Blame, Responsibility, and How We Talk About Syria

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What it means to want a solution, but have none to offer.

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Demonstrators gather during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in Kafranbel / Reuters

In the corner of many Twitter avatars is a small Syrian flag. Whether pro-Assad, pro-opposition, or something else entirely, it is the same flag, the red, the white, the black, and two green stars. Because in Syria, regardless of your stance on the regime, you are a Syrian. (Though Anas Qtiesh rightly points out that a lot of opposition have begun to change their avatars to include the flag of the Syrian Republic rather than the current flag of Syria.)

And that protectionism was at first, when the uprising began, pervasive in conversations about Syria. The opposition and pro-regime forces alike took a stance that Syria is for Syrians, and Syrian matters for Syrian discussion. Yet, slowly but surely, as the death toll rose higher and higher, the Syrian opposition (or should I say 'oppositions') has turned to outside help, leaving them vulnerable to a slew of accusations from the regime and its supporters, as well as the "anti-imperialist" crowd, that has joined the clarion call to delegitimize the opposition.

With loved ones in Damascus, Aleppo, and Swaida, it's much more difficult to remain ambivalent.

Before I go any further, I shall lay my cards on the table. Syria, for me, is personal. As I predict this post could reach farther than most, I need go no further, but suffice it to say that my connections there go deep, and are multi-faceted. Diverse, even. That said, I am no expert: My time in Syria has been minimal, and my studies of the country academic. In fact, in Damascus I sometimes found it difficult to reconcile my friends' horror stories of abuse and torture with the beautiful calm city I fell in love with, and yet, their experiences are real, terrifying.

Therefore, when, last March, the first inklings of protest arose, I was both excited for them and wary, knowing the complexities that Syria's diversity-as well as its place in the world-presents. I did-and do-support my friends who keep risking their lives to protest and report, take photographs and videos, and speak to the press, and I will continue to do so. There shall be no accusations of shabiha here.

So, with cards on the table, I speak. I am an observer of tragedy, and the tragedy is not only the ruthless violence against the Syrian people committed by the regime but also the polarization of commentators, media, and of course (most importantly), Syrians. And as an observer, I would like to talk about what I have observed these past few months; you might call me naive, but surely I am not more naive than the hawks who are permitted to write in respectable publications about Syria, only to compare it to Egypt or call for intervention without serious consideration. Surely I am not as silly as, say, Andrew Tabler, who in the New York Times referred to Druze as a "heterodox Shiite offshoot" or the Reuters journalist who thought it pertinent to use a Texan Christian website as a source for an article on what he called Syria's "secretive, persecuted" Alawis. So, grant me that.

OPINIONS

I have spent nearly every day these past few months reading opinion pieces on Syria. The obsession started for one reason: The US media, namely the New York Times and the Washington Post, kept relying on the same two Syrians-both based outside the country-for quotes, and it was maddening. Meanwhile, global media wasn't much better. And so, reluctant to pester my Syrian friends for opinions, I made it a point to read as many opinions as possible.

What I found is equally frustrating. From opinionators on Syria, be they Syrian or foreign, there are two dominating views: The first is the viewpoint of the Syrian National Council (SNC), or farther right. This "view area," so to speak, ranges from the precise position of the SNC in calling for intervention, to the hawkish calls -- such as this by Daniel Byman in Foreign Policy -- for foreign intervention. The second dominant view comes from the anti-imperialist crowd. By and large, the anti-imperialists have largely failed to denounce the Assad regime, and those who have imply that any alternative is worse.

The first set of views is fairly easy to spot, and is indeed in line with the SNC, the public face of Syria's opposition-in-exile. The second set is a bit more complicated, and for several reasons. First is the fact that the opposition's legitimacy has been put in question by its opponents, for a few reasons: the SNC's calls to the West for intervention, the inflation of death toll numbers, the acts of violence committed by opposition and the Free Syrian Army against civilians or officers. The second problem, of course, is the very real concerns about intervention, of which I will only skim the surface: concerns about imperialism are placed first and foremost (contrary to Russia's stated concerns about the Libya intervention, the Iraqi occupation no doubt formed many's opinions about the real motives behind intervention), followed by what I can only describe as legitimate concerns about civil war. After that comes a slew of concerns about existing interventions by foreign actors in Syria, from NDI to the CIA to the GCC, concerns which range from entirely legitimate to utterly ridiculous (not in that order).

Finally, what remains is the fact that no legitimate poll of Syrians in Syria exists to determine the veracity of claims that the majority still support Assad. Anecdotally, I wouldn't doubt that a majority-or at least a very large minority-does, for one reason or another, prefer the regime to the alternative. But while I view that as unfortunate and likely caused by fear, those on the one side (such as Shadi Hamid) use the lack of statistics to imply that the SNC definitively represents the will of the Syrian people, while on the other side, pundits like Ed Husain and Sharmine Narwani use discredited polls (or in the case of Narwani, entirely unscientific ones conducted on Facebook).

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Jillian C. York, the director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), has written for The Guardian, Al Jazeera English, Bloomberg Views, and other outlets.

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