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A Syrian rebel interrogates a suspected pro-regime fighter in the northern city of Aleppo on October 26. (Photo by Achilleas Zavallis/AFP/Getty Images)

Debating Intervention in Syria

Should we arm the rebels?

BY Rebecca Burns

Revolutions do not come dressed in the correct outfits. They are messy. They are confusing.

The ranks of liberal hawks have swelled in the past two decades in response to atrocities in places such as Rwanda and Darfur. But humanitarian intervention—the doctrine that says the duty to protect civilians trumps state sovereignty and justifies the use of force—has most often been relegated to the realm of the hypothetical.

In the murky aftermath of the NATO mission in Libya, humanitarian intervention appears both more probable and more problematic. Many progressives fear that Libya represents a new model for Western interference in popular uprisings throughout the Arab world. But in the face of mounting atrocities in Syria, beleaguered opposition groups there began calling for international intervention earlier this year. The death toll in Syria and the turn of many groups in the region to armed rebellion, as well as the uneven reactions of the Left to these developments, comprise an uncertain legacy for the Arab Spring.

In These Times asked three Middle East experts and activists to weigh in on the possibility of humanitarian intervention in Syria—and on whether this debate is even the right one to have. Joining the discussion were Valentine Moghadam, feminist scholar and director of international affairs at Northeastern University; Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College; and John Rees, a national officer of the UK Stop the War Coalition.

We’re still hearing calls from conservatives to arm the Syrian rebels. Might we see a Libya-style intervention in Syria?

Prashad: [The NATO states’] exertion into Libya and its checkered aftermath has unsettled the confidence of the West. The West is not interested in intervention in Syria.

Rees: But the indirect intervention by the major powers and the direct intervention by their Turkish, Saudi and Qatari allies has already altered the dynamic of the Syrian revolution. In Egypt and Tunisia, the revolutions happened too quickly and decisively for the major powers to intervene. But before the Syrian opposition could topple the dictator, it split over its attitude toward intervention and imperialism. So we see the Syrian National Council and sections of the Free Syrian Army actually calling for Western intervention.

Moghadam: External intervention in Syria has already happened in the form of support for a Sunni-led uprising. And it has had spillover effects in Lebanon, and could also spread to Jordan. Given the dreadful record of the former colonial powers and the U.S., it strains credulity to imagine a constructive role for those powers in Syria, or anywhere in the region.

The international debate over Syria has focused on whether humanitarian intervention by these powers could protect an opposition movement under siege. But can’t progressives support popular uprisings while opposing armed intervention?

Rees: We should make it clear that we support the right of the Syrian people to end the dictatorship and that we want to see the overthrow of Assad. But we should also say that those in Syria campaigning for Western intervention are dividing the revolution and making it impossible for it to result in a really free and independent Syria in the future. Those of us in the West should begin with opposition to our own government’s policies of intervention.

Prashad: “Intervention versus no intervention” is a debate framed by the Right. And armed intervention is off the table—it is a non-issue. Even Mitt Romney said this in the presidential debate on foreign policy. The real question is how should the international Left support a regional solution? This is where the only real solution can come from.

Moghadam: So far the strategy seems to be one of exacerbating the Sunni-Shia divide toward the sidelining of Iran, the regional ascendancy of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and continued flows of military weapons to the region. Assad lost an opportunity early on to make serious reforms and preempt the more violent rebellion that we see today. But the opposition is not blameless for the destruction and the loss of life. The international Left should support popular uprisings, but it should not suspend critical judgment.

Prashad: Assad is an unpopular leader amongst a large section of the population, who protested for 11 months peacefully—but were met with a barrage of force by the regime, which is when sections of them turned to the armed road. To miss this is to miss the complexity of the Syrian revolution, which is not one thing but many.

What impact has the intervention in Libya had on the Arab Spring?

Rees: It was a watershed. Before the simultaneous interventions in Bahrain and Libya, the forces of counter-revolution had no effective strategy to deal with the Arab revolutions. After March 2011 they were back in the game. Co-opting a section of the opposition by offering armed assistance, as in Libya, was part of this process.

And we’re still making sense of the outcomes of the Arab Spring. What do these rebellions have in common, and what promise do they hold for progressive change in the region?

Moghadam: The political revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were generated from within and were the product of years of widespread grievances and occasional open protests. The other “revolutions”—in Yemen, Libya and Syria—are in a separate category because of the extent of violence on the part of the state and opposition alike. The Arab Spring in Syria morphed into a destructive civil war that has now become internationalized. The Syrian opposition is not only fragmented, but apparently is also dominated by reactionary Islamists receiving arms and funds from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and safe harbor and perhaps other forms of assistance from Turkey.

Prashad: All of the Arab Spring uprisings have been progressive in the sense that they oppose authoritarian rule. The overthrow of Mubarak and Ben Ali, even Qaddafi, are to be celebrated as creating openings. Revolutions do not come dressed in the correct outfits. They are messy. They are confusing. But it is clear that the Left was was impeded by the absence of democratic possibilities in these societies. With new democratic openings, it is now up to social movements of all kinds to galvanize popular opinion and organize their bases to create a Left bloc.

So far, the Arab Spring appears to be a victory in part for Islamist parties, which have won victories in elections in Egypt and Tunisia—is this accurate? What might come next?

Moghadam: It is. Islamization has been spreading in the region in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the “jihad” in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Meanwhile, the Left has been losing strength and credibility throughout the region due to imprisonment, repression, exile, co-optation and otherfactors. And while women were a visible presence in the protests of Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco (unlike in the countries with violent and armed uprisings), they have captured a mere 2 percent of parliamentary representation in Egypt, 27 percent in Tunisia and 17 percent in Morocco. If organized feminist and human rights groups and progressive parties can be an assertive opposition and a strong moral voice, they will be able to defend the full and equal rights of all citizens, as well as expand the social rights of citizens in favor of a welfare state. But this will depend on how well they unite against the hegemony of the Islamists.

Prashad: The Arab Spring is an ongoing process. The Islamists, who were well organized, have taken the first option of running the governments. They were able to organize because the mosque could not be banned, whereas the workers halls and the party offices could be. But they do not have a coherent economic policy on how to combat neoliberalism, and are therefore fated to fail to provide the people with what they want. The Left has to organize on this terrain, to fight for the widest dignity of the population, and prepare to take power in the near future. The Spring is not these governments. If that were the case, the Spring has failed. The Spring is the future, the movement to create something appropriate to the needs of the people.

Rebecca Burns, In These Times Assistant Editor, holds an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where her research focused on global land and housing rights. A former editorial intern at the magazine, Burns also works as a research assistant for a project examining violence against humanitarian aid workers.

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