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Reading the Stakes in Syria | The Nation

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Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay

New words from writers of color.

Reading the Stakes in Syria


A man reacts in front of houses destroyed during a recent Syrian Air Force air strike in Azaz, some twenty-nine miles north of Aleppo, August 15, 2012. (Reuters/Goran Tomasevic)

The world is a fragile and often incomprehensible place. Syria has been embroiled in a civil conflict since March 2011. According to United Nations estimates, more than 60,000 are dead. There are 1.5 million Syrian refugees who have sought safety in neighboring countries. The Assad regime offers no indication it will cede power and the rebel opposition may not provide a viable alternative if they defeat Assad.

The Syrian conflict is complicated by so much circumstance. World leaders don’t want a repeat of the Iraq war but they also don’t want to sit idly by, bearing silent and impotent witness so that another genocide on the scale of what happened in Bosnia occurs. Syria is, unfortunately, not so much a country in the minds of many. It is a political problem or opportunity and most of the proposed solutions to the Syria problem serve the interests of everyone but the Syrian people.

It is a peculiar privilege to be able to have an opinion on fraught international conflicts, to be able to declare that you are for or against American military intervention or sanctions or arms support or humanitarian aid while knowing that your life probably won’t be affected. And still, the world is as small as it is big. Syria is a world away but we are bound to her people by our common humanity. Even if we don’t dare offer an opinion on what should be done, it is important to cultivate an understanding of the Syrian conflict.

In The Syria Dilemma, edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, writers and thinkers including Richard Falk, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Fareed Zakaria, Radwan Ziadeh, Rafif Jouejati and Afra Jalabi offer a range of perspectives about the Syrian conflict and how it might come to an end. Some of the essays are overly academic and ideological, but, overall, the collection offers sober and well-considered opinions. The Syria Dilemma does a particularly good job of identifying what’s at stake for Syria, her people, and the global powers with a vested interest in the region.

In “Syria Is Not Iraq” Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Doha Center argues that the United States is so wary of intervention after Iraq that we are ignoring the human cost of the Syrian conflict. He asks, “Why exactly is 60,000 people not enough? Sure, the use of chemical weapons should be a red line for national security reasons, but why should strictly national security considerations be a red line, when the killing of tens of thousands isn’t?” It’s a rhetorical question but a useful one, in trying to understand what it takes to draw a line in the sand.

Asli Bâli and Aziz Rana argue that, “There is likely no form of direct or indirect military involvement in the conflict that will spare civilians or advance either side towards a decisive victory—there are too many interveners and too many strategic interests at stake for any side to allow too great a tipping of a balance.” This frank assessment reveals just how impossible, how much of a dilemma the Syrian conflict presents world leaders.

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Is the solution to do nothing in the face of such impossibility? Afra Jalabi offers the perspective of several Syrian activists in “Anxiously Anticipating a New Dawn.” She rightly notes that “the Syrian people have been doubly hijacked,” first by Assad and then by the global powers prioritizing their own needs and desires over the Syrian people’s as they consider intervention. Jalabi’s essay offers hope because she shares the voices of activists on the ground who still have faith that change is possible and though of differing minds, are all invested in Syrian democracy on Syrian terms.

In “Syria is Melting, Rafif Jouejati reaffirms what the Syrian revolution is truly about to many Syrians. She says, “our revolution is not about replacing one dictator with another; our revolution is about freedom, dignity, and democracy for all Syrians. To ignore our voices, or pass them off as naïve, is to ignore the will of most Syrians.” There are no easy solutions to the Syrian dilemma, but whatever world leaders decide to do, we can only hope that the will of the Syrian people is not ignored.

Read Max Blumenthal’s account of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

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