Syria and the Meaning of the Arab Spring


A man holds the body of a dead child among bodies of people activists say were killed by nerve gas

By Sarah Eltantawi

At last, the world has woken up to the nightmare in Syria.  It took a vicious chemical attack that killed more than 1400, including hundreds of children, to pierce the slumber.  As we face the prospect of American intervention in Syria, I would like to pause to ask what lessons we can learn from the Syrian crisis in the ongoing struggle to uncover and actualize the “Arab Spring.”

First, clarification of a few points on the situation in Syria:

The vast majority of the carnage in Syria has been caused by the regime.

At this stage in the crisis, there are too many atrocities committed by the regime to count.  Because Amnesty International reports are generally agreed to be reliable among most observers of the conflict, I share here a few highlights from their dozens of reports.  If interested, you can look at all of Amnesty’s reports on Syria here:

A.  8-7-2013:  Destruction of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city:


 “With analysis of seven new images over a nine month period (early September 2012 to late May 2013), the project represents the most comprehensive physical damage assessment of Syria’s largest city to date. In addition to the destruction of infrastructure, the analysis also documents widespread damage within the Ancient City of Aleppo, a UNESCO world heritage site, such as the destruction of the minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo and damage to the Souq al-Madina. Under international humanitarian law, parties to conflict are obligated to respect and preserve cultural property.

Government forces have relentlessly and indiscriminately bombarded areas under the control of opposition forces across Syria, with civilians being at the receiving end of such attacks and at the same time also being subjected to abuses by some armed opposition groups. In Aleppo, the comprehensive survey demonstrates the physical destruction emblematic of the relentless bombardment. Satellite image analysis suggests that the destruction across the city is “severely lopsided” toward opposition-controlled neighborhoods, according to the assessment by the AAAS.”

B.  7-26-2013:  On the summary executions of anti-government sympathizers in the village of al-Baydeh in the Tartus governate:


 “The deliberate killing on 21 July of 13 civilians from the same family at their home in the village of al-Baydah, in the Tartus governorate, allegedly by pro-government forces, has raised grave concerns that the area’s population may be at ongoing risk of summary executions for its perceived sympathies towards the armed opposition. Amnesty International urges the Syrian government to end immediately all extrajudicial executions, deliberate attacks on civilians, forced displacement of the civilian population and other serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross violations of human rights.”

C.  11-12-2012:  On the Syrian opposition’s armed groups’ human rights violations: 


“Amnesty International calls on Syria’s new opposition leadership to establish oversight mechanisms to stem such abuses by armed groups under their control. This includes creating an effective command structure capable of ensuring that fighters are aware of their duty to abide by IHL, including the necessary precautions to spare civilians caught, and which can enforce compliance with IHL obligations.”

Note that the same report continues:

“By far the main cause of civilian deaths during the armed conflict has been the Syrian armed forces’ relentless use of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling in heavily populated civilian areas. Government forces have also stepped up their use of internationally banned cluster bombs against towns and villages in areas under opposition control.

Such attacks constitute war crimes and have exacerbated the refugee crisis as well as dramatically increased the number of internally displaced persons inside Syria.  The Syrian armed forces’ use of banned weapons like cluster bombs as well as aerial bombardments in built-up areas have unlawfully killed and injured a large number of civilians and destroyed homes and infrastructure,  aggravating the ever-growing refugee crisis.”

Amnesty has not issued a report on the chemical weapons massacre in Ghouta on August 21, 2013.  Though I understand many are waiting for the UN Inspections Report to come to a final conclusion on who unleashed the weapons, I reproduce here an excerpt from the United States Government’s assessment of the massacre. (Here it is in full.) I explain below why, unlike in Iraq, there is relatively less reason to doubt the US’s report:


 “The United States Government assesses with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on August 21, 2013. We further assess that the regime used a nerve agent in the attack. These all-source assessments are based on human, signals, and geospatial intelligence as well as a significant body of open source reporting.Our classified assessments have been shared with the U.S. Congress and key international partners. To protect sources and methods, we cannot publicly release all available intelligence – but what follows is an unclassified summary of the U.S. Intelligence Community’s analysis of what took place.

Syrian Government Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21

A large body of independent sources indicates that a chemical weapons attack took place in the Damascus suburbs on August 21. In addition to U.S. intelligence information, there are accounts from international and Syrian medical personnel; videos; witness accounts; thousands of social media reports from at least 12 different locations in the Damascus area; journalist accounts; and reports from highly credible nongovernmental organizations.

A preliminary U.S. government assessment determined that 1,429 people were killed in the chemical weapons attack, including at least 426 children, though this assessment will certainly evolve as we obtain more information.

