Audience members shouted at the Pakistani intellectual, standing alone on the stage, as he discussed the paralysis pervading discourse on the Syrian Civil War.
It was his first trip to America and the anger of audience members was palpable. But it was not Republican businessmen in Dallas doing the attacking, but rather Left-wing progressives and intellectuals at the legendary Trident Café in Boulder, Colorado, where my last decade has been spent reading, writing, and drinking green tea every night.
The controversy surrounding criticism of the Syrian Assad regime has been a peculiar oddity of the Left for the past several years. The civil war started when Assad forces began opening fire on pro-democracy demonstrators at the height of the Arab Spring. The protests were largely peaceful, but Assad began sending rooftop snipers to kill demonstrators. Given the extent to which Leftists protest, they should have been more sympathetic to protesters. But the Left feared a Western intervention and remained woefully silent as atrocities grew.
The Free Syria Army was formed to protect protesters from these attacks. Soldiers and officers defecting from the regular military joined together with local militias to protect protesters and religious minorities, notes Jonathan Littell in his Syrian Notebooks. His on-the-ground coverage from 2012 reveals an army of loosely organized idealists fighting for democracy. But things have changed since those halcyon days when it appeared possible to overturn the regime peacefully.
Assad primed supporters and would-be interventionists by referring to the protesters as terrorists, but terrorists were the least of his worries at that time. This would change after the Assad regime began to empty jails of jihadists. Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan detail, in a book on the subject, how many of the jihadists set free went on the become Isis leaders.
After Isis formed, it became common practice for Assad forces to attack the Free Syria Army and leave Isis alone. The tacit understanding between Assad and Isis appears so strong that Syrians themselves often say Assad and Isis are two sides of the same coin. With Russian forces now bombing numerous Free Syrian Army sites, and largely neglecting to touch Isis, which is much less a threat to Assad, the strategy of letting Isis survive so as to better isolate the rebels seems ever-more entrenched.
Of course, Isis sprang from many sources: the old Sunni elites of Iraq, who were removed from power with the American invasion; the resistance forces to the American occupation; and the collective traumas perpetrated under Saddam, to name but a few. But the Assad regime played a critical role in brutalizing the people who would later turn to Isis, and it let the group grow unimpeded. It was a strategy that allowed the Assad regime to avoid international censure, as attention turned to the dangers of radical jihadists. The more the world focused on Isis, the more the secular Assad came to look like the reasonable man in the Western business suit, in spite of the fact that his regime had murdered by some estimates eight times more people than all the rebel groups put together.
The Syrian Civil War has now killed 220,000 people, according to the U.N. The vast majority have been killed by the Assad regime. The U.N. estimates the regime is besieging an additional almost half million people, many of whom are starving in places like the Palestinian Yarmouk camp. The regime regularly dumps barrel bombs on these heavily populated city centers by helicopter. The bombs consist of chlorine, explosives, shrapnel, nails, and axes. They are crude weapons whose purpose is to kill civilians en masse, civilians who are all too often trapped and starving.
As measured by percentage of population killed and the brutality with which they are killed, the Assad regime is arguably the world’s most brutal. But criticize Assad to a group of Leftists and you run the risk of attack. Leftists tend to assume the only possible way to dislodge Assad is by force. It is a view that runs contrary to that of experts, who usually recommend imposing a simple no-fly zone, which would tip the balance of forces.
Instead of looking at what can be accomplished, Leftists tend to obscure the debate on Syria, arguing that Israel created Isis. It is a strange conjecture, given the lack of solid evidence or logic. Israel enjoyed decades of peace with the Assad regime, after all. And the last thing they want is a millenarian Islamist regime on their border, bent on world domination. Somehow we are supposed to believe that racist Israeli soldiers would arm and train bearded Islamic radicals intent on forging a global empire. The prospect is so evil and self-defeating as to appear absurd, an absurdity that is only compounded by lack of evidence. Some note that Israel did provide medical support to about a thousand Al-Qaeda affiliated, Nusra Front fighters in the Golan Heights, as reported in the Wall Street Journal. But Nusra is a rival to Isis, and Israel may simply have wanted to strengthen Nusra on their border to keep Hezbollah from gaining a foothold and firing rockets across it. Getting from that to Israel creating Isis requires a flying leap in logic best left to Hollywood stuntmen. Israel perpetrates enough injustices; there is no need to make them up.
This brings us back to the beleaguered speaker, fielding selective facts from a cynical audience. Idrees Ahmad is an author and sociologist at the University of Edinburg in Scotland. Most people would consider his views to be quite Leftist, like my own. After his talk, we spent the day hiking in the foothills of Boulder, discussing the civil war. While he acknowledges the complexities of the crisis in Syria, he believes discourse on it tends to obscure real and practical solutions. There is no need for a military intervention, he argues. Rather, a no-fly zone would be enough to break the sieges and tip the balance of forces against the Assad regime.
But if the Assad regime falls, doesn’t this run the risk of radical jihadists taking over Syria, I challenge? Ahmad says there is no chance of Isis taking over Syria, because Isis is too weak and lacking in popular support in the cities where they would need to govern. Rather, their popularity lies in rural Sunni districts, and contrary to popular belief, Isis often brings order to these places, which the civil war has made lawless. Further, Isis is largely an Iraqi organization, supplemented by Syrian and international soldiers.
But what comes next after the Assad regime falls? Ahmad argues we would need an international coalition of interested parties to press for a negotiated settlement. Such a settlement would probably involve a power sharing agreement, and while it might be tense and less than democratic, it would be better than Assad. But what if the Assad regime fell and a negotiated settlement failed to materialize, I query? Ahmad argues that Syria would become another Libya, controlled by rival warlords and adds that, while this may seem a dangerous prospect, it would be an improvement over the Syria of today. For it is the Assad regime that is now doing most of the killing; warlords seldom do such damage.
Ahmad is a breath of fresh air, weaving a middle-way between Left-wing paranoia and Right-wing bellicosity. He provides lucid answers, grounded in fact and reason. What is most striking is how seldom these practical solutions receive mention. The solutions may be debatable; the problem is they are not being discussed. While it is important to give shelter to refugees in Europe, it is more important to get to the root of the refugee crisis. The Left obscures this clarity; the Right overlooks it in favor of strong action. But Syria is a political challenge for which there are solutions. It is time we treat it as such and look past the beheadings. Bad politics can kill more than Isis and Assad put together.
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Author: Theo Horesh
Editor: Travis May