If anyone tells you that they understand Syria, don’t listen to them. Actually, no, that isn’t strong enough – hit them. People who claim to understand what’s going on with piercing clarity usually look at Syria through one of a limited number of binary paradigms, all of them hopelessly inadequate for a situation as complex as Syria’s. Almost without exception, their relevance to Syria is the result of pre-packaged opinions being applied to the country rather than an honest look at what’s going on – people who look at the facts in Syria tend to be thoroughly perplexed (and more than a little desperate).
Let’s look at four of these simplified lenses through which people view Syria. The first one is, naturally, that of a government against its people. It’s this one which produces all that guff about “the Syrian people” and anything which includes the words “the brutal Assad regime” (a phrase which functions as my personal safeword to stop reading whatever article contains it). Then, of course, there’s the second binary, that of a national government fighting terrorists (acts of terrorism are committed with shocking frequency in Syria nowadays, quite independent from the fighting). Both these systems tend towards generalisation: the first requires all Syrians to oppose the Ba’thist government and the second demands all the rebels to be terrorists. Otherwise, they have no coherence.
Among the other perspectives, imperialism is a distressingly popular way of understanding Syria, and it has been present since the beginning of the uprising. People who rely on anti-imperialism tend to believe that the entire sequence of events has been planned and funded by the United States, depriving the Syrians themselves of any agency or ability to act for themselves. Although the binary here is usually plucky independent Syria against the machinations United States, more and more the distinction relies on depicting the rebels as vicious religious fanatics and the Ba’thists as the defenders of secularism (a concern which seems to be curiously absent when discussing Iran or Hizbullah; the anti-imperialist choice of religious anxiety closely matches the Sunni-Shia split, on which more below).
The fourth major angle is the religious divide, the Sunnis and the Shias. The role of religion is beginning to receive a lot more prominence in the media, particularly with foreign correspondents’ reports, possibly as a reaction to Western governments’ reluctance to move beyond the first binary (government against people). It is exceedingly important to balance just how relevant religion really is to the conflict: for centuries the Middle East chugged along quite well without vicious sectarian warfare breaking out. On the other hand, the religious aspect clearly motivates a lot of people to violence, and it is foolish to argue that the Saudi-Iranian clash is incidental to the War. But the War had a political basis, which was subsequently exacerbated by religious tensions. To depict the whole thing as the inevitable result of centuries of unbridled hatred (as always happens with any conflict in the Middle East or Africa) is intellectually dishonest.
I have soundly mocked each of these four ways of viewing Syria because they are all magnificently simplified, but each of them contains a core of truth. But then, that is rather the point – you need to apply more than one in order to have a fuller picture.
From this mishmash of contradictory perspectives we get the hesitancy of most national leaders to state things which are perfectly obvious but which involve stepping outside the bounds of their chosen motif. François Hollande, over the weekend, made a statement in which he warned of the risk that the involvement of ‘extremist groups’ could derail the uprising. Similarly, the Friends of Syria final statement released on Saturday claimed that the same factor could “threaten the Unity of Syria” or “broaden the conflict”. Had these statements could easily been given a year ago, they would have been slightly behind developments. I suspect the Lebanese, the Jordanians, the Turks, and the Iraqis would have a few choice words to say to anyone who thinks that a broadening conflict is a prospect for the future rather than a current fact.
That Western leaders should be continually retrograde is partly a function of their natural reluctance to say anything indelicate or hasty, but it’s also a result of an inability to view Syria through anything other than a series of basic dichotomies. We support the rebels against the government; however, we also support whichever rebels label themselves ‘secular‘ or ‘liberal‘ against the ones who are ‘Islamists’, and that’s the crossover point between the two binaries, which is where things break down. Similarly, any suicide attack in Damascus is met with gentle and incredulous condemnation by the Western powers, normally so quick to identify terrorist activity.
In order to avoid weapons falling into the hands of ‘Islamists’, we holding off from sending them arms (at least, that’s the theory – in practice almost anything can be classified as “non-lethal”, as in the 1980s when assorted Western governments supplied gas to Iraq on the argument that the components could be used for other things). Instead we allow rebel arming to be done via countries in the Gulf, who almost exclusively fund precisely the people we were trying to avoid arming in the first place. The presence of Jabhat al-Nusra among the rebels is, therefore, not just inconvenient but inexplicable, and it leads to a sort of logical paralysis which achieves precisely nothing.
Another interesting note is that until the battle at Qusayr, governments on all sides of the fighting were keen to emphasise that ‘their’ side was winning. For two years we’ve been treated to American announcements that the fall of the House of Asad is imminent; in reality the military situation has remained, except for brief periods of activity, a vicious but determined stalemate. As soon as the government re-conquered Qusayr, William Hague was on television urging the provision to arms to the rebels (although, of course, only the non-Islamist ones) in order to break the protracted stalemate. But the stalemate had been broken – indeed, shattered – just not in the direction Hague had been hoping. So a stalemate is progress towards victory, while government conquests are a bitter stalemate.
Of course, as I said above, the fact that so many idiocies come as a result of this habit of thinking in binary paradigms does not mean that any of the paradigms are themselves false. Every single binary I outlined above has some truth, but selecting a single one to use as a lens through which to view the Syrian situation is very dangerous. Every single one is true, and only a solution which is crafted to include all of them can have any hope of putting an end to the horror.