Monday 12 September 2016

Six Imperatives for Saving Syria?

Posted by Keith Tidman
With many powers exercising their claims in Syria—and demonising one another—the conflict long ago morphed from a civil war to a Hobbesian battleground for international self-interests. And as Thomas Hobbes warned, life for many in Syria is 'nasty, brutish, and short'. 
The dynamics have turned toward ever-more bloodshed, with rivals—kindled by neighbouring and remote states alike—entangled in a brutal, interventionist struggle for preeminence. The outcomes have included the civilian casualties, families sundered, and an outpouring of millions of refugees funneling into other countries, near and far. The economic and security stressors are being felt in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and elsewhere: exacerbating localised conflicts, rendering borders porous, spurring radicalisation, and destablising social order.

The war in Syria continues to roil. Stunning images of dazed, blooded children pulled barely alive from the rubble following air strikes have virally circumnavigated the world time and again. Eyes gazing upon such stark images have welled up. Outrage has been stoked. So, five years since the carnage began, and more than quarter of a million deaths later, what—in an admittedly ideal world—are the imperatives for Syria? From a philosophical vantage point, there are at least six—both strategic and moral.
Imperative One - is for the powers exercising the greatest leverage—including Iran, Lebanon, the Gulf coast states, Russia, Western Europe, the United States—to agree to bring the worst of the fighting and cyclical escalation to an end. This imperative calls not for yet another disingenuous, short-lived ceasefire in an ongoing series. Rather, without key factions fueling the fighting—with money, arms, logistical support, fresh foreign fighters, tactical direction, leadership on the battlefield, and the like—the flames will scale back to a more manageable intensity. That, in turn, will feed oxygen to efforts not only to shift the course of events in the towns but more crucially to hammer out a longer-lasting, sustainable solution.

Imperative Two -  is to disentangle the flailing limbs of the rival groups that have spent the last half-decade killing each other and pursuing gains in territory and influence—where one nation’s ‘unsavory’ antagonist is another nation’s ally. The message must be that no one’s interests have any hope of prevailing, permanently, in today’s unremitting carnage. Messaging, though necessary, isn’t sufficient, however. Those countries whose proxies are on the front lines must retract their own talons while also reining in their surrogates. Proxy fighting—the worst of a raging hot war, along with a Mideast cold war of hegemons ham-fistedly competing over ideas and power—is cruel cynicism.

Imperative Three - is for power centres like the United Nations, the Arab League, the United States, Russia, and the European Union, as well as nongovernmental organizations like Médicin Sans Frontières and the Red Crescent, to mobilise in order to inject humanitarian relief into Syria. That means doctors, medicine, food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities—including expertise—to allow for at least rudimentarily livable conditions and some semblance of normalcy, as well as to pave the way for more-robust civil affairs. Essential will be countries and organisations avoiding working at cross-purposes—all the while staying the course with sustainable, not just episodic, infusions of resources. With visibly improving conditions will come the provision in shortest supply: hope.

Imperative Four - is for these same power centres not just to arrange for rival groups to ‘stake their flag’ and settle in place, but to disgorge from Syria those non-native elements—foreign interlopers—that embarked on pursuing their own imperial gains at the Syrian people’s expense. The sponsors of these groups—Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, the Kurds, Gulf Cooperation Council members, Russia, United States, and others—must operate on the basis that ideology, tribalism, sectarianism, spheres of influence, imperialism are not zero sum and, moreover, must not come at the Syrian population’s expense.

Imperative Five -  is for the global community to begin the massive undertaking of repairing what now lies as rubble. Those repairs to infrastructure—buildings, utilities, services—will require resources that can be met only through collective action. Continued fighting will disincline countries from contributing to the kitty, so first achieving imperative number one is essential. ‘Aid fatigue’ will set in if infrastructural fixes get protracted, if there’s unmitigated corruption, and if gains are destroyed—leading to disenchantment and the mission petering out. Reconstitution of the country will therefore have to happen on a grand scale, with all aware of the consequences of diminishing commitment and exigencies at home and abroad competing for attention. One country’s aid will likely provide a fillip to others, leading to a critical mass of support.

