Sunday, May 19, 2013

Losing Syria

Wars in far-away places usually take place at a safe remove, our awareness of them filtered through terse casualty reports in the paper at breakfast or snatches of jerky video, smoke rising from a jumbled cityscape, distant wails just audible beneath the reporter’s commentary. Most of us can’t find these places on a map, and unless there are American troops out there we really don’t care about them. We can’t afford to; there’s too much bloodshed in the world to exercise a lot of empathy and expend a lot of grief about every conflict.

And then there are the ones that hit home because we’ve been there. I made a short visit to Syria many years ago, and I brought home impressions that make that country’s excruciating suicide hard to shrug off. I’m as jaded as as anybody by the constant turmoil in that part of the world, but unlike most Americans I have sweated under that sun and brushed that dust off my shoes. It’s real to me. The people are real, too: I’ve bargained with shopkeepers, bantered with street urchins and been taken home for dinner by strangers. I’ve looked them in the eye; I know they bleed and suffer.

In 1985 I had a few days in Damascus and Aleppo at the tail end of a summer spent mostly in Jordan, studying Arabic. I had a contact in a household of Jordanian students at Damascus University, who were kind enough to put me up and show me around, including a quick jaunt up to Aleppo on the train for an overnight visit. Syria was mysterious and forbidding, a Soviet ally and a major sponsor of terrorism, oppressed by the sinister personality cult of Hafez al-Assad, whose portrait, sometimes in multiple copies, loomed prominently in virtually every public space. Armed men were everywhere, a good many of them in civilian clothes, which was ominous. You like to think that a man with an AK-47 is subject to military discipline and a clear chain of command. In Syria they weren’t always: Assad’s regime famously featured at least five separate bodies of secret police. Syria was the archetype of the brutal Middle Eastern dictatorship.

It was also, I found, a society of great complexity and considerable graciousness. In both Damascus and Aleppo, many layers of history had left a dense and visually enthralling urban core, Islamic exoticism overlaid by French colonial rationality (and the occasional eruption of brutal Soviet functionalism). There were streets where you could stretch out your arms and touch the walls on either side; there were tree-lined boulevards and vast shady public gardens. The Hamidiyeh souk in Damascus and Al-Medinah in Aleppo were labyrinthine and endlessly fascinating.

All of it, of course, was teeming with people: the Syrians were a diverse and cosmopolitan bunch. There were divisions; Christians and Muslims lived in separate neighborhoods and the regime was dominated by the minority Alawites. But they all rubbed elbows in the streets and I didn’t hear any complaining about privilege or the perfidy of other religions. They’d all been urbanized for millennia and were supremely social. Strangers were polite and helpful, friendships quick to form. My less-than-perfect Arabic was complimented. After the heat of the day the cool evenings were spent on the balcony with tea and backgammon, or on a stroll down to the ice cream shop or the cafĂ©, my companions trading covert smiles with the extraordinarily beautiful Syrian girls passing in flocks.

It was all slightly disorienting. Evidence of the regime’s malevolent omnipotence was plentiful. This was a famously anti-Western state, the backbone of Arab rejectionist belligerence towards Israel and the U.S. And yet the people I met didn’t seem to hold anything against me or to hate much of anybody. They seemed to be getting on with their lives, to have the same needs and aspirations as anybody else. They were saddled with a toxic regime but they were pretty much like you and me. There are a lot of people in this world in the same boat.

When the Arab Spring reached Syria and the first outbreaks of violence challenged the regime of Hafez’s more presentable but equally ruthless son Bashar, I had a moment of foolish optimism. I thought maybe Syria would go quickly, the way Tunisia did, with minimal bloodshed and the emergence of a revitalized civil society from that age-old comspopolitan stew, some first steps on the bumpy road to an open society. I should have known better.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Britain, France and the U.S. declined to aid the beleaguered Spanish Republic, opting for a supposedly principled neutrality that let Hitler and Mussolini pour in troops to aid Franco’s insurgents, dooming the Republic. In 1991 the United Nations imposed an arms embargo on all parties in the quickly fragmenting Yugoslavia, thus assuring that the Serbs, who dominated the Yugoslav military, would get all the heavy weapons. The people in Sarajevo and Srbenica paid the price for the diplomats’ high-mindedness.

We never learn. President Obama’s reluctance to intervene directly in Syria may be understandable, given our experiences of the past decade. But if the price of involvement is high now, it’s because he has let it rise inexorably, to the point where he is now unwilling even to back up his ultimatum about the use of chemical weapons. Effective aid to the Syrian rebels early in the conflict, falling far short of direct intervention, could have made a crucial difference. Turkey would have provided cover for some discreet shipments of arms; imposition of a no-fly zone would have been more drastic but fully defensible on the same terms as our intervention in Libya. And early aid might have consolidated the power of the most liberal elements in the Syrian opposition, before the jihadists of Al-Nusra came to the fore. Now, of course, Obama can point to the danger of weapons falling into the wrong hands to justify inaction.

Meanwhile, a quarter of the Syrian population is languishing in vast squalid camps, the death toll climbs by triple figures every day, and what’s left of society is splitting along sectarian lines. There will be a bitter fight to the end. When they finally clear the rubble out of the streets, it’s going to take a while before the old neighborly grace of those Damascus evenings returns.

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