Were We Wrong about Syria?

Demonstration against the Syrian government in London, 2012 (Marshall 24/Flickr Commons)

According to a recent article in the New York Times, more than 2 million Syrians have fled or been forced out of the country, and more than twice that number have been displaced from their homes inside the country. This is roughly 28 percent of the population. As winter approaches all these people are in desperate trouble—and they will soon be joined by many more: the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) predicts that something close to 45 percent of the population will need help by the end of this year.

Many of us who opposed an American intervention in Syria argued from the example of Iraq. The U.S. invasion produced a disaster there—millions of people displaced outside the country and inside, too. We insisted that the United States must not do anything like that again. Well, the United States didn’t, and yet disaster has struck Syria on an even greater scale. The UNHCR says that 1.4 million Iraqis are refugees outside the country, and 1.3 million are displaced inside. Syria is worse in absolute numbers and, since the population is smaller, it is far worse proportionally: one out of every ten Iraqis is displaced (the numbers have been static for some years; they were higher around 2006, but I don’t think that they ever reached the Syrian numbers). Three out of every ten Syrians are displaced—as things stand right now, but the flow of refugees inside the country and across its borders is extraordinary: roughly 4,000 each day.

UN population estimates indicate that the number of Iraqis grew every year during the sanctions regime (1991-2003) and continued to grow during and immediately after the war. Syria’s population declined by 0.797 percent in 2012 (roughly 180,000 in absolute numbers). I don’t mean to deny the injuries caused by the sanctions or by the 2003 invasion. Iraq’s population growth was less than it would have been in normal times; the deficit is disputed, but it probably reaches into the hundreds of thousands. Still, what is now happening in Syria is worse—and, curiously, this is not a subject much discussed on the American left. Look for this information on the Web: I found the Iraqi figures on left-wing sites and the Syrian figures on a right-wing site (CNSNews.com, which boasts that it reports “the news the liberal media distort and ignore”—which is wrong for the liberal media but probably right, in this case, if you look farther left). The human suffering, needless to say, is not differentiated on left/right lines.

America is not the cause of this human disaster. We stayed out of Syria, but that didn’t help the Syrians. I think that it is now morally necessary to ask: What if we hadn’t stayed out? Might we in this case (every case is different) have avoided or mitigated the disaster? This was the argument of liberal interventionists, and neoconservatives too, at the beginning of the civil war and still today: we should have provided political and military support for the first generation of rebels—the “good guys” who described themselves as secular democrats. We should have done this before jihadi militants flocked into the country and before Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah were fully engaged. We should have aimed at a rapid transition to a non-sectarian state, where the Sunni majority would come into its own but religious minorities—Alawites, Druse, and Christians—would not feel threatened.

I was among those who thought this a very dubious prospect, and I am still skeptical. Even had the “good guys” come to power, which didn’t seem likely, they would probably have lost the first election to Sunni militants—and all the minorities would have lived in fear. Secular democrats are heroic figures in Syria, but they are not thick on the ground; they are no more likely to rule than their Egyptian counterparts. (Might there then have been a military coup, as in Egypt?) The more realistic prospect was for a prolonged civil war in which the “good guys” would have been joined by a lot of bad guys. A war of that sort wasn’t good for the United States or the Syrian people—so I argued on this blog.

But that is what happened anyway, without any significant U.S. engagement. Our allies, the Turks and the Saudis, gave the rebels enough support to sustain the fighting and to seize parts of the country. But they didn’t do this at our instance; they had and have interests of their own in a rebel victory. And some of the weapons they provided went to the good guys, and some (from the Qataris too) went to the bad guys.

Maybe if we had joined the Turks and the Saudis in a significant way, early on, the rebels we favored would have won—or maybe their strength would have convinced Assad’s supporters that Assad couldn’t win, and then some kind of negotiated transition might have been arranged. Maybe. Many people on the left celebrated the diplomatic solution to the poison gas crisis without acknowledging that what made the diplomacy possible was the US threat to attack Syria. All of us on the left hope for a negotiated solution to the civil war—maybe we need to acknowledge that only a forceful US intervention would make (or would have made) that possible. Even the limited “humanitarian truce” now being urged by aid organizations might be more likely if the US were forcefully involved and, as a result, had greater influence on the rebel side. Maybe.

Or maybe not. I have no confidence in any of these arguments, and even if they were good arguments two years ago, it’s radically unclear that they make sense today. Syria is very hard to figure out. But it does seem unlikely that an American intervention, early on, would have made things worse than they now are. How could they be worse?

Oliver Cromwell once told a group of Presbyterian ministers who were arguing with great certainty against some of his policies, “Think ye in the bowels of Christ that ye may be wrong!” That’s not where I think, but I take the point. It is time for a new discussion on the left about what should have happened in Syria and what should happen now.

Michael Walzer is co-editor emeritus of Dissent.

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