More on the Syrian intervention debate

Last week, Professor Daniel Serwer criticized me in the Atlantic for not including nonviolence in my brief survey of the Syrian intervention debate. I am not sure that much had been written about nonviolence in that context at the time of my post’s publication. Even if it had, my non-exhaustive commentary compilation was specifically focused on analysts who were debating the pros and cons of intervention, rather than all possible solutions to the crisis that is unfolding. That said, Serwer’s article is a necessary addition to the discussion about Syria in Washington, which is intensifying while the Obama administration is still eschewing the military option.

According to Serwer, self-defense and foreign intervention are indeed “justified”, but that does not mean they are necessarily “possible or wise”. He ultimately concludes that “they do not appear to be”, citing as reasons the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) inability to protect civilians against President Bashar al-Assad’s militarily superior forces and the decreased likelihood of Assad’s soldiers defecting if the FSA is violent. Serwer’s alternative to violent resistance follows:

There are a number of options, few of which have been tried. Banging pans at a fixed hour of the night is a tried and true protest technique that demonstrates and encourages opposition, but makes it hard for the authorities to figure out just who is opposing them. The Arab variation is Allahu akbar called out for 15 minutes every evening. A Libyan who helped organize the revolutionary takeover of Tripoli explained to me that their effort began with hundreds of empty mosques playing the call to prayer, recorded on CDs, at an odd hour over their loudspeakers. A general strike gives clear political signals and makes it hard for the authorities to punish all those involved. Coordinated graffiti, marking sidewalks with identical symbols, wearing of the national flag — consult Gene Sharp’s 198 methods for more.

I wondered how opponents of Assad would respond to Serwer’s urging of nonviolence, which he expands upon in his blog. According to Robin Yassin-Kassab, a Syrian-British author and frequent commentator on Mideast affairs, the arming of the FSA is “not a good thing” because “Syria is probably entering a period of civil war in which Iran and Russia arm the regime and the Gulf and Turkey arm the free people.” But he also argued that non-violent protestors will be “marginalized” and “the emergence and arming of the FSA is now inevitable and also, paradoxically, necessary.” Yassin-Kassab was adamant that “the people must, and will, defend themselves” and provided a grim outlook on the situation, stating that we’re unlikely to see a “democratic outcome” at least not until “some years of carnage have passed.”

Like Yassin-Kassab, Syrian blogger Maysaloon is based outside of the country. He agreed with much of Serwer’s arguments, in particular his recommendation that the FSA refrain from trying to match the Syrian army and limit itself to protecting civilians instead. “It would be foolhardy and counter productive if they start going around trying to be a conventional army – that would guarantee their destruction,” he said. But Maysaloon added that much of what Serwer is calling for “is already being done”:

The kind of non-violent resistance that he is calling for has been taking place since the first days of the revolution, and in tandem with the growing militarisation and violence. It is still happening: see the colouring of a fountain in Damascus to the colour red; the planting of independence day flags throughout Damascus; daily strikes and mini-protests throughout the night and all over the country.

I’m surprised that the author doesn’t seem aware of that and thinks he’s telling Syrians anything they don’t already know.

These are Syrian opinions of U.S. commentary about Syrian affairs. Other voices have also entered the debate, with arguments challenging the dominant narrative on Syria and for bargaining with Assad being published in the New York Times. Yesterday, Foreign Policy also published a scathing article by author and pundit, David Rieff, who criticized liberals for invoking the “so-called “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine” to justify “humanitarian war”.

But while analysts are debating policy and powerful government officials are expressing outrage, Syrians are enduring horrifying human rights abuses. How much is there left to add to this discussion, and is there really no end in sight for the people?

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.