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By Assaf Kfoury

Assaf Kfoury is a Professor of Computer Science at Boston University, and a political activist. An Arab American who grew up in Beirut and Cairo, he received his early college education in Cairo and returns to the Middle East regularly. He has published articles on current events in the Middle East in Znet/ZCommunications, CounterPunch, Alternet, In These Times, The Nation, and Logos. He is a frequent translator of political commentaries from English to Arabic and from Arabic to English. This past June 2013, he was part of a group of American academics, including Noam Chomsky, on a visit to Beirut, Lebanon, where they had several extensive meetings with Syrian opposition activists.

Of the different questions taken up in the document “On Syria—A Personal Statement” (henceforth “the document”), perhaps the most controversial among progressives in the West is the question of outside arms to the Syrian rebels. Although the document does not include an explicit call for sending arms, it comes close to taking the side of those favoring it, by stating (about halfway down the text): “...the democratic opponents of the Assad dictatorship have the right to get guns where they can, while resisting all attempts by those who provide arms to acquire political and military influence in return.”

There should be no disagreement on the good principle guiding this statement: We respect the Syrian opposition's right to choose its own means, including outside weapons, to confront the Assad regime.

Good as it is, a call for more arms is also fraught with problems. Given present reality that outside weapons—especially advanced ones—to the rebels are likely to come from the US or its European allies or with their agreement, it is difficult to imagine a situation where more arms to the opposition will be independent of increased US involvement, either directly or through its regional proxies. If this happened, the result would contradict another good principle of the left, which is implied by other parts in the document, namely: We are against any external military intervention, notably by the US.

In fact, we do not need to go too deeply into the possibility of directUS military intervention. Although this concern seems to dominate much of the current debate in progressive circles in the US, it is often overstated, to the detriment of other more pressing issues about support for the Syrian opposition.

Notwithstanding the interventionist clamor from several US quarters (e.g., senator John McCain), the US is less eager to militarily intervene and less committed to the downfall of Assad than its official declarations have suggested over the last two years. (There are many reasons for this hesitant policy, some doubtlessly related to the catastrophes in Iraq and Afghanistan, but this is another discussion.) Of course, the US was not always pleased with policies pursued by the Assad regime in the past, but the latter remains more predictable than unknown alternatives and well practiced in striking deals with the US. And similarly for Israel, which is quite content with an Assad regime that has kept the border on the Golan Heights quiet for 40 years.

The means at the disposal of the US for bringing down the Assad regime are in fact considerable, even at the exclusion of any direct US military force. Beyond minor logistics support in Turkey and Jordan, none have been tried so far. Of possible untried moves, the US could for example allow a repeat of the Libyan experience, by giving the green light to the British and French governments to militarily intervene, whose top diplomats (William Hague and Laurent Fabius) have often made far more bellicose statements about Syria than their American counterpart (John Kerry).1  For a less conspicuous move, the US could also direct its close Arab allies, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to channel more advanced (possibly US-supplied) weapons to the opposition, this time more inclusively and not only to ideologically kindred groups. Or the US could encourage Turkey to follow through with the idea of enforcing a no-fly zone in northern Syria. Or the US could ask Israel to mobilize its military on the Golan Heights, in threatening positions without actually using any of its forces, a move that would compel the Syrian government to withdraw army units from a number of contested areas and relieve the pressure on the opposition. But none of these measures short of America's own firepower have been tried, nor are likely to be, so long as the US remains unwilling to bring down the Assad regime.

And none of the preceding measures obviates the current policy of letting Qatar and Saudi Arabia continue to ferry small arms to their preferred groups (not all groups) in the Syrian opposition—even when they do it by sending particular weapons (e.g., heat-seeking shoulder-fired missiles) despite apparent American objections. These shipments of small arms have not tipped, and cannot tip, the balance decisively against the Assad regime. In effect, Syria can continue to burn and Syrians to kill each other, so long as America's and the West's wider regional interests are not threatened.
For the sake of argument and unrealistic as it is now, assume the Syrian opposition is able to acquire external weapons independently or free of US interference. Consider the likely consequence: Every influx of new weapons to the opposition will be matched by an equal influx from Russia, Iran, possibly China, to government forces. The result will be more militarization, and more outside involvement, in a frighteningly cruel and merciless conflict. Given the current grinding deadlock, where neither side is in a position to defeat the other within months (or years), this means more devastation of a half-destroyed country and more misery for its exhausted and traumatized population—and a prolongation of the Assad regime rather its faster demise.

