Syria, the West and the Meaning of Opposition in the Third World
By NAVID FARNIA
News broke this past weekend that the United States will supply weapons to Syrian rebels. The U.S. plans to distribute the arms through the Supreme Military Council, which is the command center for the Free Syrian Army, a major on the ground opposition group in Syria. The European Union also lifted its arms embargo on the rebels, paving the way for France and Britain to potentially follow suit. Even Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has called on international powers to implement a no-fly zone against the Assad regime and has also cut off his country’s diplomatic relations with Syria.
In actuality, we know the CIA has helped facilitate massive airlifts of arms to Syrian rebels for at least a year now. Moreover, American, French and British military advisers have worked in countries bordering Syria, offering assistance to train Syrian rebel leaders.
External entities unfortunately have a heavy hand in the Syrian conflict. While the United States, European powers, Saudi Arabia and others have aligned themselves with various opposition forces, Iran, Russia and Hezbollah have continued to back Assad and his government. Reports have surfaced that Iran will respond to the weekend’s news by sending 4,000 troops to aid Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. The floodgates have apparently opened up in Syria with everyone rushing to make their power play.
As a result, the war has significantly proliferated with no end to the bloodshed in site. Policies of foreign interventionism continue to decimate Syria to the point where this conflict has left the country a shell of its former self. Specifically, the West’s presence in the Syrian political scene has drastically altered the war’s trajectory. The U.S., Britain and France have exerted their massive political and military influences, which in many senses, shapes how the opposition is perceived.
Europe and the United States have a rich political and military history when it comes to the practice of define and conquer, or what Mahmood Mamdani terms, Define and Rule. Defining, as in drawing out distinctions of difference, identifying groups most likely to coalesce with your interests and labeling such groups as “the opposition,” is an integral factor in subsequent conquest, where the process is further fleshed out through the provision of arms, financial aid and troop support (though the last has not yet come to fruition in the Syrian situation). This process has played out in case after case in Asia and Africa, particularly when the U.S. becomes involved. Syria is but the latest example of this strategy.
As a result, sectarian lines drawn within Syria are part of a larger historical tactic that creates and/or reinforces ethnic or religious strife in areas of the Third World where little to no tension previously existed. Syria’s civil war will continue to escalate because hostilities both within opposition groups and between the state and the opposition are continually exacerbated, and favored groups are subsequently militarily fortified. This is all too often the case when the U.S. and Europe are dealing with Third World countries.
In truth, ethnic and religious divides that are forced upon the Third World divert attention from the West’s administration of globalized white supremacy through policies of economic, political and military interventionism. Ethnic and religious conflicts are almost always within the context of race, which is why African, Asian and Latin American lands are constantly the battlegrounds. The sad reality is that the tradition of U.S. and European interventionism is in accordance with their self-interests and at the expense of the land, livelihoods and lives of Third World peoples.
In the context of Syria, opposition leaders have directly told Marwan Bishara, “Washington had made any grant of meaningful support to them contingent upon their embrace of America’s agenda for Syria and regarding its future relations with Iran and Israel.” That is to say, the West – and particularly the U.S. – is doling out legitimacy to Syrian opposition groups most likely to capitulate to their interests.
Foreign legitimacy completely shapes how we view the “opposition.” Media coverage immediately legitimizes the organization that gets backing from the West, and thus, news reporting surrounding the conflict becomes simplified to “regime” versus the singular “opposition.” Other opposition groups with different interests are marginalized from the political landscape. Most importantly, this atrocious war has intensified because foreign interventionists have displaced the Syrian people’s interests.
The U.S.’s stance on what it deems legitimate opposition movements has changed over time. In the war’s early stages, the U.S. met with and decided to back the Syrian National Council. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared the SNC as the “leading and legitimate representative of Syrians seeking a peaceful democratic transition.” Major European powers also supported the SNC.
However, by late October 2012, Clinton and the U.S. changed their tune. “We’ve made it clear that the SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition,” said Clinton.
The Free Syrian Army (in particular, the Supreme Military Council) and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (an organization formed in November 2012, only shortly after Clinton proclaimed the SNC as illegitimate) are currently the West’s favored opposition groups. It should be noted, though, that the U.S. and Europe have only given legitimacy to opposition groups that prefer foreign intervention – with other groups that oppose military intervention and that are actually even open to the possibility of dialogue with the Assad government left out in the cold.
Unfortunately, Syria’s civil war has become a false dichotomy of “good vs. evil,” with the FSA (human rights abuses and all) and National Coalition defined as “good” and of course the Assad regime as “evil.” Equating these groups as the “opposition,” in addition to naming the National Coalition the “sole legitimate representative” of the Syrian people, marginalizes other oppositional groups to the extent that anti-interventionist and anti-war ideology can now be undermined as weakness.
In truth, there is no one singular opposition in Syria. By simplifying a complex struggle into a simple and false dichotomy, intervening powers pave the way for the war’s proliferation. And as violently repressive the Assad government has been, there is a potentially catastrophic danger in equating the FSA and the National Coalition with “the opposition” or with the Syrian people. The entrenchment of this duality breeds heightened sectarian violence. Marginalized groups, which are as deeply rooted in the power struggle as the Assad regime and the FSA, will try to gain leverage through whatever means necessary. Derrick Goodrich rightly argues, “Upon the downfall of Assad, the second act of violence in Syria is likely to be long(er) and more violent than what has taken place thus far.” FSA Colonel Abdel-Hamid Zakaria gives credence to this argument, since he has threatened to wipe out communities inhabited by Shiites and Assad’s Alawite minority. Thus, it is a chilling thought when left with a choice between an FSA led opposition or the current Assad government. This is precisely where the West is attempting to drive this conflict, forcing people to choose between the corrupt actors.
