Anne Barnard, the New York Times Beirut bureau chief, writes:
The world seems awash in chaos and uncertainty, perhaps more so than at any point since the end of the Cold War.
Authoritarian-leaning leaders are on the rise, and liberal democracy itself seems under siege. The post-World War II order is fraying as fighting spills across borders and international institutions – built, at least in theory, to act as brakes on wanton slaughter – fail to provide solutions. Populist movements on both sides of the Atlantic are not just riding anti-establishment anger, but stoking fears of a religious “other”, this time Muslims.
These challenges have been crystallized, propelled and intensified by a conflagration once dismissed in the West as peripheral, to be filed, perhaps, under “Muslims killing Muslims”: the war in Syria.
The war in Syria, and what the United States should do about it, is one of those issues where I’m not in strong disagreement with one side or the other so much as I’m bothered by anyone who think there’s an easy answer to it. The conflict has split the country into a multi-sided civil war with various extremist factions, created millions of refugees, and is blazing a path of destabilization through Turkey and up into Europe. Russia, Turkey, Israel, Iran, and the United States have all been involved militarily, each with their own disparate set of proxies and objectives. None of this will be fixed easily, or soon.
I’d wavered a lot on what should’ve been done back from 2011 to 2013 as initially peaceful protests led to a genocidal backlash from the Assad regime. Initially, I thought Obama made the right decision to hold back from a large scale effort to stop the bloodshed. But the years since have given me some pause. As Assad’s position has strengthened, the opposition has become more radicalized and violent in return, and millions of moderate civilians who were hopeful of American intervention, or were even willing to take up arms to protect their communities, have fled. The United States has intervened in small ways, mostly to fight an emboldened ISIS, but has held back from anything that could seriously threaten the regime. And to add insult to injury, we’ve now elected a President who’s trying to keep any of these refugees from re-settling here.
In Libya, we chose to go all-in on restraining Gaddafi, and this intervention led to his removal. And while Libya has it’s problems today, it’s nowhere near the catastrophe that Syria has become. Would Libya look a lot more like Syria if Gaddafi were still there commanding his army to massacre civilians? Would Aleppo still have become an apocalyptic hellscape had Obama intervened and been able to spark Assad’s removal?
Writing in the Atlantic, Shadi Hamid sees our lack of greater involvement in Syria as a profound failure and explains:
The alternative to a proactive and internationalist U.S. policy is to “do no harm,” and this might seem a safe fallback position: Foreign countries and cultures are too complicated to understand, so instead of trying to understand them, let’s at least not make the situation worse. The idea that the U.S. can “do no harm,” however, depends on the fiction that the most powerful nation in the world can ever be truly “neutral” in foreign conflicts, not just when it acts, but also when it doesn’t. Neutrality, or silence, is often complicity, something that was once the moral, urgent claim of the Left. The fiction of neutrality is growing more dangerous, as we enter a period of resurgent authoritarianism, anti-refugee incitement, and routine mass killing.
This logic has always resonated with me and keeps me from being reflexively anti-interventionist. This rationale was central to why I thought it made sense to intervene in Libya, despite all the potential downstream risk. And since then, I’ve seen this difficult balancing act presented in a very different context, but with a oddly similar dynamic – in Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside.
In Ghettoside, Leovy discusses the history of homicide in the black communities in Los Angeles. That history involved mass migrations of African-Americans from the deep south of Louisiana and Mississippi to communities in the South Central part of Los Angeles. These transplanted communities were used to an environment in the deep south where the justice system would often be massively punitive against relatively minor crimes that affected the larger white majority, but barely responsive to crimes where members of their own community were the victims. In an environment like this, the police were viewed with suspicion and the vacuum created by this mistrust encouraged people to take the law into their own hands. It’s a more nuanced understanding of the roots of black-on-black crime, which Leovy summarizes and defends here:
This is not an easy argument to make in these times. Many critics today complain that the criminal justice system is heavy-handed and unfair to minorities. We hear a great deal about capital punishment, excessively punitive drug laws, supposed misuse of eyewitness evidence, troublingly high levels of black male incarceration, and so forth.
So to assert that black Americans suffer from too little application of the law, not too much, seems at odds with common perception. But the perceived harshness of American criminal justice and its fundamental weakness are in reality two sides of a coin, the former a kind of poor compensation for the latter. Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.
Leovy’s book is a masterpiece that dives into the lives of LAPD officers who’ve dedicated their careers to upending this perception and providing real justice to members of the “Ghettoside” communities of South LA. The lack of trust they encounter is deeply entrenched and impossible to understand without this historical view. It’s the heart of why attacking the Black Lives Matter movement over black-on-black crime is historically tone-deaf. Black-on-black crime has always been a direct result of institutional neglect when it comes to providing justice in black communities.
