Friday marks the 83rd week since the Syrian Civil War began, and neither side is anywhere close to victory. In spite of overwhelming odds, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) now operates in all but one of Syria’s provinces. It has gained power through a series of bloody attacks; FSA forces are assumed to be behind the murders of captives and unarmed loyalists. And the Syrian armed forces continue to relentlessly attack rebel positions. Every day, new reports and videos are released of airforce strikes against villages and towns that support the rebels, although both sides are responsible for many civilian deaths. Since it began, the conflict has made refugees of over 300,000 people, and has claimed the lives of nearly 26,000.
Beyond Syria, the world has done little to stop the bloodshed. Russia and China have vetoed all resolutions proposed to the UN Security Council; efforts by the Arab League have been similarly ineffective, and efforts by UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan produced only fleeting results. On this side of the Atlantic, in spite of calls from several senators to arm the FSA, the U.S. government has adopted a policy of non-intervention.
Unlike many, I argue there is merit in taking this stance; it acknowledges that America and the West cannot be the world’s policemen. It concedes that our dogma and hegemony shouldn’t be the law of the land, and it shows that the U.S. cannot solve all the world’s problems. Is it even our place to do so?
“The people of Syria have to work out their own future,” said Ed Knox, former CIA analyst and Middle East scholar. Knox argues that the current situation springs from constant meddling by outsiders in the region’s affairs. “History,” he says, “helps us better understand the present.”
Modern Syria was established in the aftermath of the First World War and was placed under trusteeship of France to prepare the country for full independence. French administration of the country was farcical; the people were organized to favor the French position and, though the government during this time was nominally Franco-Muslim, all power lay with the French authorities.
So, when full independence finally came to Syria in 1946 after two decades of foreign control, the country was acutely unprepared for the task. The first 25 years following independence were chaotic and violent, with coup after coup until 1971, when Hafez Assad—father of current President Bashar al-Assad—staged a successful takeover and became the effective dictator.
His repressive regime was challenged in 1973 by a rebellion which claimed 30,000 lives. When Bashar al-Assad took office, there were great hopes that he would be a reformer who would turn Syria down the right path. At first this hope seemed within reach; but the current situation demonstrates how misguided that hope was. So what does this history reveal to us? It underscores that the conditions in Syria are far more complex than we might imagine.
In the simple world of mass media, we are presented with the false dichotomy of a fight between “Good” (the FSA) and “Evil” (al-Assad). The media tell us that the West—indeed the world—should support the FSA, that it stands for democracy and freedom. This position fails to account for the millions of Syrians who still support the regime and are fleeing towns that the FSA supposedly “liberates”, not out of fear of the government, but out of fear of the FSA.
A correspondent for National Public Radio found a town near the border in which 80 percent of the local populace, many of them supporters of the government, fled when the FSA arrived.
The Syrian Armed Forces continue to shell, bomb and otherwise raze countless settlements to the ground. It is these same forces who torture and maim people they believe are “enemies” of the state.
Again, things are not as simple as they seem. According to Knox, the complexity of Syria means, “getting involved would be far worse than Iraq. [The West] shouldn’t go in and screw things up.”
Neither side can claim the moral high ground, and herein lies the paradox of this conflict. To support one side is to ignore and be complicit in the atrocities that it commits. To support neither is to allow the senseless killing that is taking place during this stalemate to go on. It leaves the rest of the world with only one option, which has failed so far: diplomacy. Yet it shall have to be by negotiations that this war comes to an end. If it is concluded by violence, that will only beget an equally violent counter-response.
Syria needs peace through words, not blood. Otherwise, the spiral of destruction will never cease.