By Rami G. Khouri
November 20, 2013
Four simultaneous trends seem to define the war in Syria these days, which only becomes more complicated and difficult to resolve with every passing week. They are persistent fighting on the ground, continued fragmentation of the country into self-governed zones, a worsening humanitarian tragedy that plagues Syria and its neighbors, and intensifying efforts to seek a political resolution to the conflict. Every aspect of Syria today is frightening and tragic but also consequential for the region and the world. That is why it cannot be ignored, as were some other local wars in Yemen, Somalia or even Iraq.
Unlike other conflicts, though, it only gets worse and more intractable with time. Just in the past two weeks we have seen two significant developments reflecting ongoing trends: autonomous development of the Kurdish regions of northeast Syria and another burst of tens of thousands of refugees leaving the country amid intensified local battles and pouring into already saturated Lebanese border areas.
Two years ago, I wrote that Syria was three conflicts in one – a domestic rebellion for dignity and democracy; a regional cold war driven by Iran and Saudi Arabia; and a global confrontation between the United States and Russia primarily, but also comprising actors such as China, Turkey and France. Earlier this year I expanded this view to include other regional actors who have been deeply involved in the Syria situation, including Turkey, Iran, Israel, Hezbollah and pan-Islamic Salafist militant movements.
Well, that was an optimistic and oversimplified view. I would now say that Syria in fact comprises at least 10 different simultaneous conflicts and historical confrontations in the region that have come together at this moment and in this place.
The basic underlying battle in Syria started as that between freedom-loving citizens and their modern security state. This soon was overwhelmed by the many other antagonisms of the modern Middle East, such as Arab vs. Iranian, Arab vs. Israeli, Kurdish vs. Arab, Sunni vs. Shiite, Islamist vs. secularist, Arab conservative monarchies vs. Arab nationalist republics, Arab and Iranian revolutionary Islamists vs. conservative Arab monarchies, pro-American vs. pro-Russian and, most recently, Al-Qaeda-like Arab and foreign Salafist militants vs. virtually everyone else.
So Syria has become a place where Americans and Russians are drawing and defending their redline of influence in the region today. Saudi Arabia and Iran face off in Syria expecting that the outcome there will shape the Middle East region for decades to come. Salafist militants who only thrive in conditions of chaos claim patches of territory where they can establish imagined pure Islamic states, and quickly find that many of the locals resent and even fight them.
So what does one do in the face of such persistent complexity, suffering and danger? Well, there is really only one thing to do to start with, which is to read a book in order to better grasp the dimensions of the Syrian situation and the various policy options that are suggested by many different actors. It is a perilous enterprise to publish a book on Syria in the midst of such rapidly changing conditions, but I must note with admiration the small volume titled “The Syria Dilemma” that was recently published by the Boston Review series of MIT Press, and edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, respectively the director and assistant director of the new Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver.
This book offers 21 very useful and credible short essays, many of them originally columns, while others were presented at a conference on Syria that was held at the university earlier this year. The variety of texts by Syrian and international writers (including Shadi Hamid, Asli Bali, Aziz Rana, Richard Falk, Radwan Ziadeh, Kenneth Roth, Rafif Jouejati, Vali Nasr, Christopher Hill, Marc Lynch, Afra Jalabi and others) aptly captures the lack of easy answers as to what should be done in Syria by the many local and foreign actors there.
In their introduction, the co-editors say they aim to assemble “what we consider the most thoughtful perspectives” on possible courses of action in the Syrian crisis, where “morally serious people disagree over what should be done.” They offer essays to support the fact that Syrians and Arabs, and also Western liberals and neoconservatives, disagree on the best response to developments in and around Syria, including about international humanitarian or security interventions, arming Islamist rebels, negotiating a transition to a new political system in the country and other related matters that remain both confounding and compelling.
“This book is by no means the final word on the ethical dilemma that Syria poses, but it is an invitation to critical engagement with that dilemma,” the editors note. If you wonder what can or should be done about the war in Syria, sitting down with this compact little book for a few hours is as good a starting point as I have encountered to date.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.