Let me take this opportunity to make it clear that I am in no way sympathetic toward unrepresentative Middle Eastern autocrats in general and Bashar al-Assad in particular, but in order to assign blame for the wrongdoing in Syria, we need to remind ourselves of the elementary distinction between constant and variable factors.
Bear in mind that Bashar al-Assad has been ruling Syria since 2000 and before that his father ruled over Syria for another 30 years.
I do concede that Syria was not a democratic state under their rule but it was at least a functioning state.
The Syrian crisis that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and has made millions of refugees dates back only to 2011, something changed in Syria in that fateful year and it was obviously not Assad, because he has been ruling since 2000, and up to 2011 at least people were not dying or migrating en masse out of Syria.
Therefore, although I admit that Assad is responsible for dictatorship, heavy handed tactics and forceful suppression of protests in Syria, but he cannot be solely held culpable for all the killings and violence; for all the deaths, destruction and population displacements, the change or the variable that was added to the Syrian equation in 2011 has primarily been responsible.
Now, if that variable factor is militants, then why did the Western powers nurture them when the latter are ostensibly fighting a war against terrorism at the same time? And if the variable is the so-called ‘moderate rebels,’ then what difference does it make whether their objectives are enforcing Sharia or bringing democracy to Syria?
The goals of the Syrian opposition, whatever its composition may be, are irrelevant in the context of preventing a humanitarian disaster that has reduced a whole a country of 22 million people to rubble; in other words, the first priority of the self-styled ‘humanitarian interventionists’ in Syria should have been to prevent the violence and mass population displacements, irrespective of the objectives for which the Syrian militants might have been fighting.
It can be very easy to mislead people merely by changing labels while the content remains the same – call the Syrian opposition secular and nationalist ‘rebels,’ and they would become legitimate in the eyes of the audience of the Western mainstream media, and call the same armed militants or terrorists,’ and they would become illegitimate.
How do people expect from armed thugs, whether they are militants or secular rebels, to bring about democratic reforms in Syria or Libya? And I squarely hold the powers that funded, trained, armed and internationally legitimized the Syrian and Libyan militants for primarily being responsible for the civil wars in those hapless Arab countries.
For the whole of the last six years of the Syrian civil war, the focal point of the Western policy in Syria has been that ‘Assad must go!’ But what difference would it make to the lives of millions of ordinary Syrians even if the regime is replaced now when the whole country lies in ruins?
Qaddafi was ousted from power in September 2011; six years later, Tripoli is being ruled by Misrata militia, Benghazi is under the control of Khalifa Haftar who is supported by Egypt and UAE, and myriads of heavily armed militant groups are having a field day all over Libya.
It will now take decades, not years, to restore even a semblance of security and stability in Libya and Syria; remember that the proxy war in Afghanistan was originally fought in the 1980s and more than three and a half decades later, Afghanistan is still in the midst of perpetual anarchy, lawlessness and an unrelenting Taliban insurgency.
Notwithstanding, in political science, the devil always lies in the definitions of the terms that we employ.
For instance, how does one define a terrorist or a militant?
In order to understand this, we need to identify the core of a militant, that what essential feature distinguishes him from the rest?
A militant is basically an armed and violent individual who carries out subversive activities against the state. That being understood, now we need to examine the concept of violence. Is it violence per se that is wrong, or does some kind of justifiable violence exist?
I take the view, on empirical grounds, that all kinds of violence is essentially wrong, because the ends for which such violence is often employed are seldom right and elusive at best. Although democracy and liberal ideals are cherished goals, but such goals can only be accomplished by peaceful means. Expecting from armed and violent militants to bring about democratic reforms is quite preposterous.
The Western mainstream media and its neoliberal audience, however, take a different view. According to them, there are two kinds of violence: justifiable and unjustifiable.
When a militant resorts to violence for secular and nationalist goals, such as ‘bringing democracy’ to Libya and Syria, the misguided neo-liberals enthusiastically exhort such forms of violence; however, if such militants later turn out to be like the Misrata militia and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya or the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front in Syria, the credulous neoliberals, who were duped by the mainstream narrative, promptly make a volte-face and label them as ‘terrorists.’
The goals for which Islamic insurgents have been fighting in insurgency-wracked regions are irrelevant for the debate at hand; it can be argued, however, that if some of the closest Western allies in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, have already enforced Sharia as part of their conservative legal systems and when beheading, amputation of limbs and flogging of criminals are a routine in Saudi Arabia, then what is the basis for the United States declaration of war against Islamic insurgents in the Af-Pak, Middle East and North Africa regions, who are erroneously but deliberately labelled as ‘terrorists’ by the mainstream media to manufacture consent for the Western military presence and interventions in the energy-rich region under the pretext of the so-called ‘war on terror.’
Regardless, excluding religion, all the diverse and remote regions of Asia and Africa that have been beset by militancy share a few similarities.
Firstly, the weak writ of respective states in their faraway rural and tribal areas; secondly, the marginalization of different ethnic groups; and thirdly, intentional or unintentional weaponisation of certain militant groups that have been used as proxies at some point in time in history to advance the agendas of their regional and global patrons.
When extremism blends with militancy, it can give birth to strands as deadly as the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabab in Somalia.
Finally, to answer the central theme of this write-up in a nutshell, a ‘military intervention’ is basically a euphemism for war with all of its attendant death and destruction, that’s why it must be avoided at any cost.
And though far from a palatable option, but dictatorships can be tolerated in the short-term for the sake of peace and stability until a suitable peaceful alternative, other than a military option, is found to dismantle them.