The false dichotomy that taints present, and likely, future conflicts in the Middle East and Africa intentionally and cataclysmically centers the West. In other words, many of the disputes we have seen in the region have been so rooted in U.S. and European influence and domination that the tension really lays between the pro- and anti-Western interventionists. Syria’s war now revolves around the influences from the outside and their strategic allies within. Due to perpetual arms proliferation, the widened disparities between the haves and the have nots paints a post-war Syria that is much worse off than we could have imagined.
With the National Coalition being dubbed as the “sole legitimate representative” of the Syrian people, Syrians everywhere are disenfranchised and ideologically exiled both during the present struggle and in the eventual post-war reconstruction process. While Bashar al-Assad and his government have long repressed Syrian people and continue to use violent tactics to quell resistance, Syria after Assad looks about as bleak as Iraq after Saddam Hussein.
In his important article, “Iraq, Syria and the death of the modern Middle East,” Murtaza Hussein astutely outlines the incapacitating role of foreign interventionism.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement – which divided the Ottoman Empire after World War I and created the Middle East as we know it – is today violently breaking apart in front of the eyes of the world. The countries of Syria and Iraq; formerly unified Arab states formed after the defeat of their former Ottoman rulers, exist today only in name. In their place what appears most likely to come into existence – after bloodshed subsides – are small, ethnically and religiously homogenous statelets: weak and easily manipulated, where their progenitors at their peaks were robustly independent powers.
Such states, divided upon sectarian lines, would be politically pliable, isolated and enfeebled, and thus utterly incapable of offering a meaningful defense against foreign interventionism in the region. Given the implications for the Middle East, where overt foreign aggression has been a consistent theme for decades, there is reason to believe that this state of affairs has been consciously engineered.
Iraq and Syria are actually an extension of the Sykes-Picot legacy, when foreign powers similarly carved up the Middle East according to their own interests. Indeed, what we see happening is Syria’s diminishment to virtual non-existence. But this is part of a larger historical framework of colonialism and Cold War style policy that made the Third World the central battleground between competing empires.
Placing Syria within this context re-centers race and white supremacy in the Third World. Ethnic and religious tensions, which may or may not have previously existed, were central to European colonial projects and the manufacturing of post-independence borders. Furthermore, while popular thought maintains that the Cold War was primarily about the battle for Europe, history says otherwise. Between wars, revolutions, coups and other rebellions, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union were militarily, politically and ideologically fixated outside of Europe. And while the Cold War may be long passed, the U.S.’s interventionism has actually drastically expanded in the last 20-plus years; with each succeeding presidential administration, U.S. foreign policy has actually become increasingly aggressive and hostile. In tandem, colonization and Cold War policy have led to the ethnic and religious strife we witness in so many Third World countries today.
Western interventionism in the post-Cold War era manifests in almost every Third World country. That the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, European powers have become so undeniably entrenched in Third World affairs speaks to the evolved ways in which the West administers global white supremacy and simultaneously, ensures its expansion. In the past few years alone, we have witnessed active Western military involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and now, Syria. This does not even account for underhanded economic and political interventions elsewhere. The West’s relationship with the Third World is one of attempted racial domination through imperial expansion.
Syria has its own long history both in dealing with Western colonialism and in being part of Cold War contestations. The Sykes-Picot Agreement solidified Syria’s relationship with Western European powers, and in particular, France. Syria’s affiliation with the U.S. meanwhile, is largely marked by the CIA-engineered coups in 1949, 1956 and 1957. The attempted coups were in response to concerns about the Syrian government’s friendly association with the Soviet Union. As a result, Western powers backed right-wing groups trying to seize power. And while the coup attempts were mostly unsuccessful, Syrian democracy was dismantled in 1949, which has resonance to this day.
The current war and the West’s backing of specific opposition movements in Syria parallel its relations with certain groups in the late-1940s and 1950s. Foreign interests are central in this conflict, just as they were in the political scene back then. Opportunistic opposition groups that are making power plays in Syria jockey to obtain Western legitimacy and to be seen as representatives of the Syrian people. But all they are doing is reinforcing foreign influence and domination in the country and region. Race is a main staple in American and European campaigns in the Third World and should be seen as such. Attempts to frame wars such as Syria’s simply as ethnic or religious avoid the intricacies of the connection between regional conflicts and foreign interests.
Syria’s civil war has lasted for over two years now. To date, more than 90,000 Syrians have been killed and as many as 5.75 million have left their homes and either taken refuge in bordering countries or elsewhere within Syria. As the U.S. and European powers draw themselves deeper into the Syrian conflict, the false dichotomy that centers Western interests will become all the more entrenched in how we understand this struggle. This paradigm strives to coerce observers into choosing between the repressive Assad regime and the pro-Western interventionist opposition. But an opposition that is genuinely concerned for the Syrian people would recognize that yielding to foreign interests will only escalate the war and prolong the bloodshed, an acquiescence that is way too costly. Any such sacrifice opposition movements make should more appropriately be understood as betrayal. Syrians deserve better.
Navid Farnia received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York. He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma.
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