The underlying premise of military intervention in Syria is that it would push President Bashar Al Assad’s regime to negotiate. Regardless of the validity of the argument for intervention, and the ethical implications of his resistance to it, US President Barack Obama maintained his stance to a fault and pretty much forfeited whatever regional goodwill he had garnered in reversing some of the excesses of the George W. Bush-era White House.
More importantly, to Obama at least, his other ‘red line’ is also at stake. Iran is watching the developments. There is no way that an attack of this magnitude could go unpunished. There is no way such a callous provocation couldn’t engender a response. Whether the strike succeeds in getting a Syrian delegation to Geneva, or lights the fuse of a massive regional conflagration, one thing is certain: the missiles were ushered into Syria by Assad. In the uncertainty, however, lies the danger.
An often repeated argument against intervention is the fear of Al Assad’s alternatives. It is contemptible to disregard the bravery of the Syrian people in the face of the brutality of the regime and its allies. For nearly two-and-a-half years, men and women — civilians, not militants — took to the streets to demand basic recognition of their rights as citizens of the Syrian republic, and as human beings.
The sacrifice of ordinary Syrians is extraordinary, and that cannot, and must not, be brushed aside or discounted as we fret over the jihadists at the gates. During that very same period, Al Assad’s only discernible response to the people’s demands was to violently activate the sectarian apparatus his father Hafez Al Assad, the Baath party, and the military had constructed over the preceding four decades.
Hafez Al Assad’s life’s work was to concoct a Syria in which the choice lay between his family’s despotism or the chaos of civil war. To that end, Al Assad and his cohort of sadists worked compulsively.
Sectarianism as an ordering principle of society was never absent from Syria’s modern politics, it was the main framework through which the family tightened its grip over Syria. However, and it is important to note, the Al Assads went above and beyond and utilised every possible cleavage within Syrian society to consolidate their power.
Hafez Al Assad never sought any kind of identifiable Syrian nationalism. Instead, a patchwork of ‘classism’, regionalism, sectarianism, and tribalism was held together by the regime through the breeding of mutual, inter-communal resentment and state-sponsored terrorism.
True to Assadist form, Bashar Al Assad relegated these cleavages when it served his interest and deployed every tool at his disposal to explode them when needed for his retention of power. The monster is out now, and no amount of wishing-away that simple truth could deny its catastrophic potency. But It should not preclude action, it should not reward the Al Assads for their cruelty and cynicism.
Yet still, in a tragic twist of irony, the resolution of the conflict depends, in some measure, on the regime itself. It would have to demonstrate the ability to see sense and consult wisdom. However far-fetched, and unpalatable, that scenario may seem, it is the only conceivable option.
So, the US and its allies are finally acting, that is a known known. The known unknowns are plenty, they include: The extent to which this action will alter the balance on the ground. It might swing things to the advantage of the rebels to a degree that renders a peace conference irrelevant and the regime would be defeated militarily.
How much would jihadist groups contribute to this defeat and how proportional would that be to the slice of the cake they demand in post-conflict Syria? On the other hand, the regime might succeed in decentralising its military apparatus that it survives largely intact, and empowered by the impression of resistance, it would have the momentum.
Would that then invite further American involvement if another “moral obscenity” shocks the world? We also don’t know the degree to which the regime is the master of its own fate. How much autonomy does Al Assad maintain vis-a-vis Iran on which his survival is increasingly contingent? We don’t know what kind of retaliation would the regime and its allies launch? If Israel is targeted, what would its response be?
These are only some of the questions which cannot be answered with absolute certainty, yet must be addressed with some level of comfort prior to the strike. That there remains Donald Rumsfeld’s third category of unknown unknowns is a paralysing prospect.
The fact is, waiting for absolute certainty on all of these uncertainties is not an option. It might have been preferable for the largely peaceful protest movement to have toppled Al Assad. It might have been preferable that the parties went to Geneva and a transition was birthed. It might have been preferable for a strike to happen later in the year when arming and funding moderate rebel forces would have situated them in a better position on the day after. It might even have been preferable that the conflict did not invite foreign intervention. However, Syria’s geographic location, strategic significance, historical relevance, and the complexity of its make-up should disabuse anybody of the idea that the conflict wouldn’t have invited a litany of foreign hands. As far as geopolitical prizes go, they don’t come much bigger or rewarding than Damascus.
In the final calculus, the humanitarian, political, economic, and strategic dimensions of the conflict compel action — and have been compelling for a while. The situation is desperate, and that desperation - while not singularly — is primarily attributable to the arrogance, incompetence, and sheer savagery of the Al Assad clan. That should serve as the basic, incontrovertible known known.
Muath Al Wari is a UAE-based researcher. You can follow him at www.twitter.com/MuathAlWari