Failure of the US-Syrian Rebel Alliance Is Two-Sided

In the article summarized and linked above, Hassan Hassan channels Syrian opposition complaints of an absence of rationale for supporting American strikes against IS and the Al Qaeda affiliate known as al-Nusra. Yet the problem for Americans is the lack of a rationale from the Syrian opposition for supporting them or for supporting them in the way that the Syrian opposition would like – specifically by making war on the Assad regime. In other words the Syrian criticism of Obama Administration anti-IS policy mirrors the foundation of that policy as implemented: The unclarity of the Syrian opposition’s larger aims – or the question whether it is unified enough to have a set of aims beyond the removal of Assad, and, if so, whether those are supportable aims – has resulted in the appearance of unclear US aims.

Americans recognize IS as an enemy among others, or as one constituent part of a larger enemy. Syrian rebels recognize Assad as the enemy. Among the Syrian rebels are apparently many who view America as another enemy or likely future enemy, and those rebels are included among those others whose destruction America already seeks. To state the obvious, an alliance between enemies is a contradiction in terms.

As Hassan explains, the mirroring even refracts down to reasonable Syrian civilian concerns about oil prices – although it must be added that for Syrians these effects may be matters of life and death, for Americans generally a matter of mere convenience, and not, at this particular moment in the international oil market, of any actual salience. On the more significant, morally constitutional question of war, a question of entry onto a path of inherently unpredictable hazards in matters of life and death, Americans are, as virtually all people are, because they must be, precisely as selfish as Syrians: We would like the Syrians to do our bloody and hazardous work for us, just as the Syrians would like us to do their work for them, but, at present, in a deep-going way that is continually underestimated by analysts, Americans and Syrians do not see and therefore do not face the same enemy. Assad may be an enemy of humankind, but he is not specifically a demonstrated American enemy. The presence in the Syrian opposition of enemies of humankind who also happen to be demonstrated enemies of America overbalances the more abstract cause of war against Assad – the “should” that the President recognized a year ago when arguing for air strikes after the mass atrocity in East Ghouta, but that Americans and the American political system found inadequate to justify even an “incredibly small” intervention.

A Syrian opposition that tolerates enemies of humankind, or leaves dealing with them to some unspecifiable future time and process, in order to focus on its also just but more immediate, selfish objective, is no worse or better on that level than an American administration that does the same. As with the oil market, the difference might be that the Syrian opposition sees itself in an extreme situation, while it should, or so it seems, be easy for comfortably secure and powerful Americans to lend a hand, but the other difference is that the Syrian opposition is seeking American support in a matter of war. Why, exactly, should Americans support the Syrian opposition? What should move Americans not just emotionally but practically, to the point of taking responsibility for life and death in Syria?

Americans seem to have concluded or may be presumed already to know, whether by intuition or well-informed reasons, that they, or we, have the power to decide the Syrian civil war militarily, but that we do not have the ability to ensure a good outcome. The good outcome from the American perspective would be a Syria moving consequentially in the direction of liberal-democratic self-determination, with an acceptance of international pluralism as the critical first step, but the Syrian opposition in its leading elements seems intent upon moving in another, mutually exclusive direction pointing either to a terror state or “Islamic state,” or to a failed state, or to some combination still very bad for the Syrians, potentially as bad as or worse than the current situation for others including ourselves. In the meantime, to make war on Assad in the absence of a democratically validated decision for war and in the absence of an international legal justification for war would further undermine foundational American premises. Achieving both would not be impossible, but the Heaven and Earth-moving effort is not something that the United States of America or its President is presently likely to attempt on behalf of the united friends of Al Qaeda.

