salafist and jihadi groups, who will have to be confronted and disarmed. The policies of regional powers - Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel - pose a further challenge. For different reasons, none of them wants to see a prosperous and democratic Syria emerge.

But the first step required in getting Syria on the path toward stability and self-determination is the removal of the Assad regime. This is what the Arab Spring is about; this is what most Syrians want. It is a precondition for a lasting peace; without it the war will continue and both Syria and the rest of the Middle East will plunge even deeper into this nightmare of bloodshed and chaos.

[1] Stephen Zunes, “Syria: U.S. involvement could make things worse,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, May 3, 2013, www.santacruzsentinel.com/opinion/ci_23169164/stephen-zunes-syriaus-involvement-could-make

[2] See Charles Glass, “The last thing Syrians need is more arms going to either side,” The Guardian, 4 March 2013, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/mar/04/syrians-arms-embargo-ask-russia-iran (reprinted in The Syria Dilemma, edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, MIT Press, 2013) and Aslı Bâli and Aziz Rana, “Why There Is No Military Solution to the Syrian Conflict,” Jadaliyya, May 13, 2013, www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/11680/why-there-is-no-military-solution-to-the-syrian-co (also reprinted in The Syria Dilemma). Also see Jonathan Steele, “Syria: How We Can End the Bloodshed,” The Guardian, 31 January 2013, www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/31/syriaisrael-attack-political-solution. For Noam Chomsky’s views see Aida Edemariam, “Noam Chomsky: ‘No individual changes anything alone’,” The Guardian, 22 March 2013, www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/22/noam-chomsky-no-individual-changes-anything-alone. 

[3] Human Rights Watch, Syria’s Tadmor Prison (New York: Human Rights Watch, April 1, 1996), www.hrw.org/reports/1996/04/01/syrias-tadmor-prison

[4] Human Rights Watch, Torture Archipelago: Arbitrary Arrests, Torture and Enforced Disappearances in Syria’s Underground Prisons Since March 2011 (New York: Human Rights Watch, July 3, 2012), www.hrw.org/reports/2012/07/03/torture-archipelago-0

[5] According to figures provided by the Violations Documentation Center in Syria from March to August 2011, available at www.vdc-sy.info/index.php/en/

[6] Amnesty International, Crackdown in Syria: Terror in Kalakh (London: Amnesty International, 2011), 19; Human Rights Watch, “We Live as in War”: Crackdown on Protesters in Governorate of Homs (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2011), 55-56; United Nations Human Rights Council, “Report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic,” 23 November 2011, www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/SY/A.HRC.S-17.2.Add.1_en.pdf 

[7] Nick Cumming-Bruce, “More Than 60,000 Have Died in Syrian Conflict, U.N. says,” New York Times, January 2, 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/01/03/world/middleeast/syria-60000-united-nations.html 

[8] See the dozens of reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN Human Rights Council that chronicle the human rights catastrophe in Syria. On sexual violence see Lauren Wolfe, “Syria Has a Massive Rape Crisis,” The Atlantic, April 3, 2013, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/04/syria-has-a-massive-rape-crisis/274583 

[9] See Fergal Keane’s interview with the boys from Deraa who launched the first protests. They explicitly reference the other Arab Spring revolts as a motivation. “Syria: The boys who helped spark a revolution,” BBC News, April 13, 2013, www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22140807

[10] Rana Kabbani, “From the Turks to Assad: to us Syrians it is all brutal colonialism,” The Guardian, 29 March 2011, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/mar/30/turks-assad-colonialism-family-mafia

[11] Liam Stack, “In Sometimes Deadly Clashes, Defiant Syrians Protest,” New York Times, April 17, 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/04/18/world/middleeast/18syria.html 

[12] Frank Barat, “Reframing the Israel-Palestine conflict,” New Internationalist, April 1, 2011, http://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2011/04/01/palestine-israel-interview-pappe/. Also see Rami Khouri, “The Long Revolt,” Wilson Quarterly (Summer 2011), 43-46.

[13] Robert Fisk, “Truth and reconciliation?: It won’t happen in Syria,” The Independent, May 7, 2011, www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-truth-and-reconciliation-it-wont-happen-in-syria-2280377.html 

[14] “‘Friends of Syria’ recognize opposition,” Al Jazeera (English), December 12, 2012, www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/12/201212124541767116.html 

[15] “The Position of NATO’s Secretary General Regarding Intervention in Syria,” Statement by the Syrian Coalition, April 24, 2013, www.etilaf.org/en/newsroom/press-release/item/433-the-position-of-nato%E2%80%99s-secretary-general-regardingintervention-in-syria.html

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