What do Syrians Want? What should we do?

This article appeared in the Fall 2016 Massachusetts Peace Action newsletter

Everyone claims to know what the Syrians want. Usually this coincides with the interests of one or another of the various foreign interveners. However, the truth is that Syrians are deeply divided and there is no single view that speaks for all of them. Certainly, Syrians want an end to the war – but under very different conditions.

Although we rare­­l­­y encounter this in our media, it is an uncontestable fact that many Syrians actively support the government headed by the Ba’ath Party and Bashar al-As­sad. This might be due to ideological orientation, political or economic self-interest, or from anxiety – especially among minority religious or ethnic groups – that a post-Assad Syria might be a very dangerous place for them. Before the war began in 2011 there were 2 million Baath party members in a country of 23 million.

Many more Syrians, perhaps a majority, don’t like the government much, but they fear the increasingly sectarian and extremist opposition even more. They see the large­ly jihadist and foreign-supported military forces as a threat to Syria’s secular and tolerant society. This was a common sentiment I heard in Syria and neighboring countries during 5 weeks in the region earlier this year.

In 2011 many Syrians began to protest for democratic reforms against the dictatorial and oligarchic Baathist government.It was a Syrian response to the popular upsurge of the “Arab Spring” throughout the region — and to the deteriorating economic situation due to a years-long drought and neo-liberal reforms implemented by the government. But coinciding with the anti-government protests were also very large pro-Assad demonstrations in cities across Syria.

The civil protests were soon overwhelmed by a combination of government repression and dominance by armed extremists, supported from the outset by Turkey and the reactionary Gulf monarchies. The early call by Obama and other outside leaders that “Assad must go” gave hope to many Syrian oppositionists for a Libyan-style Western intervention that would lead to a speedy fall of the government.

Certainly, the US and its allies have long sought to overthrow the Syrian government for their own reasons. For them, Assad’s primary sin had little to do with “democracy” but was rather his long-standing alliance with Iran and the Lebanese political/mili­tary party Hezbollah. The US and the Gulf states were joined by Israel in preferring a weakened or destabilized Syria as preferable to its continued alignment with Iran.

Although a direct military attack on Syria failed to materialize, it has become clear that the conflict will endure as long as it is fueled by outside proxy interests. Tens of thousands of foreign jihadist fighters have entered Syria, facilitated by NATO-member Turkey to the north and by the nearly open borders with Iraq to the east.

Hezbollah and the Iranians did not join the fighting on any large scale until mid-2013; the Russians began their direct military participation only in 2015, when it seemed possible that the Syrian government was facing military defeat. This intervention was met with relief by many Syrians. The images of Vladimir Putin and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah are on many items for sale in Damascus souvenir shops — clearly marketed to Syrians rather than to foreign tourists. In one restaurant during my visit, diners broke into spontaneous Arabic shouts of “Long Live Russia.”

Unfortunately, most of the news we read outside Syria comes from opposition groups which are agitating for increased US military intervention – starting with a “No-Fly Zone” — to topple the Assad government. However, there are also democracy supporters, operating in exile or within the government-held areas of the country, who demand political reform but oppose foreign intervention.

In this complicated situation, it is imperative for peace supporters in the US to oppose, first of all, the on-going military intervention in Syria of our own country and its close allies. This could underpin a call for the exit of all foreign forces from Syria and the launching of a genuine diplomatic process that will give hope for winding down the fighting and negotiating a long-term political solution.