Imperative Six - is to settle on a system of governance for Syria, including leadership. The model doesn’t have to be overtly liberal democracy. Rather, some variant of a ‘benign (enlightened) autocracy’ may suffice, at least in the immediate term, with parties pledging to work toward an enduring system to serve the population’s interests. The eventual system will require a broad-brush makeover: political representation, public debate, formal social contract, human rights, policymaking (domestic, foreign), resource management, rule of law, the environment, civil society, institutional formation . . . the gamut.
The overarching need, however, is actionable ends to set history ‘right’. As Confucius, who himself lived in a time of wars, observed, 'To see the right and not to do it is cowardice.' At the very least, to see the right and not to do it is moral bankruptcy. To see the right and not to do it is a corruption of the obligation of nations to set people’s welfare right—an endeavour paradoxically both mundane and noble. To see the right and not to do it is a corruption of the foundational expectation of Syrian families to go about their lives in the absence of tyranny. Idealism, perhaps—but scaling back the 'continued fear and danger of violent death', described by Hobbes, should be at the core of Syrians’ manifest destiny.


Keith said...

Here’s some additional conceptual context for the ‘Syria’ essay . . .

Among the strains of ‘international relations theory’ are the two contrapuntal philosophies of idealism and realism. The thrust of my ‘Syria’ essay was decidedly of the idealism variety. However, neither idealism nor realism can exist cordoned off from the other—a false choice, leading to simplistic reductionist conclusions. Instead, idealism and realism overlap.

Ideation and idealization must, in complement, precede the formation of nations’ domestic and foreign policies, even if policies are founded to one degree on the harder-core principles of realism. Part of the rationale is the emphasis of idealism on the appeal of visionary outcomes—key even in realpolitik.

For idealists—with greater faith in human nature (and its improvement), as well as in Enlightenment principles—war is an aberration. War is seen as at least partially eradicable through inspired leadership, incentives, and reimagined norms. In this model of reality, war and conflict stem from imperfect social, political, institutional, and policymaking systems.

Barriers to peace include stakeholders’ sense of ‘exceptionalism’, an uncompromising struggle for sovereignty, a yearning for authority, singular territoriality, righteous indignation, and relations among competitive stakeholders existing in the unpolished ‘state of nature’. Coveting, corruption, and opportunism serve as tinder.

These conditions lead to the tragic view that intervention will fail, giving way to chaos and anarchy—with war as the sole go-to agency to pursue self-interests. Idealism allows for seeing these factors as aberrant, yet fixable, defects that can give way to statesmanship, moral leadership, benevolence, and belief in human progress.

But as already suggested, idealism and realism do not exclude one another: idealism is necessary for a vision toward which to strive; realism is necessary for a path to arrive at that vision. Hence, although idealism and realism might appear irreconcilably in opposition, that’s not the whole story.

Rather, the dynamic between the two philosophies is one of push-pull: repel and attract, depending on initial conditions. It’s this push-pull dynamic connecting idealism and realism, working toward a social compact, that provides the basis for the essay’s ‘imperatives’—strategic, moral, and, arguably, axiomatic.

Keith said...

Update to conditions politically and on the ground . . .

Hardscrabble, months-long negotiations between the United States’ secretary of state and Russia’s foreign minister hatched—at the time my ‘Syria’ essay was posted—a fragile agreement to ‘pause’ the fighting in Syria and plan for follow-on steps and political accommodation. Prior cease-fires in Syria have either not taken flight or were quickly scuttled—hence the caution, regarding such pauses, underscored by Imperative One.

Essential to this recent cease-fire’s success will of course be compliance by the majority of antagonists, capacity to galvanise political will, a critical mass of external support, leverage over proxies, ability to overcome crises of trust, discomfort in current levels of insecurity, and belief that the ‘return on investment’ from further fighting will prove elusive.

