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By Molly Nolan

Molly Nolan is a professor of modern European and transatlantic history at New York University and is a member of Brooklyn For Peace.

Syria is a humanitarian tragedy, a brutal civil war, and an escalating international political crisis. It seems to cry out for a response that goes beyond the rhetoric of solidarity with the increasingly beleaguered democratic forces and aid to the growing number of refugees on Syria’s borders. Yet, as Tom and Joanne’s thoughtful statement suggests, the interventions that have occurred have worsened the situation and those that are promised or threatened by the U.S. and EU will only produce more detrimental consequences. The most recent U.S. and EU intervention in Libya as well as the ongoing violence, oppression and instability that are Iraq and Afghanistan are evidence of that. Concerned as they are to promote democracy, an independent labor movement, and equality for women, sexual minorities, and religious and ethnic groups, they resist invoking the Responsibility to Protect norm of the UN to justify no fly zones and other forms of intervention as was done with Libya and as some urge with Syria.

Yet there are parts of their statement that make me uneasy. First, I worry about their insistence that while they oppose outside military intervention, they believe “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.”  Those concerned with peace and future stability and reform of Syria should oppose any and all militarization of the conflict, even by forces whose goals we support. An influx of arms will simply prolong the conflict and encourage the opposition and their backers to avoid negotiations. There is no way to assure that it is only democratic forces that will buy or receive arms. The Saudis and the Qataris are willing to fund anyone who opposes Iran; they are not interested in al Qaeda gaining strength; they simply see Syria as a place to promote their interests elsewhere. Should radical Islamists win in Syria they will be no happier than the U.S. would be. Third, encouraging more arms to flow into Syria will further encourage the covert aid that the U.S. is already providing by means of the arms it supplies to its Saudi and Qatari allies. We are after all the world’s largest arms producer and supplier, as part of having the world’s largest military budget by far.  Encouraging any militarization means in effect encouraging U.S. involvement.

Second, the statement should have opposed all outside efforts to dictate the nature of the Syrian government and who heads it. It is not enough to condemn Russia, China, Iran, and Hezbollah for supporting Assad. It should also condemn the Obama Administration’s insistence, and that of France and Britain, that Assad needs to go. There is a long history of the U.S. calling for and often overtly or covertly engineering regime change. The results have not worked to promote democracy, equality, peace or freedom.

Third, the only solution to the conflict in Syria will come through negotiation. Much as we dislike Assad, his regime does have the support of a portion of the population. That is part of the reason the conflict has been so prolonged. The negotiations must be among Syrians, for only they have the right to determine the state and society they want. 

Finally, I wish I was as confident as Tom and Joanne about the strength of secular and democratic forces in Syria. In part it is that there is so little reliable information about what is happening within the Syrian opposition. Syria may be a continuation of the Arab Spring, but as we have seen, that complex series of uprisings have themselves proven enormously complex and contradictory in their still provisional outcome. Prolonged armed conflict creates polarization along several axes and erodes the forces of moderation. The divisions within the Free Syrian Army are one indication of this, the controversies about which side (or both) have used sarin gas is another.