15 Feb 2013

The Policy Delusion in Syria: The Myth of Constructive Meddling

So we know by now that Obama won’t intervene militarily in Syria, nor will he approve the arming of Syrian rebels. He clearly overrode the recommendation of many in his administration who had gone to the extent of devising plans to help the Syrian rebels tip the balance against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Obama’s reluctance stems from the apprehension about the rise of Jihadis within Syria, particularly of outfits like Jabhat al-Nusra that have a history of insurgency in Iraq and connections to al-Qaeda.

Obama has come under fire for this decision, with many arguing that the only way to counter the rise of the Jihadis is to arm and support more moderate elements, such as the Free Syrian Army. This view is popular among some Republicans, as well as a wide circle of foreign policy analysts. The underlying assumption among analysts is that the US, and the west more broadly, should adopt a ‘sticks and carrots’ approach to encourage the armed rebel groups to fall in line with the political opposition and isolate the more radical elements thus weakening their influence.

Those calls are voiced by analysts that have demonstrated that they really understand the dynamics of the conflict in Syria, particularly in terms of the military, geo-strategic and logistical aspects. The option appears seductive because it appears as a logical extension of this body of knowledge and the analysis built on top it. It is nevertheless a delusion. At the heart of this is characteristic arrogance that assumes that favourable outcomes could be orchestrated through a calibrated policy of political, financial and military support.

This is particularly relevant when it comes to stemming the rise of Jabhat al-Nusra. There’s no better example than that of two decades of attempting to ‘contain’ Hezbollah in Lebanon through a combination of political backing of its internal opponents and an aggressive strategy of isolating it internationally. There are those who are still convinced that Hezbollah’s Shiite support base could be weakened through such measures, despite the reality on the ground that shows unwavering core support for Hezbollah.

There are of course large difference between Hezbollah and Jabhat al-Nusra, but there’s an important commonality in how they went about building their constituency through grass-roots action and doctrinal mobilisation. In fact, Hezbollah had a more difficult job because it had to replace various, predominantly leftist, parties, that had strong popular support and clear ideologies. Jabhat al-Nusra by contrast is working in a near political and organisational vacuum, the bland statements by Syrian opposition leaders abroad about the open pluralistic society they want are hardly inspirational.

To counter that, the emerging policy option suggests arming and supporting the more moderate elements. The mistake here is assuming that weapons and financial support can compensate for lack of or weak popular support. Furthermore, it totally ignores the way in which Jabhat al-Nusra and the multitude of Islamist brigades and groups will be able to use that to galvanise further support, as Hezbollah has done successfully in the past by seizing on evidence of external support for its opponents.

Many missed the reactions to the listing of Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organisation by the US. I was taken aback by the extent to which even secular friends who are opposed to Jabhat al-Nusra considered it an attack on the uprising. The ‘arming the moderates’ option is an exercise in abstract political logic that is entirely oblivious to the fast-changing social and political dynamics in Syria. The military and strategic snapshot it relies on provides only half of the picture.

I personally think rebels are entitled to accept weapons from any side, provided it doesn’t come with political conditions. This is not about the principle of arming the rebels, but that of orchestrating likely political outcomes by external powers. What makes it worse, is the US doesn’t even have a clear outcome in mind for Syria and the focus of policy seems to be averting the worst options. (For example, consider its reluctant support of the National Coalition).

The delusion that needs to be confronted is the myth of ‘constructive meddling’ and the arrogance behind it. We should accept that there are things that are not under our control and, more importantly, should not be. Syria isn’t a laboratory.

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  1. your analysis is flawed. the mideast is a place where politics and jungle law mix freely. in some cases the best equilibrium is to have equal and offsetting capabilities for violence. Hezzbollah rose to power because they were armed in the face of unarmed opposition. Whenever politics did not work they are fast to issue threats about cutting off hands and arms. When the threats do not work then they issue appropriate amount of car bombs. Peace in mideast is found through either dominance/oppresion or mutually assured destruction. There is no path out of dominance. At least MAD has an exit that might lead to a different way of balancing power.

    1. "Hezzbollah rose to power because they were armed in the face of unarmed opposition"

      "your analysis is flawed. the mideast is a place where politics and jungle law mix freely"

      Explain (i.e., more examples, less claims)

    2. Armed against unarmed opposition. Well the opposition here is israel. Which is heavily armed. And cutting of hands and arms is a metaphoric arabic expression. Get your facts right.

  2. I wish some people could talk about a free trade bloc with open frontiers comprising Egypt, Israel/Palestine, Lebananon & Syria + Jordan as an intermediate point towards something like currency & taxation union.

  3. many people are watching out for the most powerful country's say. i just think that US should be cautious because all eyes are on them.

  4. First comment is racist as shit. Multiple problems with your comment that show you know fuck all about the mideast and it's issues.

    Hezbollah started amongst unarmed opposition? In the Lebanese Civil War? Haha. Were you referring to the "peacemaker," saint, Israelis? Maybe the American Marines? Or the Maronite militias that massacred thousands in Sabra & Shatila? (they must have done it with ESP) Or do you mean the Syrian Army? The Lebanese Army? The fact is everyone in that time period in lebanon was armed to the teeth. Hezbollah rose to power bc they forced the US out, BUT mainly bc they provided social services to people that the govt didn't, like feeding people, etc.

    Secondly, domination is the only way? How'd that work out in the US "shock and awe" campaign in iraq again? Clearly there must have been peace after... Europeans (Israelis included) always approach the Mideast in this way and always run away with their tails between their legs. I think a 200 year old country should have no heightened feeling of moral superiority, considering its own history. Also it's laughable to be telling people in the oldest civilizations how to do anything..


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

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