Syria’s Revolution and The Problem of Conspiracy Theories

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Image by FreedomHouse

Ever since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, the idea of conspiracy has permeated the language of the official Syrian media, the Assad regime’s proponents in Lebanon, and has been reflected in discussions within Arab intelligentsias. As soon as the Syrian revolution started, the Syrian regime claimed that the country had been exposed to an American-Israeli conspiracy to which was then added the conspiracy of the Arab countries, especially in the Gulf region. It was not a novelty for the Syrians and the Arab world to hear about conspiracy, which has a well-established place in the political culture of the region as a result of the bitter experience of colonialism and secret deals between countries which led to the division and occupation of territories.

On the other hand, the Syrian opposition (although not formally and publicly) is accusing the Americans of conspiring against the aspirations of the Syrians for freedom and democracy. According to the opposition, the US has blocked the acquisition of effective arms for the Free Syrian army that could better engage against Bashar’s aerial bombings and strafe runs. Some of them have gone so far as to argue that the US is actively aiding al-Assad strategically and technically to overcome the Free Syrian army. “America, has your hatred not had enough of our blood yet?” was the rallying cry of one of Friday’s protest demonstrations in Syria. Amidst these two narratives, the question raises itself again: Is there a conspiracy against the Syrian people or against the Syrian regime?

From the very beginning, the United States made it clear that it would not stage a Libya-style intervention in Syria and would leave the arming of the rebels to others. Despite its stance against intervention and against arming the rebels, the Obama Administration did commend the Syrian people’s pursuit of democracy. At a later stage, when the violence in Syria started to reach ever more horrific levels of brutality, Obama said that the time had come for President Assad to step aside. The US and many other countries, however, are certain that President Assad will never agree to step down voluntarily, and the Syrian leader has reinforced this view on several occasions. All the players are certain that Assad and those who surround him will not negotiate because the concept is alien to them in their everyday lives.[ref]Starr, S. (2012) Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising, C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd, UK[/ref] The regime has set a path to run both itself and the country into the ground.

While the Syrians are fighting for survival, the US has continued to watch, issuing warnings on “red lines” that are meaningless. Obama’s warning with regard to Bashar al-Assad’s possible use of chemical weapons was mocked by Syrians, who observed that the message to Assad was loud and clear: everything else was permissible. James Jeffrey, a veteran US diplomat who retired last summer after a final posting as US ambassador to Iraq pointed out quite candidly: “We don’t have a presence on the ground and we haven’t given assistance in any measure to these people.”

However, the Syrians and the rest of the Arab intelligentsia have to realize that in the world of politics there is no place for ideals, justice or even ethics. It is all about interests, and nothing but interests. The fact that countries will act in their own self-interest rather than doing the right thing should not come as a surprise to anyone. No country in the world acts solely out of kindness and compassion. That is not how the US and its fellow state actors in the UN and NATO operate. There are four logical reasons which explain the reluctance of the US to involve itself in supporting the rebels militarily or by intervening to resolve the conflict on the ground:

Firstly, there are domestic reasons related to the American public growing tired of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These two wars raised important issues related to the great number of dead, wounded and maimed soldiers. With trillion-dollar deficits and 10,000 ‘baby boomers’ becoming eligible for Social Security and Medicare every day, some like Pat Buchanan argue that the US is beginning to break under the strain of its commitments.

Secondly, the commitment to Israel’s security has increasingly become a cornerstone of US policy in the Middle East since Israel’s creation. Despite its slogans of resistance and defending the Arab lands from the Israelis, the Syrian regime has never waged a real war against the Israelis since 1973. For the Americans and their allies in Israel, following the conventional wisdom of “better the devil we know,” supporting the status quo has always been considered a wiser option than placing risky bets on uncertain political alternatives. Therefore, any decision to topple the regime in Damascus in favour of a new political configuration has to take into consideration the security of Israel and the future implications of change.

Third, the uniqueness of the Syrian situation in terms of its strategic location and the current regime’s involvement in the anti-American policy axis with Iran and Hezbollah. The United States seems unready to get involved in a long term conflict with members of this axis. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Iran’s stance towards Syria is based on defending its “regional ally Syria and opposing the interference of America and its allies in Syrian domestic issues.” Any military intervention against the Syrian regime could lead to a regional war with Iran which could disrupt the flow of oil in the region, as Iran might retaliate against the West by attempting to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the world’s oil supplies flow.

Fourth, after the 9/11 attacks, the United States considered Islamic extremism as a viable threat to US national security. This explains The American decision to isolate “extremist” elements from the broader rebellion by trying to choke off external support, some of which may be coming from countries allied with Washington, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It also designated the Jabhat al-Nusra militia fighting Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria a foreign terrorist organization. There is a fear in the US that the Syrians’ battle against Bashar al-Asaad will be hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood or another group that might prove unfriendly to American interests.

These four factors highlight the complexity of the American stance on the Syrian revolution, including the common interests that the US shares with some unsavoury extremists in seeing the Assad regime fall. Powerful though it may be, America is not omnipotent and many things happen in this world regardless of whether the US wishes them to or not. The illusion of American omnipotence and its ability to change the current of events in the Syrian revolution can be dangerous because looking up to others and perceiving them as symbols of absolute power breeds a sense of inferiority and disadvantage. Such notions could seriously inhibit Syrian progress and will have to be overcome, because any force in the world, no matter how big it is, is bound to have many weaknesses, as well as strengths. The fact that countries will act in their own self-interest rather than doing the right thing should not come as a surprise to anyone.

Image courtesy of FreedomHouse

Haian Dukhan

About Haian Dukhan

Haian is from Palmyra in Syria and is a doctoral student at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

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