We assess with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack against opposition elements in the Damascus suburbs on August 21. We assess that the scenario in which the opposition executed the attack on August 21 is highly unlikely. The body of information used to make this assessment includes intelligence pertaining to the regime’s preparations for this attack and its means of delivery, multiple streams of intelligence about the attack itself and its effect, our post-attack observations, and the differences between the capabilities of the regime and the opposition. Our high confidence assessment is the strongest position that the U.S. Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation. We will continue to seek additional information to close gaps in our understanding of what took place.”

 On the Question of Intervention

The international community has its reasons for not having intervened thus far.  For a start, it is an unfortunate fact that intervention so often occurs once the humanitarian situation has reached a catastrophic level.  A case in point frequently referred is the paltry 5,000 UN troops sent to Rwanda months after the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis.

As Mathew Waxman points out in this piece reflecting back to the debate over intervention in Kosovo, just as in today’s discussions of Syria — Russia and China made vociferous arguments against intervention based on a stringent and amoral (my adjectives) conception of “national sovereignty.”  To this end, Russia, along with China, used their Security Council votes to block the first and second drafts of a UN Resolution that would have condemned Asad’s use of weapons against civilians.

Russia, for its part, makes the same argument today with respect to Syria with a straight face, even as it generously arms Asad.  In March of this year, Russia sold the Asad regime four S-300 antiaircraft missile batteries at a cost of $900 million.  The Syrian regime’s contracts with the Russian defense industry is estimated to have exceeded $4 billion dollars.  Moscow made a $550 million deal to sell the Asad regime combat training jets.  Russia also leases a naval facility at the port of Tartus, giving it direct access to the Mediterranean.  (Source: Jeffrey Mankoff, adjunct fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies Russia and Eurasia Program.)

Syria is also reported to have begun as early as 2009 a delivery of ballistic missiles to Hezbullah.  This is significant because Hezbullah is Iran’s client, which explains in part the Islamic Republic’s support for the Asad regime.  Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has described the struggle as an ideological one between the “front of hegemony and the front of resistance.”

As for the rebels’ access to weapons, there is no question that they have far fewer and its suppliers far less reliable.  Indeed, one must only look at the state of stalemate — and more recently, significant rebel losses — to appreciate that they are not well armed.  There are reports that Syrian rebels acquired “large amounts” of SA-7 weaponry from Libya after the Benghazi attacks.  It is thought that those who obtained these weapons are affiliated with al-Qaida.  The United States has supplied small amounts of light weaponry, and not the anti-tank missiles requested by FSA leader Salim Idris.  Turkey and Saudi Arabia are thought to have transported weapons to rebel groups.

Implications for the “Arab Spring”

Having followed the Syrian revolution since it began in April of 2011 with peaceful protests fired upon by the regime with scud missiles, it has been clear to me  that Asad has responded to what began as a grassroots, Syrian-people-based call for much needed reforms with brutality so extreme it can be only described as suicidal for both the regime and the Syrian nation.  Clearly Bashar has calculated that following in his father Hafez’s brutal footsteps in the face of opposition would yield similar (quietist) results, as the latter “successfully” quelled an Islamist uprising in Hama in 1982 by killing up to 25,000 — largely escaping international approbation.

Let me state now that I am not making an argument in favor of American intervention.  My concern on this point is that an American intervention — limited as it would have to be due to domestic American pressure — would risk not fundamentally defanging the regime.  I find it difficult to support a “cosmetic” strike whose major aim is to demonstrate that the United States and its western allies have not lost all moral authority in the face of an illegal and repugnant chemical weapons massacre. I am also aware that hypocrisy is at issue here, as the US has used chemical weapons in Falluja, Iraq, though I do not, strictly speaking, see the direct connection between that hypocrisy and the question of intervention to weaken Asad.

I also have major concerns about which entities would come to power in Syria if the regime’s sudden fall leaves a dangerous vacuum to be filled by Islamist extremists who have flooded the country for their own ideological reasons that are largely disconnected from the will of the Syrian people.  While I am utterly convinced by the argument made by many observers of Syria that while being slaughtered, anyone can be forgiven for making a deal with the devil, I think these same observers would also agree that jihadist elements of the resistance represent a true danger to the viability and health of a future Syria, which will take generations to rebuild and reform.  The Syrian opposition has unfortunately largely failed to organize themselves into a coherent body capable of taking power. (As an observer of Egypt, I sympathize with how difficult this task really is — Rime Allaf describes her frustration with the Syrian opposition eloquently on her facebook page, in a public posting on August 31.)

