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Letter to a Syrian friend who said: “Your opposition to the US attack on Syria means you support the Assad regime.”

Empire enjoys watching the two sides battle like caged mice, weakening each other to its advantage.

Dear Friend:

You are in Syria, somewhere in Damascus. You have been involved in
various protests to fight for more democratic space in Syria, and
then, after the early months of 2011, to overthrow the regime of
Bashar al-Asad. I have learned a great deal from people like you,
about your country and about the nature of the struggles that confront
you. You have seen the tide go out in your disfavor on two fronts:
first, an international environment that seemed to be in harmony with
your goals, but then turned out to be as conflicted about “regime
change” as you are certain about it; second, an internal opposition
that seemed to mimic the early wellsprings of the Arab uprisings in
North Africa in its multivalent diversity, but then turned out to be
hijacked by imperialist interests and by radical jihadis that you find
intolerant and dangerous. As the politics goes against your more
secular nationalism and democratic liberalism, and as you feel
isolated in every which way, the advent of a US bombing raid seemed to
be a deus ex machine—a thundercloud from Zeus himself. Such a clap of
lightening on the hardened bases of military power would perhaps knock
the wind out of the Asad regime, making it possible for people like
you to clamber to the top of a revolutionary dynamic.

History offers you no hope of success along this path. On the wings of
empire can come only grief. Recent interventions, whether in
Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya, have not ended well for its people. In
the month of August 2013, 804 people died in Iraq—numbers that rival
the death rates of the worst period of sectarian violence. Libya’s
security situation is torturous for its people, with assassinations
and random violence the order of the day. The people of Afghanistan,
and their twin in Yemen, face untold misery through night raids and
drone strikes, and with few of the main human obstacles undone by the

The United States and its North Atlantic partners make extraordinary
rhetorical pledges on behalf of human rights and for humanitarian
relief, but these rarely translate into reality. Set aside the human
rights record of the North Atlantic itself, whether in its colonial
phase but equally in the present moment when it has been known to
block routinely international regulations on arms sales and on the use
of dangerous weapons. Set aside as well the internal human rights
problems in the North Atlantic, whether against immigrants or against
workers. Such things shall not detain us here. We should look only at
the way the North Atlantic has used “human rights” in its military

First, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) states use “human
rights” as pretext for war-making, but care little for the regime of
human rights which would include reconciliation of the parties and
investigation of the manner in which wars are conducted. NATO went to
war in Libya based on a UN Security Council resolution. When asked if
it would allow an investigation of its bombing campaign by a UN
commission, NATO’s legal counsel Peter Olsen wrote in a letter dated
15 February 2012, “We would accordingly request that, in the event
that the commission elects to include a discussion of NATO actions in
Libya, its report clearly state that NATO did not deliberately target
civilians and did not commit war crimes in Libya.” NATO states used an
International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant to go to war in Libya, but
they have since been stubborn in their refusal to allow the ICC to
execute these warrants against Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi (held in
Zintan, Libya). The regime of human rights has been trampled by NATO
states, whose interests are to use the language of human rights for
its sectional interests rather than fight to create a robust human
rights system to benefit the wellbeing of the people of the planet.

If the North Atlantic states are cynical with their use of the
language of human rights, they are equally limited in their
appropriation of the idea of humanitarian relief. The most recent
Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP) from June 2013
shows that there are now 6.8 million Syrians under UN care, including
4.25 million internally displaced people. Of these, three million are
children, a million of whom have been edged out of Syria. The UN has
criticized governments for being “slow to commit funds” and even
slower to deliver the money. Pledges of financial support to the
crucial UN agencies are made at the frequent conferences. Little more
than a third of the SHARP request has been committed. Only one percent
of the eleven million dollars requested for food and nutrition for the
Syrian refugees has been delivered, and only 3.7 percent of the 343
million dollars of the emergency non-food aid has been transferred.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says
that almost sixty-five percent of the needs of Syrian refugees are
unmet. If the North Atlantic states were truly humanitarian, they
would open their vast coffers to take care of the immediate needs of
the Syrian refugees, and if the Gulf Arab states were equally
humanitarian, they would finance the removal of these refugees from
dangerous zones to safe havens. If the North Atlantic states were
truly interested in humanitarianism, they would increase the actual
financial resources given to the refugees. Bombing Syria will simply
displace more people into penury.

The United States says that it wants to bomb Syria to punish the Asad
regime for its use of chemical weapons. But keep in mind that it will
likely use Tomahawk missiles, whose warheads might or might not be
tipped with depleted uranium (DU). In other words, the United States
will punish the Asad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons by
bombing Syria with a weapon that the UN General Assembly has four
times asked to be sanctioned (but cannot because of the votes against
these resolutions from France, Israel, the United Kingdom, and the
United States). One hundred and fifty-five countries worry that
depleted uranium will contaminate groundwater and produce
environmental and health hazards for generations. The United States
used such weapons in Iraq, where a 2010 study (Cancer, Infant
Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005-2009) found that
the rate of heart defects was thirteen times that in Europe, the
nervous system abnormalities at birth were thirty-three times that in
Europe, and the childhood cancer rate was twelve times greater than
those before the use of DU in Fallujah in 2004. These are the
consequences of an imperialist bombardment. It will violate law in
order to pretend to uphold law. It will use dangerous chemicals to
protest the use of dangerous chemicals. It will get self-righteous
about chemical weapons, such as nerve gas, that it sold to the Assad
government within the past three years.

You are part of the Syrian rebellion, sandwiched between the
expatriate leadership of the Free Syrian Army and the heinous
fractions of jihadis. Your claim is that the US bombardment is to
overthrow Assad, but this is precisely not the war aim of the United
States. It threatened to act in late August only because the US
President Barack Obama had the previous year fallen into the trap of
the “red-lines.” Unable to act in any way in 2012, he threatened that
he would act if the Asad regime used chemical weapons. His words came
back to bite him (although we do not know yet with any certainty about
those chemical weapons). To respond, Obama had chosen, before he was
blocked by the UK parliament, to fire a barrage of Tomahawk missiles.
The US military says that the Tomahawks have “limited tactical
effect”–which means they would create random destruction in Syria, but
would be unlikely to degrade the military capacity of the regime.

Why has the United States been unwilling to conduct a Libyan-style air
war on behalf of the rebels in Syria? For one, the Libyan engagement
did not work out as well as the NATO states assumed: chaos reigns
supreme in the country, and the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi
has made the US political class skittish of full action on behalf of
rebels whose political views spank of anti-Americanism. Second, chaos
in Libya is a price that the NATO states are willing to pay as long as
the oil continues to flow and the migrants do not. With Syria, chaos
that threatens Israel and that allows Hezbollah to continue to get
logistical support from Iran is unacceptable. It is far better to
allow Syria to bleed and to let a maelstrom of internecine warfare
blind Hezbollah and the jihadis than to allow any kind of Islamist
regime in power in Damascus. Asad is preferable to Israel than a
Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader (the Syrian Brotherhood is far more
radical than the Egyptian Ikhwan, and even that was too much for Tel
Aviv). The commitment of the NATO states to the fall of Asad is
shallow. They are committed to a weakened Iran and Hezbollah, which is
what motivates their cynical policy. Asad is neither here nor there.

All this is well and good, you say to me. What alternatives do you
have? Do you expect us to have to tuck our dreams to sleep and return
to the status quo ante?

But the status quo ante is no longer possible. Asad is weakened, as
are his class allies. His braggadocio is that of a man who knows that
he has nothing to lose. What comes next is not going to be the return
of the old regime. It will be whatever the pressure from below can
produce as an alternative. But nothing of a political nature is going
to come if the violence continues, which will have thrown at least ten
million people into displacement by the end of the year, and close to
one hundred and fifty thousand people to their deaths. Such bloodshed
is unacceptable, particularly when there is no light at the end of
this long tunnel that runs from Homs to Aleppo, from Damascus to Hama.
What will stop the violence? Not the regime, which is ready to fight
to the end. Not the rebels, who taste victory even when it smacks of
blood in your mouth. In the northern belt, the violence has mutated so
that the Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Levant and Iraq are
at war with the Kurdish protection committees (YPG). That violence,
where the Asad regime is not involved, led to almost fifty thousand
people rushing over a pontoon bridge into Iraq over a weekend. Matters
are far from pre-2011. That is one reality that all sides need to

The refugee and humanitarian relief crisis is acute. Neither the
regime nor the rebels want to put their focus on this problem. They
are too centered on the frontline.

