Syria, Intervention, and the Weight of History

Some push-back in the comments against Fareed Zakaria's take on the Syria conflict's historical context.
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There is some excellent push-back down in comments on Fareed Zakaria's take on Syrian history which deserves some highlight.

First on Zakaria's read on the force of colonialism:
His analysis actually strikes me as pretty ahistorical, even given my fairly rudimentary understanding of Syrian history. It was decades after decolonization before the Syrian regime took on its sectarian (Alawite) character -- I think Salah Jadid was the first to take the Baath party in this direction. 
It's also a major stretch to compare this war, sparked by a popular uprising on the heels of the other Arab revolutions of 2011 with the Lebanese Civil War which was, in large part, sparked by the Middle East's serious refugee crisis. 
This sort of stuff is important to take note of. Sectarianism has become a problem in the Syrian civil war, but arguing that we shouldn't be involved because we'd be meddling in some sort of historically necessary process that's been brewing since the 1970's (or, to adopt his extreme position, since Sykes-Picot) is not helpful. 

Even if we adopt Zakaria's advice and merely aim for some sort of 'political' intervention, we'll need to come to grips with more plausible causes for sectarianism to avoid creating fallout.

On the mashing together of the Middle East and revolutions in general:

I agree with everything Michael Y says. Tunisia and Libya are showing progress, and while Egypt is a mess, it's no Saudi Arabia or Iran (its courts are still fighting, and despite restrictions, so is its media). Political revolutions are very messy.
Generally, what a society determines to be a balance of powers and rights has to be determined on some level from politics. This is not a -you-can't-make-an-omelette-without-breaking-eggs argument, but just an observation of history. The French and European revolutions took a long, long time to develop stable polities. I think a big mistake that we take from recent history is to compare revolutions to those in Eastern Europe in 1989. 

The fact that a bankrupt, occupying empire chose to not support its puppet regimes, and that popular uprisings replaced those regimes with liberal democracies, is more of a fluke of history (helped in no small part by those countries bordering NATO/ EEC), then a normal example of political revolution.
More on the Alawites:

While I appreciate this perspective, I have a quibble: The French didn't set up an Alawite regime in Syria - the Alawites did that themselves. The French did incorporate many minorities into the armed forces of the new state of Syria (including both Alawites and Druze), but they had multiple motivations for this, including most notably giving minority groups the ability to defend and advocate for themselves in an independent multi-ethnic state. 

Syria after independence went through several military coups and ended up with a Ba'athist regime (nominally secular and inspired by a Greek Orthodox Christian and a Sunni), which in turn was overthrown by Hafez Assad and other Alawite officers in the 60s. His central argument still stands, but its a little more complicated than he states.

And then on America's role in the world:

As others note, I think Zakaria provides some useful historical background, although I agree that he is a bit too fatalistic (that the civil war *will* last 10 years, that there *will* be mass killings, etc). I think that there are two considerations to be kept in mind, on both sides of the argument. 

On the intervention side: Americans get caught in a kind of international schizophrenia: either we think that "those people" (whoever they may be) will just fight it out/have age old historical grievances. What can we do? (This was the pre-Srebenica position on Bosnia). The flip side is that then there is the idea that *only* Americans can solve s conflict. We end up getting tossed back and forth between isolationism and full-scale intervention. 

 If America walks away from Syria, other countries will not. There will be more Saudi-funded jihadis fighting Iranian-trained militias armed with Russian weapons. America can have a major role without putting boots on the ground. It's what we did in places like Afghanistan in the 1980's. 

 On the stepping back side: it's not America's place to solve the Syria's (or the world's) problems. Really, the US could only do so much if Syria's neighbors are not willing to take a greater role in solving the conflict. I'm not sure why this is distinctly a question for the US, instead of for Europe, or Turkey (it has the second largest army in NATO right on the border), or the Arab League. I do think humanitarian reasons are compelling. But they should be compelling for humanity, not for the US as such. 

There are a lot of conflicts in the world that need stepped-up attention, including Syria. But the question is how can we get the world (or at least the non-super-but-still-great powers) to pay more attention to solving them?  

I will also point to this Pew poll from March. Most Americans, most Europeans, and most inhabitants of Syria's neighbors (with the exception of Jordan) definitely do not want to see any intervention in the Syrian civil war, including arming the rebels. It would be interesting to see what Syrians thought. So whatever the merits of intervention, the pressure to "do something" is *not* coming from any popular political source, whether in the Middle East or in the US.

One problem with falling in love at "Let's take a step back" is you may, or may not, be qualified to access the history. I most certainly am not. But I'm pleased that it's even coming up in the first place. And I'm even more pleased by these correctives dispensed from the Horde.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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