Friday 6 September 2013
All that was false in the idea and practice of humanitarian interventions exploded in a condensed form apropos Syria. OK, there is a bad dictator who is (allegedly) using poisonous gas against the population of his own state – but who is opposing his regime? It seems that whatever remained of the democratic-secular resistance is now more or less drowned in the mess of fundamentalist Islamist groups supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with a strong presence of al-Qaida in the shadows.
As to Bashar al-Assad, his Syria at least pretended to be a secular state, so no wonder Christian and other minorities now tend to take his side against the Sunni rebels. In short, we are dealing with an obscure conflict, vaguely resembling the Libyan revolt against Colonel Gaddafi – there are no clear political stakes, no signs of a broad emancipatory-democratic coalition, just a complex network of religious and ethnic alliances overdetermined by the influence of superpowers (US and western Europe on the one side, Russia and China on the other). In such conditions, any direct military intervention means political madness with incalculable risks – say, what if radical Islamists take over after Assad's fall? So will the US repeat their Afghanistan mistake of arming the future al-Qaida and Taliban cadres?
In such a messy situation, military intervention can only be justified by a short-term self-destructive opportunism. The moral outrage evoked to provide a rational cover for the compulsion-to-intervene ("We cannot allow the use of poisonous gas on civil population!") is fake. Faced with a weird ethics that justifies taking the side of one fundamentalist-criminal group against another, one cannot but sympathise with Ron Paul's reaction to John McCain's advocacy of strong intervention: "With politicians like these, who needs terrorists?"
The situation in Syria should be compared with the one in Egypt. Now that the Egyptian army has decided to break the stalemate and cleanse the public space of the Islamist protesters, and the result is hundreds, maybe thousands, of dead, one should take a step back and focus on the absent third party in the ongoing conflict: where are the agents of the Tahrir Square protests from two years ago? Is their role now not weirdly similar to the role of Muslim Brotherhood back then – that of the surprised impassive observers? With the military coup in Egypt, it seems as if the circle has somehow closed: the protesters who toppled Mubarak, demanding democracy, passively supported a military coup d'etat which abolished democracy … what is going on?
The most common reading was proposed, among others, by Francis Fukuyama: the protest movement that toppled Mubarak was predominantly the revolt of the educated middle class, with the poor workers and farmers reduced to the role of (sympathetic) observers. But once the gates of democracy were open, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose social base is the poor majority, won democratic elections and formed a government dominated by Muslim fundamentalists, so that, understandably, the original core of secular protesters turned against them and was ready to endorse even a military coup as a way to stop them.
But such a simplified vision ignores a key feature of the protest movement: the explosion of heterogeneous organisations (of students, women and workers) in which civil society began to articulate its interests outside the scope of state and religious institutions. This vast network of new social units, much more than the overthrow of Mubarak, is the principal gain of the Arab spring; it is an ongoing process, independent of big political changes like the coup; it goes deeper than the religious/liberal divide.
Even in the case of clearly fundamentalist movements, one should be careful not to miss their social component. The Taliban are regularly presented as a fundamentalist Islamist group enforcing with terror its rule – however, when, in the spring of 2009, they took over the Swat valley in Pakistan, the New York Times reported that they engineered "a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants". If, however, by "taking advantage" of the farmers' plight, the Taliban "[raised] alarm about the risks to Pakistan, which remains largely feudal", what prevented liberal democrats in Pakistan as well as the US from similarly "taking advantage" of this plight and trying to help the landless farmers? The sad implication of this omission is that the feudal forces in Pakistan are the "natural ally" of the liberal democracy … The only way for the civil-democratic protesters to avoid being sidestepped by religious fundamentalists is thus to adopt a much more radical agenda of social and economic emancipation.
And this brings us back to Syria: the ongoing struggle there is ultimately a false one. The only thing to keep in mind is that this pseudo-struggle thrives because of the absent third, a strong radical-emancipatory opposition whose elements were clearly perceptible in Egypt. As we used to say almost half a century ago, one doesn't have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows in Syria: towards Afghanistan. Even if Assad somehow wins and stabilises the situation, his victory will probably breed an explosion similar to the Taliban revolution which will sweep over Syria in a couple of years. What can save us from this prospect is only the radicalisation of the struggle for freedom and democracy into a struggle for social and economic justice.
So what is happening in Syria these days? Nothing really special, except that China is one step closer to becoming the world's new superpower while its competitors are eagerly weakening each other.