The Syria Dilemma

Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, Editors
The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts
ISBN: 978-0-262-02683-3
A Review by Susan Froetschel

Fragmentation is the enemy of any government or rebel group that hopes to practice good governance.

The Syria Dilemma, a collection of 21 essays edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, highlights the fragmentation and complexities of the three-year civil war that has attracted extremists, left more than 100,000 dead, displaced millions and threatened stability throughout the region.

Syria’s opposition is not alone in its fragmentation. An overriding issue dividing  the book’s analysts and the international community is whether and how to intervene. “The U.N., the U.S., the European Union and the countries of the Middle East are flummoxed on how to end the conflict,” admit Hashemi and Postel in the introductory essay.  The two, both with the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, also point out that “Syria has morphed into a key battleground between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional hegemony.”

The divisions are many, with ongoing splits within the traditional secular, left/right or geopolitical categories, often due to recent history. Shadi Hamid points out that memory of the Iraq war and ongoing security challenges have prevented ready action: “The war, itself, was one of the greatest strategic blunders in the recent history of American foreign policy. But its legacy is proving just as damaging ….”  More than one writer observes the paralysis as a key reason, as detailed by author Thomas Pierret, why the international community can’t decide which approach will deter or aid Islamist extremists. War-weary NATO nations seek impossible guarantees that the cost of military interventions will be justified by improvements for citizens and the international community. Lawyers Asli Bâli and Aziz Rana argue “there is likely no form of direct or indirect military involvement in the conflict that will spare civilians or advance either side towards a decisive side – there are too many interveners and too many strategic interests at stake….” The two go on to note “the failure to take diplomacy seriously underscores a profound moral hazard generated by the international community’s prevailing framework.”

Essays from Michael Ignatieff and Christopher R. Hill offer a hard reminder for an impatient world that the work of diplomacy is time-consuming, often extending over generations. “In this climate of reduced expectation, a risk-averse form of Realism has taken hold of Western capitals,” writes Ignatieff, a co-author of The Responsibility to Protect, a report from the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. He adds that two camps have emerged over whether the realism represents wisdom or abandonment.  Hill, former US assistant secretary of state and ambassador to Iraq, identifies the problem not with US reluctance on military intervention but rather “the administration’s unwillingness to lead a sustained and substantial diplomatic effort to identify political arrangements that could offer Syrians a way out of civil war.”  

Unfortunately, the frustratingly slow work of diplomacy in a world with instant videos of chemical attacks, images of crowded refugee camps and interviews with injured children – reports of atrocities on both sides – has alternatively led to indifference, a sense of helplessness, desperation and impatience. Weapons exacerbate suffering, and political scientist Marc Lynch observes, “It’s difficult to produce a single example in modern history of a strategy of arming rebels actually succeeding.”

Compromise or violence can put a stop to fragmentation. Syria’s government and opposition will meet January 22 in Geneva, and the opposition will decide soon whether to attend. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urges peaceful transition, humanitarian aid and assistance for refugees. At issue is a role for regional powers and Assad. An interim accord, subject to verification by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons inspectors, and ongoing diplomacy between the United States and Iran could signal hope for the region. Some resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would do the same: “If American leaders could finally bring themselves to serve the national interest of the United States by acting as if the peace and security of Israel can only be achieved if the rights of the Palestinian people under international law are finally realized, it would be likely to have many positive effects for the Middle East and beyond,” writes Richard Falk, UN special rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights, who adds, “such prudent proposals remain in the domain of the unthinkable, and are kept outside the disciplined boundaries of ‘responsible debate.’”

Of course, Syrians must unite and focus on reasonable end to their conflict and demonstrate that they can restrain extremist elements.  The Syrian people, as policy analyst Stephen Zunes notes, do not want to choose between savage and coercive forces. The opposition must hurry to prove they can participate in good governance. “A stronger, respected civilian governance structure would have more authority to negotiate an orderly transition in lieu of the chaos and endless civil war that many dread,” writes Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “It could also reduce fears that a successor government might be worse than the current regime.”

Fragmentation among Syria’s opposition only provides the external players with a convenient excuse for no coverage, no action, no compassion. And as President Barack Obama observed in January, the international community confronts a full plate of humanitarian crises and can always find another place enduring more suffering. For Syria’s opposition, fragmentation poses an existential threat.

If the opposition wants to be regarded seriously by Syrians as well as the United Nations and the international community, then the various parties must unite around a reasonable agenda that underscores respect for human rights and intolerance for violence. That would be the death knell for the Assad regime.

From the start, Hashemi and Postel warn that “Morally serious people sharply disagree over what should be done.” Most essays carry dates, with most of those written in 2013. The selection ever so slightly leans in favor of stronger intervention, including military support, arms supply, no-fly zones, drone attacks, sanctions, safe zones and security for humanitarian purposes – and funding for all of the above. Only one or two of the essays are strident and peremptory in tone, and more than one writer admits to evolving opinions. The trouble with such collections that include reprints is the fragmentation in presentation, repeating statistics and some arguments. Many approaching the Syria Dilemma will long for an orderly text that separates and summarizes the arguments detailing Syria’s history and social complexity, providing neat bullet points on why or why not Syria repeats the experiences in Bosnia, Congo, Rwanda, Libya or Iraq – rather than leaping from essay to essay, argument to counterargument.

But for the Syrians and those who care about them – and Hashemi and Postel do care – time is of the essence. Decisions must be made. The Syria Dilemma offers a range of thoughtful analysis that should help readers develop or reaffirm their own stance. 

The ethical and political dilemmas at the heart of the debate about Syria and the possibility of humanitarian intervention in today’s world