By Jan Oberg
The New York Review of Books has published an Open Letter headlined “The World Must Act Now on Syria” – and about 200 people from the world of culture and academia, from Syria and the rest of the world, have signed. It’s also published by PulseMedia here – on February 27, 2018.
The immediate event that compels the authors of this Open Letter is the terrible fighting and humanitarian emergency in Ghouta at the outskrits of Damascus. Both articles carry on top the standard images of some men saving children out of ruins (see above, the White Helmets).
May I suggest you read the Open Letter now and then return to this page so it is clear to you why I write what I do.
What follows is a short argumentative analysis that shows how the surely good intentions behind the Open Letter are based on dubious assumptions and lack analytical depth and why, if “the world” followed their proposals, everything would just be much worse.
As is often stated: The road to Hell is quite often paved with good intentions.
1. “The world is a bystander to the carnage that has ravaged the lives of Syrians…a global audience that refuses to act”
Well, dozens of governments and their military, economic, political and media support and fighters from many more have participated in the violence on Syria’s territory since 2011.
The “bystanding” world has delivered more weapons and ammunition to the RIOTs as I call them – Rebels, Insurgents, Opposition and Terrorists – than anyone who have not witnessed the destruction personally will probably be able to imagine. (I have been there). Here the former Qatari Prime Minister explains how the US that coordinated this through Turkey in cooperation with Qatar and Saudi-Arabia.
The “bystanding” world decided to depose the legal President of the country at The Friends’ of Syria meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, on December 12, 2012 and did so by decree and by establishing a National Syrian Council that it thereafter considered the only legitimate representative of the Syrian people – which had not been consulted.
The “bystanding” world has produced new media outlets run by opposition groups, set up and financed the dual/triple-purpose White Helmets which stole their other name, Syria Civil Defence, from Syria’s existing, official civil defence, and extend humanitarian aid only to the RIOT side and produces videos that are used all over the Western world’s research-free media and offers a uniquely biased view of what is going on.
Perhaps, rather than being passive, the (Western) world and its allies such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States meddled too actively in the conflicts in and around Syria? Perhaps it wasn’t so productive from a peace and Syrian civil society point of view to weaponize the conflicts and support so manifestly and generously all the RIOTs?
2. About the UN “All they have done is to provide a fig leaf for to an institution that appears moribund”
But, who is the UN? Its first Sec-General, Trygve Lie, said it very clearly in the late 1940s: The UN will never be better of stronger than its member states want it to be.
The cultural and intellectual people behind this letter don’t seem to be updated on the workings of the UN and the attempts by member states – NATO countries since Yugoslavia in particular – to both sideline the UN and ignore international law as such in conflict region after conflict region.
All the big wars since 1989 have taken place either without a UN mandate or through gross misuse of a mandate (Libya). These concerned people do not ask: Why did the first two UN envoys for Syria, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi give up finding a negotiated solution in Syria?
And they don’t seem to know that the members of the UN spend US$ 1800 billion annually on arms while the whole UN with all its activities and organisations has a budget of around US $ 30 billion – or 1,6% of the world military budgets – with which to make this a better world.
It’s easy to kick someone who is already beaten to the ground.
3. As conflict analysis, everything is blamed on President Bashar al-Assad
Here’s the Open Letter formulation of what Syria is about: “The nature and magnitude of all the crimes that the Assad regime has committed against Syrians, aided by local and foreign militias, by Iranian strategic and financial aid, by Russian airpower and mercenaries – and by international indifference.”
This of course is the standard Western narrative about Syria but a narrative is not the reality, it is a story about it. And fiction is a part of that story.
Essentially, hugely complex conflicts are reduced to be all about one person on the top – say, Milosevic, Saddam, Khaddafi, al-Assad – it’s never about economics, power, history, collective traumas, Western historical intervention and ravaging a country or region; it’s not the arms trade, special units, intelligence, foreign political meddling etc – and it is certainly not about the West being in the region to pursue its own strategic interests. It’s all about one man at the top killing his own.
And it’s about two parties only: the good guys versus the bad guys, all the good ones on one side, all the bad ones on the other: A two-fold table, no need or intellectual capacity for four or more.
They continue: “Today, as Idlib and Afrin burn, the inevitable is unfolding in Ghouta, the huge open-air concentration camp about to enter its fifth year under siege.” One must take note of these particular cities and no other being mentioned. And they, deliberately one must assume, do not explain who is fighting in Ghouta and why Ghouta has been under siege for so long or why central Damascus is receiving mortars from Eastern Ghouta.
So the authors of this Open Letter don’t seem to be aware of the important of some kind of comprehensive conflict analysis, they choose the easy way: Look at the violence, talk only about one side’s violence and condemn only one side and never talk about the West’s complicity in some of this historically. Perhaps because, as we shall see, they want the West to intervene massively.
I’m not arguing that al-Assad and the “regime” is not authoritarian and has killed and tortured. I’m merely asking: Is there any particular reason that only one side among hundreds of participants are singled out and everybody else go unmentioned?