Having said that, much like I found it difficult to ignore the cries of Libyans facing Qadaffi’s tanks at Bengazi who cried out for a NATO strike, I can not ignore Syrians who have been begging for international intervention for over two years to stop the nightmare they are currently living.

Therefore, to be clear, I am not advocating an American strike, but I will not condemn Syrians who welcome it should it occur.

Many oppose potential American intervention because they recall the United States’ debacle in Iraq.  I do not find that analogy fruitful for the following specific reasons:

1) The United States lied about Iraq’s possession of chemical weapons — they had none — but the Syrian government certainly does.  (I remain unconvinced by floating reports and intimations that the rebels possess or have used chemical weapons– but am open to revising that opinion in view of more convincing evidence.)

2.  The neo-conservatives who held sway over the Bush administration in the run up to the war in 2002-2003 argued that toppling Saddam Hussein was in the US and Israel’s strategic interests.  No such arguments are being made about Syria — on the contrary, the Obama administration has gone out of its way to avoid engagement.  As for Israel, despite the claim that Syria makes up a crucial part of the “axis of resistance” against it, the fact is that Asad did not give Israel too many problems:  the Golan border has remained quiet, and steadily colonized by Israel.  It seems clear to me that to the extent that the Israelis are taking a serious interest in Syria, it is due to their fears that Russian weapons, including chemical weapons, will end up in the hands of Hezbullah.  This stance is utterly predictable.

3.  There is little to no domestic appetite in the United States for more war in the Middle East.  Regular Americans are still paying the price for engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan in the form of body bags, budget cuts that affect already minimal social services, and a general economic slump.  Therefore it seems to me that any US engagement in Syria would have to, for political reasons, be very limited.

The Meaning of the “Arab Spring”

However there is a larger reason beyond these specifics some Arab progressives oppose American intervention, and that is the notion that the Asad regime, Hezbullah and Iran make up an “axis of resistance” to America and Israel in the region.  Here I must also be clear:  the American role in the region in the form of tethering Arab armies to the Military Industrial Complex, the United States’ frankly terrible record of supporting autocrats and dictators in the region to preserve their foreign policy imperatives — often described as “oil, Israel and stability” — and propping up of Gulf regimes that have exported jihadism and extremism in the region have been disastrous for Arab peoples and must be opposed.  Israel’s inhumane treatment of Palestinians (including the use of White Phosphorous chemical weapons) and ongoing colonization of Palestinian land must also be opposed.  (see this 71 page report from Human Rights Watch on Israel’s use of White Phosphorous in Gaza).

But I would like to take a step back here.  Speaking personally, I oppose Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians because I am outraged by years of watching innocent Palestinian civilians be killed, dispossessed and displaced.  My opposition and that of many observers of the conflict has nothing to do with anti-Semitism or any animus toward Jews in particular, despite some pro-Israel rhetoric that aims to change the subject in this manner.

Ergo, when one sees Syrians killed, dispossessed and displaced in a frankly much more aggressive manner by their own regime, I find it quite difficult to understand why the conscience should not be similarly exercised.  Indeed, what is the substantive meaning of an “axis of resistance” against the US and Israel killing, displacing and dispossessing Arabs when that same “axis of resistance” is upheld at the cost of killing, displacing and dispossessing Arabs?

One of the interesting outcomes of the Arab Spring is the emergence of different conceptions of what the movement means.  What is the Arab Spring’s essential set of values?  I have heard and read discussions of “sovereignty” “self determination” “freedom” “justice” and “bread.”  I would like to suggest that these goals are fundamentally undermined by our unwillingness to categorically oppose and combat by all means necessary the slaughter of Arabs by other Arabs.  There cannot be any meaningful moral authority (and yes, Arabs should aspire to moral authority) to oppose American and Israeli atrocities in the region so long as we justify or turn a blind eye to local atrocities.  I submit that we must shift our focus to opposing these atrocities in Arab countries at the hands of other Arabs (and other regional players) first and foremost to build a sound and integritious basis on which to oppose foreign meddling (of the western kind.)  To dream aloud for a moment, we need a regional humanitarian peace keeping force to account for the paradox that to preserve peace, one must organize war.

With freedom, the kind called for in the Arab Spring, comes responsibility; and if we are serious about it it will no longer do to focus almost entirely on the real or imagined “hidden hand” of the west to explain all problems in the region.  Self determination includes the capacity to commit atrocities, abuses and terrors, and compels us to deal with them and correct them on our own rather than letting situations get so catastrophic that western intervention becomes all but inevitable.

Quite frankly, anyone observing Syria could have seen this all but inevitable American intervention coming a mile away.  Our obfuscations of Asad’s atrocities has directly resulted in this intervention — there are no two ways about it.

[twitter – @SEltantawi]

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