Is There a Method to the Syrian Madness?

On radical-emancipatory movements and false rationales for war.

Slavoj Žižek

A woman's eyes tear at a funeral march for three Christian government soldiers killed by opposition fighters this weekend in Maalula, Syria. The fighters reportedly forced at least one Christian to convert at gunpoint, highlighting the complexity of a conflict where neither side can truly claim to be democratic-secular. (Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)

As I have writ­ten before, we all remem­ber Pres­i­dent Oba­ma’s smil­ing face, full of hope and trust, when he repeat­ed­ly deliv­ered the mot­to of his first cam­paign, Yes, we can!” — we can get rid of the cyn­i­cism of the Bush era and bring jus­tice and wel­fare to the Amer­i­can peo­ple. Now that the Unit­ed States is back­ing off its push to attack Syr­ia, we can imag­ine peace pro­test­ers shout­ing at Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma: How can you advo­cate anoth­er mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion?” Oba­ma the reluc­tant war­rior looks back at them and mur­murs per­plexed: Can I? Should I?”

The ongoing struggle there is ultimately a false one, a struggle towards which one should remain indifferent

And this time, he is right to sec­ond-guess him­self. All that was false in the idea and prac­tice of human­i­tar­i­an inter­ven­tions explodes in a con­densed form apro­pos Syr­ia. OK, there is a bad dic­ta­tor who is (alleged­ly) using poi­so­nous gas­es against the pop­u­la­tion of his own state. But who is oppos­ing his régime? It seems that what­ev­er remained of the demo­c­ra­t­ic-sec­u­lar resis­tance is now more or less drowned in the mess of fun­da­men­tal­ist Islamist groups sup­port­ed by Turkey and Sau­di Ara­bia, with a strong pres­ence of al-Qae­da in the shadows.

As for Assad, his Syr­ia at least pre­tends to be a sec­u­lar state, so no won­der that Chris­t­ian and oth­er minori­ties now tend to take his side against the Sun­ni rebels. In short, we are deal­ing with an obscure con­flict, vague­ly resem­bling the Libyan revolt against Gaddafi. There are no clear polit­i­cal stakes, no signs of a broad eman­ci­pa­to­ry-demo­c­ra­t­ic coali­tion, just a com­plex net­work of reli­gious and eth­nic alliances overde­ter­mined by the influ­ence of super­pow­ers (the Unit­ed States and West­ern Europe on the one side, Rus­sia and Chi­na on the oth­er). In such con­di­tions, any direct mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion means polit­i­cal mad­ness with incal­cu­la­ble risks. What if rad­i­cal Islamists take over after Assad’s fall? Will the Unit­ed States repeat their Afghanistan mis­take of arm­ing the future al-Qae­da and Tal­iban cadres? What if the U.S. mis­siles or bombs land on Syria’s stock­pile of Sarin gas weapons? After the attack, then what?

In such a messy sit­u­a­tion, mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion can only be jus­ti­fied by a short-term, self-destruc­tive oppor­tunism. The moral out­rage evoked to pro­vide a ratio­nal cov­er for the com­pul­sion-to-inter­vene — We can­not allow the use of poi­so­nous gas­es on civ­il pop­u­la­tion!” — is a such a sham, it doesn’t even take itself seri­ous­ly. As we now know, the Unit­ed States more than tol­er­at­ed the use of poi­so­nous gas­es against the Iran­ian army by Sad­dam Hus­sein. Dur­ing the Iraq-Iran war of 1980 – 1988, the Unit­ed States sided with the Iraqis to quell Iran­ian influ­ence in the Gulf, despite being well aware of Iraq’s lib­er­al use of mus­tard and tear gas, accord­ing to declas­si­fied gov­ern­ment reports. The Unit­ed States even secret­ly sup­plied Iraq with satel­lite images of Iran­ian bat­tle­field weak­ness­es to aid in the tar­get­ing of Iran­ian troops. Where were moral con­cerns then?

The sit­u­a­tion in Syr­ia should be com­pared to the one in Egypt. Now that the Egypt­ian Army has bro­ken the stale­mate and cleansed the pub­lic space of the Islamist pro­test­ers, the result is hun­dreds, maybe thou­sands, of dead. One should take a step back and focus on the absent third par­ty in the ongo­ing con­flict: the explo­sion of het­ero­ge­neous orga­ni­za­tions (of stu­dents, women, work­ers) in which civ­il soci­ety began to artic­u­late its inter­ests out­side the scope of state and reli­gious insti­tu­tions. This vast net­work of new social forms is the prin­ci­pal gain of the Arab Spring, inde­pen­dent of big polit­i­cal changes like the Army’s coup against the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood gov­ern­ment or the Assad régime’s war with Islamist extrem­ists. It goes deep­er than the religious/​liberal divide. (And even in the case of clear­ly fun­da­men­tal­ist move­ments, one should be care­ful not to miss their social component.)

The only way for the civ­il-demo­c­ra­t­ic pro­test­er — in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Syr­ia — to avoid being side­stepped by reli­gious fun­da­men­tal­ists is by adopt­ing a much more rad­i­cal agen­da of social and eco­nom­ic emancipation.

And this brings us back to Syr­ia: The ongo­ing strug­gle there is ulti­mate­ly a false one, a strug­gle towards which one should remain indif­fer­ent. The only thing to keep in mind is that this pseu­do-strug­gle thrives because of the absent Third, a strong rad­i­cal-eman­ci­pa­to­ry oppo­si­tion whose ele­ments were clear­ly per­cep­ti­ble in Egypt.

As we used to say almost half a cen­tu­ry ago, one doesn’t have to be a weath­er­man to know which way the wind blows. In Egypt’s case, I’ve argued, it blows toward Iran — and in Syr­ia, it blows toward Afghanistan. Even if Assad some­how wins and sta­bi­lizes the sit­u­a­tion, his vic­to­ry will prob­a­bly breed an explo­sion sim­i­lar to the Tal­iban rev­o­lu­tion that will sweep over Syr­ia in a cou­ple of years. What can save us from this prospect is only the rad­i­cal­iza­tion of the strug­gle for free­dom and democ­ra­cy into a strug­gle for social and eco­nom­ic justice.

So what is hap­pen­ing in Syr­ia these days? Noth­ing real­ly spe­cial, except that Chi­na is one step clos­er to becom­ing the world’s new super­pow­er while her com­peti­tors are eager­ly weak­en­ing each other.

Slavoj Žižek, a Sloven­ian philoso­pher and psy­cho­an­a­lyst, is a senior researcher at the the Insti­tute for Human­i­ties, Birk­beck Col­lege, Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don. He has also been a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at more than 10 uni­ver­si­ties around the world. Žižek is the author of many books, includ­ing Liv­ing in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Year of Dream­ing Dan­ger­ous­ly and Trou­ble in Paradise.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue