For the sake of my own sanity, I don’t keep up with the day to day developments of the world’s centers of crisis. Syria, however, holds a special fascination for me, given how stark and seemingly clear the lines of conflict are (as opposed to, say, the moral muddles of Iraq and Afghanistan). But the more I read, the more I despair, because it seems Syria’s battle lines are perhaps even more crooked than anywhere else the U.S. might consider involving itself.
Patrick Cockburn at the London Review of Books tells us that, for one, things have not been going the way they were once believed to be:
Assad isn’t going to win a total victory, but the opposition isn’t anywhere close to overthrowing him either. This is worth stressing because Western politicians and journalists so frequently take it for granted that the regime is entering its last days. A justification for the British and French argument that the EU embargo on arms deliveries to the rebels should be lifted – a plan first mooted in March but strongly opposed by other EU members – is that these extra weapons will finally tip the balance decisively against Assad. The evidence from Syria itself is that more weapons will simply mean more dead and wounded.
So by helping, we may be hurting. Sounds familiar. And the more confounding question may be how we could possibly help when it’s not clear what, exactly, we’d be trying to solve. Look at this clustercuss of conflicting interests:
Five distinct conflicts have become tangled together in Syria: a popular uprising against a dictatorship which is also a sectarian battle between Sunnis and the Alawite sect; a regional struggle between Shia and Sunni which is also a decades-old conflict between an Iranian-led grouping and Iran’s traditional enemies, notably the US and Saudi Arabia. Finally, at another level, there is a reborn Cold War confrontation: Russia and China v. the West. The conflict is full of unexpected and absurd contradictions, such as a purportedly democratic and secular Syrian opposition being funded by the absolute monarchies of the Gulf who are also fundamentalist Sunnis.
Okay, so what ought we do, then? Taking into account our experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, here’s the advice of David Bromwich at NYRB:
The day of the Boston Marathon bombings saw seventy-five killed in Iraq, and 356 wounded: just one story, which few Americans will have read, out of dozens about the aftermath of the American occupation. Our rehearsals of our own good intentions, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya, and now in Syria, have swollen to the shape of a rationalized addiction. What then should the US do? Nothing, until we can do something good.