A President's Reflections

An argument for military action in Syria

Posted on September 5, 2013

Many people know that our daughter Emma has lived in Syria for a fair bit of the last five years, getting to know the place and the people who live(d) there, studying Arabic, taking photographs, writing, and covering the growing opposition to the Asad regime and the disintegration into civil war.  Phil, her soon to be husband, is a journalist writing for The National and is covering the civil war there.  They have mostly recently been based in southeast Turkey, near the Syrian border, where refugees, FSA fighters, NGO workers, the media, and many other players are congregated.  Many of our friends, torn over the subject of military action in Syria, have asked: “What does Emma think we should do?”  Here is her answer:


I write this with the caveat that I’m a little uncomfortable making claims about what’s best for Syria.  I’ve spent the past two months doing research among Syrian activists, politicians, tribal sheikhs, and religious leaders, and it’s been disheartening to see just how many people are willing to speak for the Syrian people, to claim to know what they want and need, without ever really consulting with “the Syrian people” at all.  I’ve spent most of the past five years in Syria, and the political rhetoric about visions for the new, free Syria is eerily reminiscent of the old slogans in its willingness to assume the responsibility for speaking on behalf of an entire extremely diverse country.

That said, as an American who has spent some time in Syria, and who has no particular explicit political project, I’ll take your invitation to add my voice to debate on American military intervention.  What’s the point of anthropology, of living among people and trying to understand their lives, if you don’t try to stand up for their rights and humanity and dignity?  I’m not sure these thoughts are particularly coherent, and they’re certainly not polished, but here are some impressions:

I don’t think there are any easy ethical answers when it comes to Syria, maybe there are never easy ethical answers anywhere, but, despite my general non-violent tendencies and anti-militarism (I was against the Iraq war, the Afghanistan war, even Libya, and I was a member of Brown’s “Anti-War Action” for most of my time there), I think we must intervene militarily in Syria.

The arguments against it are straightforward.  There’s the whole question of breaking international law, but I think that’s more of an excuse for inaction than a genuine concern in this context (we haven’t shown much regard for international law in recent years, let’s be honest, and I think there’s an argument to be made that law is an inherently conservative force, always negotiated in social and political contexts, and it takes time to catch up with political exigencies.  Time that the Syrian people don’t have right now.)  There’s the fact that American military intervention in Syria is likely a no-win situation in political terms: wars are expensive and unpopular, especially these days; we liberals believe in messing a little less in places we shouldn’t mess; if we rescue Syria, we won’t get the credit; if things go wrong, if the war drags on, if (when) civilians are killed, if Islamists come to power after the regime falls, we will get the blame.  

But the arguments for intervention are even more straightforward.  I met a very impressive, very brave defected Syrian female judge last week, and she said: to remain silent on a crime is a crime itself.  I watched a video last week of the regime dropping a napalm-like substance on children.  It was just like that famous photograph from Vietnam, of that young girl running, naked, her clothes burned off.  Except this was a video.  There is a lot of discussion of chemical weapons right now, and I think in terms of setting international precedents the use of chemical weapons is an important reason to intervene, but it’s easy to lose sight of the terrible violence and cruelty being inflicted by “conventional” weapons as well, bombs and rifles and the very popular instruments of torture: fists, electric wires, knives, nails, pliers.  I watched that video of children stumbling around their school courtyard, their faces burned, screaming for water, most of them burned on more than 50% of their bodies and thus likely to die incredibly painful deaths, especially for the lack of medical supplies in Syria now, and it seemed obvious to me that as moral people in the world, we have no choice but to act.

I know that a lot of terrible things have happened, especially in the last hundred years, when nations went around pursuing their moral visions (Stalin, Hitler come to mind), at the expense of everyone else, but I don’t know, for all my postmodern moral relativity, I guess I just believe that napalming children, burning them alive, is wrong, absolutely, no matter how you look at it.  And we happen to be in a position of power — military and financial and political — such that we can stop this, or at least try to.  And we must.  If we don’t, hundreds of thousands more will die in the most horrific ways, and the odds of Syria ever rebuilding itself again get smaller and smaller every day.