Syria’s neighbors are weighted down with the refugee crisis, which
threatens to morph and has morphed to some degree into a political
crisis. Car bombs in Beirut and in Tripoli are an indicator of the
latter. Lebanon is on edge. Jordan’s monarchy is on the line. Iraq
returns to sectarian fissures that it has tried to paper over. There
are now 704,877 registered refugees in Lebanon, 517,168 in Jordan,
440,773 in Turkey, and 155,258 in Iraq. These four neighbors have the
bulk of the 1.9 million refugees. If the region is serious about a
political process it might want to begin where it has needs, and where
it can have an impact: call for a Regional Syrian Refugee Crisis
Conference. The UN would underwrite such a conference, which would
allow the neighboring states to have a formal platform to begin
consultation for their common crisis. The practical matters of relief
can be dealt with at such a forum, including how these countries will
tackle the extra problem of another winter for the refugees in
temporary shelter. The fifty-seven percent funding gap that the UN’s
SHARP faces leaves the Syrians vulnerable to the harsh weather that
will approach. The Inter-Sector Coordination group of the UN agencies
would be helped by a regional platform of member states.

A Syrian Refugee Crisis Conference would necessitate that the regional
states move from practical matters to political ones–they, along with
Syrians themselves, will be the ones who will suffer most if the
situation destabilizes further. The roots of the crisis are not the
stream of refugees, who are only the symptom, but the violence inside
Syria. Any Syrian Refugee Crisis Conference would have to eventually
turn to the political question, which would mean coordinated regional
pressure on the actors in Syria, all of whom rely on the region for
logistical support of one kind or the other, to come to the table and
hatch out a plan for de-escalation of the war and renewal of a
political process. None of the sides see this as possible at this
point, but if the regional partners are serious about it they may
leave the various factions no choice but to come to the table. If the
regional states do nothing, they will be drawn further into the vortex
of Syria, bringing Bilad al-Sham into the madness that has overtaken
its heartland.

Mine is not the politics of two sides, of the battlefield. I recognize
that you are in the midst of a civil war and that what I propose
sounds to you like surrender. You wish to fight on, with the messianic
view that eventually you will prevail over the regime of Asad. This
might be the case, but the odds are stacked against you as much as
they are stacked against the Asad regime that it will have a complete
victory. Neither of you are willing to see that the human suffering is
not worth the chances of triumph. Empire enjoys watching the two sides
battle like caged mice, weakening each other to its advantage.

Syria deserves better. But now the cord of Syrian nationalism is
wrapped around the neck of the Syrian people, asphyxiating your dreams
of sovereignty and freedom. A mediated peace alongside a process for
genuine democratization guaranteed by your neighboring states would
strengthen the chances for the renewal of your national ambitions.
Anything else will simply lead to the destruction of your country, its
history, and its future. I am not in favor of the gallows of Ba‘th,
nor the execution chambers of Jabhat al-Nusra, neither the guns of
NATO nor the neoliberal spirits of the Gulf Arab regimes. Humans have
complex minds, and even more complex ambitions. It is for us on the
Left to foster those desires, and not to fall prey to the choices of
the present. Neither this nor that, but only the future.

For you, my friend, a taste of the great Pakistani leftwing poet Habib
Jalib, this is the opening of Dastoor, from 1962:

Deep jis ka sirf mehellaat hi mein jalay,
Chand logon ki khushyon ko
lay ker chalay,
Wo jo saye main har maslihat kay palay;
Aisay dastoor
Subh-e-bay noor ko,
Main naheen maanta,
Main naheen jaanta.

The light that shines alone in palaces,

Steals away the people’s happiness.

Feigns its strength from other’s weakness.

That kind of system,

Dawn without light,

I refuse.

I deny.