Tempered optimism, despite opposition forces remaining entangled, is the Syrian people’s political stock in trade at the moment—framed by resourceful coping mechanisms. Let’s hope those attributes are properly rewarded. Although Syria is the epicenter, the realities are that the conflict is transnational—with all its wrinkles, and with all its prospects.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

A comment on imperialism and manifest destiny. Thank you, Keith, for a thought-provoking post. Two thoughts for now:

It seems to me to be a Kantian top-down approach to peace, characterised here by the words 'imperatives for Syria'. With one of Syria's core problems being identified as 'imperialism', does the post itself not betray imperialism? 'imperatives ...' 'for ...' I miss such thoughts as 'diplomacy' or 'negotiaton', at the level of the protagonists themselves. And, while the last of the six imperatives is to 'settle on a system of governance for Syria', this seems ambiguous. Who? Not that a Kantian approach is without merit.

The closing line seems to me to be troubling. The goal in Syria is Syrians' 'manifest destiny'. One has to put it too simply in a mere comment: manifest destiny was the 'justified and inevitable' expansion of the USA, which led to the awful massacres and marginalisation of indigenous peoples. The Volga was to be the new Mississippi, said Hitler, alluding both to manifest destiny and Lebensraum. However one might interpet the two terms, neither of them seems to me to be appropriate today, in any context.

The author being an editor-in-chief of US military history, might the post give us some oblique insight into how the powers themselves think?

Keith said...

The term ‘manifest destiny’ did arise from nineteenth-century American expansionism, with other populations suffering in America’s wake. Since then, the term—broadened as a historical, political, cultural, ideological, and social, as well as military, construct—has applied in spades to other instances of ascendancy, dominance, and imperialism: Russia in its near-abroad countries, white supremacist apartheid in South Africa, Chinese hegemony in Southeast Asia, Spanish imperialism in South America, Germany’s annexation of Austria . . . the list, we all know, could occupy reams of pages.

In that vein, it’s likewise true that many armed groups in Syria—trespassers and indigenous peoples alike—aim to expand influentially and territorially within that country, subjugating and terrorising others in their way. That’s evident in the extraordinarily disturbing images of destruction and brutality, spreading virally around the world. And as for “‘diplomacy’ or ‘negotiation’, at the level of the protagonists themselves”, that is of course the ideal, overarching objective—but key is how to make that happen, given the visceral antagonism among those very same protagonists. That’s going to take an abundance of talent, vision, and perseverance, on everyone’s part! And, no, the effort does not, as you wonder, ‘betray imperialism’; it’s diplomacy.

All that said, there’s an important twist: My essay uses the term ‘manifest destiny’ very differently from—more literally than—the preceding historical instances of (often-violent) dominance. The best way to glean the meaning here is to parse the term, one word at a time. That is, ‘manifest’ means ‘clear’, ‘plain’, ‘apparent’, ‘unmistakable’. And ‘destiny’ means ‘future’, ‘one’s lot’, ‘fate’, ‘irresistible event’. ‘Manifest destiny’, in this context, therefore reflects Syrians living—manifestly—with a future of hope and peace—destiny. Ultimately, Syrians’ self-determination! Or, as the rest of my essay’s concluding sentence says in summing up the thread of my post, “scaling back the ‘continued fear and danger of violent death’ described by Hobbes”.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

It is ‘important’ for the reader that you use manifest destiny ‘very differently’. It would have been helpful I think if this had been noted in the post. ‘Very different’ use of a core term is not typical. Are there any other ‘very different’ uses there? Also, you note that the term has been applied ‘in other instances since then’. That is, since the original use of the term in the USA. The USA apparently is excluded from these ‘other instances’. Would such a separation be justified?

I have further difficulty with the post in this area. ‘The powers’ are referred to positively, while ‘hegemons’ are referred to negatively – and interlopers, surrogates, sponsors, trespassers. Yet those which are named (such as the USA, Russia) apparently fall into different, even opposite categories. On what basis do they fall into these different categories? This does not seem at all clear. As to who the nameless are, this does not seem easy to decide. I don't think this is an insubstantial critique.