In America today, there’s little question about whether our law enforcement institutions have a responsibility to deal with crime in the black community. For many years, it wasn’t always a priority, and in many parts of America, that responsibility is still not being met. But if there’s a vacuum in local enforcement, or even outright malice, we’ll see calls for America’s federal law enforcement agencies to step in and fix it (notwithstanding the potential rollback of the DOJ’s efforts under Sessions). Outside of America’s borders, however, there’s no broad expectation for this, and while this seems perfectly rational, the downstream effects of those who experience the dichotomy in our military priorities are clearly being pushed in a direction of greater mistrust and radicalization.
Going back to Barnard’s NYT piece, she explains what this means in that region with respect to Islamist terror and state-driven violence:
In my decade of covering violence against civilians in the Middle East, mass murder by states has often seemed less gripping to Western audiences than far smaller numbers of theatrically staged killings – horrific as they are – by the Islamic State and its Qaeda predecessors.
It is hard to escape the sense that Western fears of Islamist terrorism have grown so intense that many are willing to tolerate any number of deaths of Arab or Muslim civilians, and any abuses of state power, in the name of fighting it.
The United States’ own “war on terror” played a part in making violations of humanitarian and legal norms routine: detentions at Guantanamo Bay, the torture at Abu Ghraib and the continuing drone and air wars with mounting civilian tolls in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.
Making the argument that we need to be more involved in humanitarian efforts in the Middle East is nearly impossible right now. Intense political pressure against intervening in Syria influenced Obama’s decision to hold back. Both legally and politically, it’s easier to fight groups like ISIS (who openly threaten the west) than to fight a murderous dictator like Assad who’s only killing his own citizenry. But to those in Syria, Assad is the far larger threat. And this will continue to play into the impression Barnard writes about.
Terrorist groups like ISIS have come about for a number of reasons, but what sustains them is a pervasive feeling of powerlessness. Nothing fuels this pervasive feeling of powerlessness more than having to wage an asymmetrical war against an immovable and violent oppressor. It’s hard to really overstate how damaging our invasion of Iraq was in this respect. ISIS was born in that environment, but Assad’s onslaught gave it new life. Fighting ISIS without dealing with Assad is merely treating a symptom of the problem, rather than dealing with the root cause. And if you don’t deal with the root cause (the overbearing feeling of powerlessness that drives young men and women to radicalism), you never win that battle. This is why we’ve spent 16 years in Afghanistan continually driving back the Taliban and watching them come back months later stronger than ever. Once you become the oppressor, and the root cause of the powerlessness that drives the radicalization, you can no longer defeat it directly, you can only exacerbate that dynamic and make it worse.
Coming back to the question of what we should do in Syria, and the uncomfortable conclusion is that we should do more, and many people expect us to do more, but for many reasons, we can’t. We already lost the kind of trust we’d need in that region to really make transformative democratic reforms. And I find it extremely unrealistic that we’d ever be able to intervene in Syria in a way that puts the interests of the Syrians ahead of even the short-term political interests of our leaders. Even if Obama had aggressively implemented a no-fly zone and gave the opposition to the breathing room to overthrow the regime, there’s little doubt ISIS and other extremist groups would’ve celebrated his ouster and played a larger role in whatever came next. Even if this is a better outcome for Syria long term (and I’d argue it would be), it would be bad for us in the short term, and devastating politically.
All of this takes place in the shadow of (and is in no small part being driven by) growing isolationist sentiment in the west. Intervening in other countries’ internal battles has become an even more toxic proposition. It’s just “Muslims killing Muslims” to the American public and not worth the lives of our young men in the military to get in the middle of. It has always felt inevitable to me that when events across the world can readily be seen in real time, we’ll get to a point where we feel compelled and empowered to fix the things we see, but for the time being, we’re actually moving farther away from it. Instead, we’re growing numb and turning away. And despite the huge role America has played in lighting the fires that rage in that region, we now feel forced to step back and watch it burn. We’re simply content – as we’ve long been with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other places – to allow our proxy strongmen do the dirty work for us, rather than sticking our necks out for the rights of those who don’t make headlines in western newspapers when they’re being slaughtered. It’s this dynamic that leads to that Ghettoside mentality hardening and thereby making it even more difficult to intervene in the future.
I initially started writing this post about 18 months ago, and just gave up. When I dive into an issue, I tend to be an optimist and want to believe that there are paths forward that would work to solve things. Maybe that’s the engineer in me coming out. But with this issue, and with the larger question of how to deal with what Assad has done and continues to do, I don’t have any optimism about anything. It’s easy in this environment to look at America’s tremendous military prowess and believe that it can solve things, but as we’ve seen over and over again, moving this region towards both peace and stability requires more than that. It requires a level of trust and respect on the ground that we currently have no way to achieve. This is especially true now that we have a President who’s woefully unfit for the job and with a rudderless foreign policy apparatus. If there’s any reason to be optimistic about any approach, I don’t see it. And I say that fully knowing that not doing anything has it’s drawbacks. It does, but it’s still very likely the least damaging approach.