If it is, for us, just a question of defeating the monster Assad, there are other monsters in the world, and ones less well-protected by the united friends of the monsters of the world, and, even as guarantors of the post-WWII order, we still would not go abroad seeking monsters to destroy. Syrians may be forgiven for viewing their monster as a worst monster, as a monster that must be destroyed, but forgiving the Syrians and sympathizing with them, and wishing them well, even trying to find ways to aid them on the margins, are not the same as making war with and for them. If the Syrian rebels want American support in war as true allies rather than as occasional allies of tactical convenience, they will have to persuade us or at least show a consequential will to persuade us that they are our friends, that they are morally already with us, that their victory will or can also be our victory, that to deny or betray them would be to deny or betray ourselves. A distancing from our enemies seems to us indispensable to such a case. That the Syrian rebels generally seem to lack any idea of the necessity, or that they reject it to whatever extent they acknowledge it, reinforces our pessimism about them.

If a few years ago such an identification with their cause seemed possible for Americans, the moment may simply have passed, if it was not illusory. As for now, US aims at present are in fact quite clear, if not to very many pundits and area experts. Those aims do not and cannot principally concern “a Syrian endgame,” or the fate of a rebel movement whose aims and potentials are at best unclear to us, and seem at worst all too clear.

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2 comments on “Failure of the US-Syrian Rebel Alliance Is Two-Sided

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  1. That the interests of the American politeia and those of the Syrian insurrectionists don’t really coincide is a point well taken. It would of course be controversial to assert that issues like the civil war in Syria are best viewed through an illiberal or “realist” perspective, but even according to an assessment that stems from political liberalism and utilitarianism–which supposes that “good” or “bad” outcomes in the sociopolitical domain can largely be evaluated according to a calculus of the (mostly physical) pleasure or pain which they entail–the order that existed in Syria prior to the revolt was infinitely preferable to the current situation and so ought to have been sustained rather than destroyed.

    The original post makes repeated use of a peculiar expression: the “enemy of humankind”. To describe Bashar Assad–or even Islamic State–as the enemy of humankind would seem to be an exaggeration. Dismissing out of hand the notion that Assad is obliged to be a pacifist, it is imperative that he defend the politeia of which he is the representative head from those who would seek to destroy it. One might disapprove of that politeia without supposing Assad (or his regime-type) to be the metaphysical enemy of all humanity–assuming, that is, that one doesn’t simply equate humanity with the liberal politeia.

    The Islamic State is clearly the enemy of the liberal politeia. Unlike the liberal regime, which upholds itself as the only way of life whereby the humanity of men and women may be fully achieved and safeguarded, the Islamic State contends that Islam (or a “strict version” of Islam, as they say) is the only path whereon men and women attain to the complete and abiding realization of their humanity. It is certainly a different conception of human self-realization than the liberal one; but that just means that it is the enemy of the liberal political order, not the enemy of humanity as such–unless, of course, the liberal political order is synonymous with humanity itself.

    • Thanks for the comment. I should have linked (and will add a link) to the post – “Collateral Casualty of the War against War” – in which I discussed the term, which is a common translation of the legal term hostis humani generis, and which has been carried over, but possibly overextended, in the post-WWII international legal regime in the “crime against humanity.” In applying the term to Assad, I am assuming the truth of the rebel case against him – that his depredations against his own people, typified by the mass atrocity at E Ghouta, including the systematic targeting of civilians and very widespread use of torture against prisoners, qualify him as a war criminal and disqualify him as an ally.

      You point to a significant, easily forgotten premise: Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the US (and the world or most of it) is explicitly committed to equating “humanity” with, effectively, a fundamentally liberalized polity. We claim to know what humanity is, and what constitutes a crime against it, in relation to universal “rights.” The world is to be a liberal world in this sense. For us or all of us, “the liberal political order is synonymous with humanity itself.” We are obligated, have agreed to and insist upon the obligation, to reject, defy, and indict violators of this finally liberal order. We are not, however, obligated to make war, or to engage in specific acts of war or specific “police actions,” against them.