It's funny, it all comes back to me through your comments – I forgot about it altogether. I obtained a Master's degree in Global Leadership from the USA, magna cum laude, and did further postgraduate research into dominant leadership models in the USA in particular. Deane Hinton FSO's famous quote seems to sum it up: ‘[The USA has] started a series of these things that will never end.’ It is he, not me, who suggests the USA specifically.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to engage on this essay. I meant to say this first of all, but the way our comments work, it's the first line that characterises what is to come.

Tessa den Uyl said...


A metaphor.
When molecules are put into an industrial mechanical reactor, these molecules will give chemical reactions of all sorts for molecules are ‘polygamous.' This means that besides what someone wants to obtain a lot of other ’dangerous stuff’ is produced as well. In short: the extraction of the kind of wanted molecules is the unremovable final part of the industrial chemical process.

We deal with compromises. The compromise means that the power of few will oblige the ‘weak’ to modify to the needs of the most powerful. This is similar in being against human being. Our obligations are the rights that others have on us. But how did 'these others’ ever obtain this right? In this debtor-creditor way of thinking, how can the damage done ever find a retribution, an equivalent for the inflicted pain? It cannot.

All promises are futile in this regard and nothing but foreseen calculations. They modify the character of populations and will never hand back their sentiments. Building imperatives on those same power structures things will just get worse. We will all have to subject to the same laws, thats the end of the song.

Back to the metaphor; how can you put something in and then take it out when you have al-ready modified and produced a potpourri you cannot handle but like in history, ignore the residue coming along?
But residues have memory. It only seems that these residues are not remembered, yet. Indeed, the ‘smart' part of power structures, that know no regeneration, cannot but move on in destruction and sing the song so well to even mislead their own destructiveness. This is the tragedy. The systems we face do not know empathy, they pretend. You cannot set history right in continuing the same error. And many ‘good’ intentions continue to pave the way to hell.

If life means to hope for a better future, something is wrong.

Keith said...

Re your concluding sentence: “If life means to hope for a better future, something is wrong.” In the cauldron called Syria, Tessa, something is indeed wrong! So wrong, even hope is threadbare; for many, despair is the predominant emotional currency. If one has any shred of humanity, Syria has descended into an indefensible quagmire of death and destruction, with images of battered toddlers plastered on our newsfeeds. All the more reason for the world to unite, in collaboration with the Syrian people, to help move the country toward a sustainable fix. So, yes, Tessa, in my view, that’s exactly what “life means” in today’s Syria.

Keith said...

I’d like to offer one last observation, Thomas. Which is that the United States is in a rather quirky situation in terms of its role in the world: If America gets involved in global affairs, it risks coming under verbal fire for ‘big-power’ imperialism or muscle-flexing—or some other unwelcome power play, depending on whose ox is construed as being gored. If America does NOT get involved, it often gets criticised—and even chastised—for discounting and negligently turning its back on those affairs, leaving a vacuum to be filled by other actors—good, bad, or ugly. To borrow a clichéd expression, the United States is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t! Yet, it’s understood that that dichotomy comes with the turf of being perceived as either a power for good or a power for bad—a matter, in a relativistic way, that’s in the eye of the beholder. (By way of a related sidebar, after all is said and done, of the 195 countries around the world, probably none has an entirely pristine history, morally, socially, humanitarianly, judgmentally, or otherwise—a statement I'll leave dangling at the moment.)

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

This line went round in my head Tessa: ‘The systems we face do not know empathy, they pretend.’ It seems to have a ring of truth -- but what does it mean?

Keith said...

Let me finally expand on my words “a statement I’ll leave dangling at the moment.” I would venture that none—well, nearly none, anyway—of the 195 countries I refer to in my comment above has a completely clean nose when it comes to behaving, historically, in moral or humanitarian ways. Yet, many governments are quick to judge other countries in (breathless) indignation. Self-righteousness and hypocrisy are unattractive, especially when countries engage in tit-for-tat aspersions over otherwise legitimate, profound issues of humanity. No country seems exempted from those accusatory tendencies. Americans don’t deny their country’s history is pocked with instances of inhumanity, with Native Americans and blacks bearing the brunt. While, to take another case in point, Thomas, your own country of South Africa had a sordid history of white supremacist apartheid. Yet, to my mind, none of that disqualifies either the United States or South Africa from weighing in on matters of humanity.