Nowhere in this letter is there any mention of Western countries participating or of the rebels, insurgents, opposition and terrorists – whether Syrian or foreign – that by definition must have at least some responsibility for the tragedy. How can intellectuals analyze a conflict and believe, seriously, that it has only one participant?
How can intellectuals miss the underlying conflicts and other complexities and stare themselves blind on the violence, i.e. the violence by one side?
How can they be so reductionist and simplifying in their diagnosis and, later, recommendation?
4. The opposition is entirely without leverage and the regime knows only violence
Here’s the formulation. “they (those with power, JO) encourage all parties to negotiate, even though the opposition is entirely without leverage. They say there is ‘no military solution’ though the regime has given no indication that it believes in a solution of any other kind.”
Closer to the truth is that the Syrian government does participate in negotiations in various places and in the UN. You may say that is has done so in bad faith but that’s not how the letter writers formulate it.
Closer to the truth is that the RIOTs have been emboldened from Day One by the political, economic and military support they have received directly and from the Western/NATO countries and in particular Turkey and Saudi-Arabia blaming everything on “the regime.” But they have done a lot of in-fighting and not been able to agree on anything. Doesn’t that belong in the picture?
And if anybody has lacked leverage at each and every negotiation table it is the millions of Syrian citizens who are the real victims and have never touched a gun, perhaps 97-98% of all.
They’ve not been invited to be active as negotiators anywhere while those who sit at the table are the men of violence on all sides. Shall they also decide the future of Syria over and above the heads of the millions of non-violent Syrian citizens?
To put it crudely, the authors make the usual nonsensical, if not disgraceful, distinction – “we support the opposition because we think it has killed fewer people, but we do not express any real sympathy and empathy with those who never have killed.”
Nonviolence is not their perspective – as is also clear when you read this last point:
5. Use the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and forcibly stop the war on Syria…
One would rather that it wasn’t true but the 200 people who want to persuade the – bystanding – world is now advocating more violence!
Here some excerpts:
“…every (UN, JO) member state has nevertheless adopted and pledged to uphold the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine under the UN’s Office on Genocide Prevention … The destruction of Syria was preventable, and can now only be ended by the elected and appointed members of democratic bodies if they fulfill their obligations under R2P … For the agony of the people of Syria to come to an end, this must be forcibly stopped. The perpetrators of these colossal crimes against humanity must be halted, once and for all.”
So, this means that the democratic bodies – whatever that is but certainly the formulation must encompass Western democratic countries – shall bomb the hell out of “the regime” and in the name of Genocide Prevention stop the war once and for all. Does it mean destroying Damascus, partly or fully? Killing the President and his family? What – it is surprisingly vague?
And the word “forcibly” – it shall be done by military might, destruction, and more violence – not by changing to new policies, not by recognising that something went wrong up till now, not by mediation, dialogues, negotiations.
It must, logically, mean force-based change of government and president. And whether the authors have thought of it or not, it must mean a willingness to risk fighting also against Russia and Iran, the only two countries who are in Syria with the backing of international law (no matter what one may otherwise think of their policies and military activities.)
Why? Because it is inconceivable that the West could do what the authors of this Open Letter propose and the Russians would sit idle in their bases and watch, or be killed.
In short, if implemented, the proposal as it stands would likely have catastrophic consequences way outside Syria and the region. And it would lead to a RIOT-based, Islamist/Sharia government and leadership being installed by the bombing nations, a boost to Islamist forces in the region and a possible return of ISIS to Syria. And the Syrian citizens would again be the main victims.
This Open Letter is biased and deficient when it comes to a reasonable analysis of the problems and conflicts underlying the wars in and on Syria. That’s bad enough. A false or absent diagnosis seldom leads to realistic prognoses and healing.
It exonerates completely – even by omission – all other conflict participants but the Syrian government, Russia and Iran. Not that they should not be criticised, I repeat, but they cannot possibly be – empirically are not – the only ones.
It thereby logically appears to come out in support of the RIOTs – that is on the side of violent socio-political change, the Western regime change agenda and 7 years of RIOT’s destruction by predominantly foreigners on Syria’s soil – violence/terrorist groups as well as foreigners and their special units, intelligence services, cruise missile attacks and splitting up by violence of a sovereign member state of the UN. And it is published while the US is, illegally, building up to 20 military bases on Syria’s soil.
Implicitly, therefore, they undermine – to the extent of ignoring – international law and the UN Charter in order and, instead, promote an interventionist, military agenda. The markedly expressed disillusionment with the UN indicates that the advocated war to end it all “once and for all” would not be predicated upon a UN Security Council mandate but on the West smashing up one side in this war and, thereby, support a series of terrorist and terrorist-affiliated organisations.
In short, a great disservice to international law, to fairness in analysis and ability to analyse the real problems and a deeply disturbing advocacy for more killing – but presumably good killing – namely that of NATO. By whom, however, is not spelled out.
While one must recognize that it is indeed difficult to get so many people to sign their name on a text on an issue of endless complexity, it would probably have been better for all, to have buried the project before it was published – or stated that there are two possible ways: a violent one and a political, non-violent one and then spelled out the future means and goals for each scenario.