This points to the so-called Geneva-2 conference, which the US and Russia agreed in May to convene. Even if convened by the US and Russia for their own separate and often contradictory reasons, will Geneva-2 be an opportunity to stop, or at least temporarily contain, the violence? To be clear, this violence is not only that of a regime without qualms about terrorizing and bombarding its own civilian population, but also the violence resulting from increased involvement of extremist non-Syrian groups within the ranks of the opposition as the conflict drags on and on.
Earlier in the document, there is a passing reference to Geneva-2: "the Obama administration [...] is more likely to press for a 'negotiated solution' that allows Assad or his regime's military and security forces to remain in power.” The very next sentence seems to suggest that Geneva-2 should be opposed, because it is another form of foreign intervention: “We strongly oppose any diplomatic [...] intervention by outside powers...” There is nothing else in the document on Geneva-2.

But if a “negotiated solution” is on the agenda of the two main power brokers in the Syrian conflict, the US and Russia, will we help the Syrian opposition by ignoring it? Or by denouncing it, because no good can come out of it?  Or should we prepare for it, because its convening is inevitable, by raising public awareness to influence it in more favorable directions and simultaneously calling for an immediate cease-fire? So far, there has been little discussion of this question by left activists—perhaps because of justified skepticism about a diplomatic initiative that will certainly fall short of forcing Bashar Assad out, or perhaps because of a natural aversion to anything jointly sponsored by the American and Russian governments.

Taking a stand on Geneva-2, and anticipating what will follow, is in fact no less important than the twin questions above: outside arms to the Syrian opposition and external military intervention. To be sure, Geneva-2 will not yet put an end to the Assad dictatorship, but it may well weaken it by forcing it to accept the existence of an opposition in parts of the country outside its control. Remember that a cease-fire and de-militarization, however partial or incomplete, can only work to the advantage of an out-gunned opposition, which took up arms only as a last resort.

If Geneva-2 leads to an internationally supervised truce and accelerated humanitarian aid, because the US and Russia can and will jointly dictate it—and despite all possible flaws in enforcing it and the very real possibility that it will collapse a few months later—it may give enough of a respite and a space for the Syrian opposition to re-emerge, in a less militarized contest, less influenced by extremist mostly non-Syrian groups, and reflecting the majority of the Syrian people's truest aspirations.

The second half of the document (“At the same time, we are troubled ...”) addresses issues related to the nature of the Syrian opposition, in particular the presence of extremist jihadist groups in its ranks and its relation to ethnic and religious minorities. These are indeed worrisome issues, which are better explained by placing them in a particular Syrian context that is dominated by an insurgency of rural and newly urbanized poor.

The document rightly points out that the Syrian uprising “originated in the countryside,” but an important qualification is missing: The uprising has been also fueled by large segments of the population that were forced to migrate from rural areas to impoverished urban quarters in the last decade or so. Although the upheaval in Syria is rural in its origin, it is generally located in the poorest urban neighborhoods (as well as in the countryside) and, as a consequence, its manifestations have been markedly different from those in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Bahrain. The protest movement in Syria, for example, has not replicated, though it tried, the massive occupation and control of central city squares and public spaces witnessed in Egypt. This was so even during the early months of the uprising in 2011, before increased militarization gradually turned the conflict into a shooting war between armed bands and the regular army.

It would be helpful to add a few comments explaining the reasons for the large shifts of people from countryside to urban shantytowns and their disruptive effects since Bashar Assad assumed power in 2000, if only to debunk common phony explanations in terms of millennial hatreds between tribes and sects.

Under the rule of Hafez Assad (Bashar's father), the regime maintained its authority not only with a fearful multi-layered security apparatus, but also by its reliance on the rural masses. These rural masses were largely quiescent, if not content with a government that made the agricultural sector one of the most important pillars of the economy. Under the younger Assad's rule, which promoted an opening of the economy without abandoning the elder Assad's security system, the same rural masses fell victim to neo-liberal policies that favored crony capitalism and neglected the agricultural sector.

This shift of economic policies under the younger Assad's rule, together with an unprecedented drought since 2006 (partly resulting from widespread climate changes in the eastern Mediterranean exceeding Syria proper) and a centralized but highly incompetent management of diminishing water resources, were the immediate background to the Syrian uprising. It was just a matter of time before impoverished masses, whether rural or recent migrant in ramshackle urban neighborhoods, would challenge the regime. And when their protests were met with brutal repression, the rebellion was under way, with consequences that we are seeing today. 

1. Needless to add, if direct military intervention by Britain and France is ever given the go-ahead, it will be preceded by the customary pretense of “responsibility to protect” and “humanitarian intervention” – just as it was in the case of Libya.
2. From a recent study on climate changes and their effects on Syrian water resources: From 1900 until 2005, there were six droughts of significance in Syria; the average monthly level of winter precipitation during these dry periods was approximately one-third of normal. All but one of these droughts lasted only one season; the exception lasted two. Farming communities were thus able to withstand dry periods by falling back on government subsidies and secondary water resources. This most recent, the seventh drought, however, lasted from 2006 to 2010, an astounding four seasons a true anomaly in the past century. Furthermore, the average level of precipitation in these four years was the lowest of any drought-ridden period in the last century.