      The result is a gray area or area of confusion and conflict in our interpretation of our responsibilities under the regime we claim to uphold, and from which we, the US, the West, and the UN system, derive our special prerogatives. We are left to seek legal justification for military action in the claims of sovereign states, including our own, while observers continually – understandably and often sympathetically, but not always reasonably – assess our conduct according to theoretical purely universal standards of justice, often to the exclusion of those same sovereign interests. So, for these observers, acting against IS because it has offended, injured, and threatened the United States is somehow unjust, or at best unimportant. For many, especially those in the region, Assad, who has committed far worse crimes by objective measures, just not against us directly, seems a far worthier enemy, but for us to embrace this judgment would be for us to adopt the interest of others, implicitly the whole of humankind, as our primary interest. We might like to think of ourselves this way, but action for the whole of humankind is “beyond” us. The world and probably the vast majority of those calling for US war on Assad do not really want the US simply to presume the right and responsibility to “destroy all monsters.”

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  1. […] one he exhibits in reaction to the first. Yet we are still left exactly where we have been, with the U.S. and anti-Assad rebels operating on non-converging parallel lines to incidentally contradict…, and no political and legal grounds for forcing the two lines together in the near term. Those […]

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And this programmer suggested a way to avoid user input all together:

Eventually, programmers on Reddit started making fully-functioning, interactive versions of the awful forms, like this and this and this. Someone even created one out of the classic game Snake. The meme hasn’t stopped for weeks now, and iterations of it seem to be growing more detailed and elaborate.

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Trump actually congratulated Erdogan on the outcome. Trump apparently thought it was a good thing that, despite all the flaws in the process, a bare majority of Turkey’s citizens voted to strengthen their populist leader. I don’t think any other post-Cold War president would have congratulated a democratic ally that held a flawed referendum leading to a less democratic outcome. This is not that far off from Trump congratulating Putin on a successful referendum result in Crimea if that event had been held in 2017 rather than 2014.

Public disquiet and behind-the-scenes pressure on key illiberal allies is an imperfect policy position. It is still a heck of a lot more consistent with America’s core interests than congratulating allies on moving in an illiberal direction. In congratulating Erdogan, Trump did the latter.

For all the talk about Trump’s moderation, for all the talk about an Axis of Adults, it’s time that American foreign policy-watchers craving normality acknowledge three brute facts:

  1. Donald Trump is the president of the United States;
  2. Trump has little comprehension of how foreign policy actually works;
  3. The few instincts that Trump applies to foreign policy are antithetical to American values.
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He sensed that the public wanted relief from the burdens of global leadership without losing the thrill of nationalist self-assertion. America could cut back its investment in world order with no whiff of retreat. It would still boss others around, even bend them to its will...

There was, to be sure, one other candidate in the 2016 field who also tried to have it both ways—more activism and more retrenchment at the same time. This was, oddly enough, Hillary Clinton... Yet merely to recall Clinton’s hybrid foreign-policy platform is to see how pallid it was next to Trump’s. While she quibbled about the TPP (which few seemed to believe she was really against), her opponent ferociously denounced all trade agreements—those still being negotiated, like the TPP, and those, like NAFTA and China’s WTO membership, that had long been on the books. “Disasters” one and all, he said. For anyone genuinely angry about globalization, it was hard to see Clinton as a stronger champion than Trump. She was at a similar disadvantage trying to compete with Trump on toughness. His anti-terrorism policy—keep Muslims out of the country and bomb isis back to the Stone Age—was wild talk, barely thought through. But for anyone who really cared about hurting America’s enemies, it gave Trump more credibility than Clinton’s vague, muddled talk of “safe zones” ever gave her.

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bob
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+ Wade, your last paragraph is crucial to your argument. Certainly it expresses economically the source of the weight of a country's foreign policy, and [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic
CK MacLeod
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+ Not sure where you got the idea that I ever wrote “[President Trump] doesn’t know what he’s doing!!!!!!" - bob's idea for a possible rallying [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic
Wade McKenzie
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+ The conversation that you and Bob were having at the time that I wrote my comment had everything to do with the recent missile strike [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic

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