As I have written before, we all remember President Obama’s smiling face, full of hope and trust, when he repeatedly delivered the motto of his first campaign, “Yes, we can!”—we can get rid of the cynicism of the Bush era and bring justice and welfare to the American people. Now that the United States is backing off its push to attack Syria, we can imagine peace protesters shouting at President Barack Obama: “How can you advocate another military intervention?” Obama the reluctant warrior looks back at them and murmurs perplexed: “Can I? Should I?”
And this time, he is right to second-guess himself. All that was false in the idea and practice of humanitarian interventions explodes in a condensed form apropos Syria. OK, there is a bad dictator who is (allegedly) using poisonous gases 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-Qaeda in the shadows.
As for Assad, his Syria at least pretends to be a secular state, so no wonder that 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 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 (the United States 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. What if radical Islamists take over after Assad’s fall? Will the United States repeat their Afghanistan mistake of arming the future al-Qaeda and Taliban cadres? What if the U.S. missiles or bombs land on Syria’s stockpile of Sarin gas weapons? After the attack, then what?
[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on September 11th, 2013. (full text).]