Might not something similar be true, to varying degrees, for the other 194 countries of the world, and their record of behaviour? Like China and its Uighurs? Like Japan and Nanking? Like Bosnian Serbs and the Muslim population? Like Rwanda’s Hutus and the Tutsis? Like Turkey and the Armenians? Like Germany and the Jews? Like Australia and the Aborigines? Like Cambodia/Khmer Rouge and its citizens? The litany could go on! Would it really be hard to run down the list of all 195 and identify acts of wrenching inhumanity? Wouldn’t it, therefore, behoove all countries to scale back the invective? Rather, wouldn’t it be more constructive use of everyone’s intellects (and I do mean ‘everyone’s’) to figure out—no matter how idealistic the purpose and the means—how to do better going forward? Including, re the real subject of my essay, Syria, its gruesome war, and possible solution? It’ll be tough sledding; but is there a higher imperative for the global community than heading off (or at least ending) genocides?

docmartincohen said...

I do agree with Thomas that the term 'manifest destiny' would be best avoided if comes with so many sinister connotations. Mind you, it didn't to me! Many phrases, I suppose, can be interpreted unfavourably if one casts the net wide enough.

Re. the 'empathy' query - is the accusation the classic political (Machiavellian) one of appearences being designed to hide plainer and less creditable intentions?

Tessa den Uyl said...

If something is wrong in Syria, something is wrong elsewhere.
What happens in Syria is not 'just Syrian.'

People do not fight just to harm. People fight to obtain the consciousness of their power. The quest to prevail is present in our daily life, in our language and expressions. What does this signify in interpersonal structures? And how do these afflict our thoughts?

Every system is a limitation with a set of rules. It privileges certain things excluding others. Maybe never before it has become so clear that the human population suffocates in the others idea of justice. (And media, globalisation, has not made a better world, did it? Maybe a more moralistic world, yes). To keep going, one has to adjust to certain prerequisites, and I do wonder how people are able to accept this. How can empathy exist in an exclusion of other peoples ideas? Structures properly keep themselves in power by applying a kind of retribution for caused trouble which is then called help, but not relative to a persons freedom or respect. This is the hidden difficulty. When initially you take away, afterwards what is the help you offer? Is that truly help or false motivations innate to a form of power? And that is the language we then talk.

I hereby do not intend to diminish the suffering of the Syrian people, or anybodies suffering. It raises a question about what our essentia is.

Keith said...

To free up space for discussing the more consequential issues, then, let’s imagine, Martin, substituting words like ‘apparent’ and ‘future’ for ‘manifest’ and ‘destiny’, instead. That works for me. And it will, I hope, allow folks to shift to what really matters: ending the war. Syria is, of course, part of a larger arc of instability and fragility. However, there’s a compelling case to be made to focus on this slither of the arc, in light of the gravity of five years of mayhem and its grinding consequences. The risk, I fear, is that recalcitrance or dithering among the negotiators and protagonists, and potentially irreconcilably different (even nefarious?) agendas among some of the many parties, will exhaust the momentum and deprive Syria of an off-ramp.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I would be concerned that this is some kind of fallacy of accident, or destroying the exception.

Harming nations is criminal →
All nations harm nations →
All nations are criminal

Keith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Keith said...

To help refocus, a little post-hoc perspective! Several hundred more Syrian civilians have died. Some twenty aid workers delivering humanitarian relief to Aleppo were killed. The image of a young boy, bloody and dusty, underwent another viral Internet circulation. (The power of imagery!) The cease-fire, already thinly tethered, ended abruptly and violently. And International Day of Peace (September 21) came and passed, prompting the soul-searching question: How are we doing? Stark context, set in time and place, offers stark perspective on what really matters.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I would have the concern that this rather looks like argumentum ad passiones -- drawing to a close through an appeal to emotion. What you say does unite hearts, too. What would you be referring to with your final 'what really matters'? Your 'actionable ends'?

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