8 Aug 2012

"Syria's descent into darkness" and anti-imperialist angst

As a non-interventionist, I should in theory agree with Seumas Milne about Syria. But his latest piece for The Guardian shows that, like many anti-imperialists, his position is both confused and contradictory. It might be the case that he is using Syria merely as a tool to criticise Western governments but in the process losing sight of what the uprising is about.

The piece is sensationally titled:  'Intervention is now driving Syria's descent into darkness'. The subtitle sums up Milne's argument: 'Western and Gulf regime support for rebel fighters isn't bringing freedom to Syrians but escalating sectarian conflict and war'. I am not a fan of the persistent Western and regional meddling in Syria which seems to lack a clear sense of purpose, but suggesting that support for rebel fighters is what is escalating war in Syria is myopic to say the least. Milne conveniently ignores the Syrian regime's responsibility for the conflict in the first place. 

He then takes a speculative leap: 'Opposition activists insist they will maintain their autonomy, based on deep-rooted popular support. But the dynamic of external backing clearly risks turning groups dependent on it into instruments of their sponsors, rather than the people they seek to represent.' That may or may not happen, but it's certainly not a reason for Syrian rebels to refuse weapons they desperately need for self-defence in the first place. Quite why Milne is convinced that this will automatically allow Saudi Arabia and Qatar to control the future of Syria is unclear.

He attempts to explore this however: 'Many in the Syrian opposition would counter that they had no choice but to accept foreign support if they were to defend themselves against the regime's brutality. But as the independent opposition leader Haytham Manna argues, the militarisation of the uprising weakened its popular and democratic base – while also dramatically increasing the death toll.'

That's the biggest problem that I have with Milne's piece and people like Manna, it's not so much the fact that the weapons are coming from the outside that bothers them but that the uprising was 'militarised' in the first place. They have consistently failed to explain how the protesters could have tried to shift the balance of power or defend themselves while keeping the uprising 'peaceful'. All they are offering the Syrian people is an invitation to sacrifice themselves for no political return. This is in fact a callous and immoral suggestion.

But then Milne's piece turns absurd when he starts making highly creative geopolitical leaps:

'There is every chance the war could now spread outside Syria. Turkey, with a large Alawite population of its own as well as a long repressed Kurdish minority, claimed the right to intervene against Kurdish rebels in Syria after Damascus pulled its troops out of Kurdish towns. Clashes triggered by the Syrian war have intensified in Lebanon. If Syria were to fragment, the entire system of post-Ottoman Middle East states and borders could be thrown into question with it.'

Firstly, the mention of the Alawites in Turkey is absurd, it's purely a a rhetorical tactic to imply a highly unlikely fallout that Milne has probably dreamt up in his Victorian study. But the reference to the post-Ottoman order must be the most bizarre. Milne seems to be yearning for the stability that the men in uniform achieved by defending the Sykes-Picot lines. He certainly fails to explain why the fragmentation of Syria would a be a desired outcome for the forces intervening in Syria today.

He concludes: 'That could now happen regardless of how long Assad and his regime survive. But intervention in Syria is prolonging the conflict, rather than delivering a knockout blow. Only pressure for a negotiated settlement, which the west and its friends have so strenuously blocked, can now give Syrians the chance to determine their own future – and halt the country's descent into darkness.'

How is 'pressure for a negotiated settlement' in itself not blatant intervention in Syrian affairs? Why would the forces trying to shape the future of Syria be forced to settle with those that were oppressing it for so long? When did the Assad regime indicate that they would be willing to come to a settlement with the new opposition that is emerging not the decorative version it's been maintaining for years?

And, this is what I find most bizarre, why 'the darkness'?


  1. Someone should keep track of columnists and Middle East correspondents making the basic mistake of confusing the Alawites with the Alevis(latter do form a significant part of Turkey's population, the former form 0.2% of the population)

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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