I know that ethics have been slipping out of politics for a long time, but if I gained anything from the first eighteen months of the revolution, which I spent in a small town south of Damascus, it was a new appreciation for the ethical.  What about simply doing the right thing?  Even when it’s not what you imagined the right thing would be?  It’s a naive, even absurd, thing to suggest in politics, but it’s also what produces genuine heroism.  I have a friend in Syria, an activist, who should leave the country.  He has the financial means, and family members in America and all over Europe.  He has been arrested twice during the revolution, hanged by his legs for hours, beaten unconscious.  He will probably be arrested again.  He may die in prison.  But he continues to smuggle medical supplies into Syria.  He mediates between the secular opposition abroad and on-the-ground Islamic groups.  He is driven by a completely selfless sense of what is right, and if the Syrian revolution succeeds, it will be because of people like him.  And we should have a part in that.  It has been a long time since our own revolution, but we shouldn’t forget that the most courageous attempts at a freer, more democratic world always entail risks, but that doesn’t make them less right.

Among the Syrian women I talked to last week at leadership conference in Turkey, all of whom were returning to Syria after the three day workshop ended, the biggest concern about American military intervention was that the Asad regime may be holding many of their disappeared family members on military bases that could become targets of bombing.  And yet, despite the very real concern that ending the violence in their country will mean the death of their loved ones, for the most part they were unequivocal in their support for American military intervention.  Their only other real fear was that the Americans wouldn’t do enough, and Asad would enact a terrible revenge.  They know what the regime is capable of now.

I would also add that from the perspective of self-interest (as if living in a more moral world is not in our own bests interests, in and of itself), we are doing a really great job right now in facilitating Syria’s transformation into the newest incubator of Islamic fundamentalism of the most violent type.  We’re radicalizing an entire generation of Syrians.  Syrians look around, and they see that the West is ignoring them, is letting them die (and be tortured and raped and otherwise brutalized), while they see that the only people that are helping them are Islamic fundamentalists.  When the guy next to you — Saudi, Pakistani, even British — has left behind his comfortable life in order to fight beside you for your liberation, even if it costs his own life, which vision of the world are you going to want to join, the Western one, or his?  Even if you aren’t attracted to his version of Islam, you’re going think that there has to be something right about it, because it propels people to defend freedom and justice at all costs.  Liberal democracy isn’t exactly inspiring anyone the same way.  It’s incredible, in fact, that most Syrians continue to have faith in a Western model of secular democracy.  But America is at risk right now of losing the entire Middle East.  This is what I’ve been researching all summer, the growth of Shari’a Committees instead of secular courts throughout rebel-controlled Syria.  Most people say that they would prefer secular courts, but there are none, and no one is funding them, no one is volunteering to run them, and the Islamists have restored law and order.  Most of my interviews have ended with accusations and pleas: why aren’t you helping us?  Why have you abandoned us?  Why don’t you care?  

Observing these debates, in the West right now, about whether we should intervene, I honestly feel like I must be missing something.  Or Americans aren’t watching enough youtube videos.  I don’t know much about the financial costs of military intervention or the risks of civilian casualties associated with various proposed strategies, but the alternative to our intervention has to be more expensive, in every sense: Syrian lives, the stability of the Middle East, our own morality, our standing in the world and certainly the region, and the long-term price we’ll pay for rising Islamic extremism.

An Addendum:

And here’s a link to the video: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-23892594

I strongly recommend that you don’t watch it, because it will fundamentally change your understanding of the world and what it means to be part of it, not in a good way (like eating your first sous-vide duck egg does).  But you might want to include it in the blog, since I do think if all Americans watched it we we would be having a very different kind of conversation about Syria.

One thought on “An argument for military action in Syria

  1. Robert says:

    This is a very intriguing piece. Thank you for sharing.

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