The US, with or without allies, is expected to intervene militarily in Syria at any time but nobody is expecting this to bring any true structural improvements in the human rights situation in the region. Such improvements can only be the result of a genuine revolution in the moral and political values of the population itself. A change in those values cannot be imposed by external forces but must come from a heartfelt desire for change. More often than not, catastrophic events are the fuel that feeds such as desire. The humanitarian catastrophe in Syria could function as just such a catalyst for change and for that reason should be allowed to run its course.
A democratic government is the result of a democratic society; not the other way around. Those who hoped for a democratic outcome of the ‘Arab Spring’ therefore had to assume that the Arab world was already saturated with a deep longing for democratic reform. That this assumption was hopelessly flawed has been proven by the recent developments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria. Yes, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in countries from Tunisia to Bahrain but did they do so because they demanded equal rights for religious minorities, for the rights of women or for the right to freedom of religion and freedom of speech? Or did they do so because they merely wanted better economic opportunities and less corruption?
Right after the fall of Mubarak, the PEW institute conducted a poll among Egyptians. In line with many other Arab countries, 74% of Egyptians wanted the new laws of the country to strictly follow Shari’ah law. However, as the European Court of Human Rights stated in its judgment of the case Refah v. Turkey: “sharia is incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy”. The non-democratic character of the Shari’ah was illustrated by a study of the PEW research center which found that 86% of Egyptians demanded that apostasy from Islam would become punishable by death. In addition,data from the Arab world consistently shows a severe lack of democratic values not only on the side of the rulers, but also more importantly, on the side of the population itself. Marred by endemic racism, Jew hatred, institutionalized religious intolerance and a tribal political culture fueled by sectarian hatred, many Arab societies are apparently still at the most basic stages of political development.
Such Hobbesian societies require harsh autocratic leadership and scapegoating of an external enemy, Israel, in order prevent them from falling apart from internal strife. Due to a lack of a democratic fourth way, the menu for autocratic leadership has always been limited to three choices: a military, tribal or Islamist dictatorship. Right now Syria is experiencing a challenge to its Alawite and Christian backed military dictatorship by the Sunni backed Islamists. Yes, there are other groups in the political arena such as the free Syrian army coalition but their internal political rivalries, lack of material capabilities and foreign backing make that they at present cannot rival the other two competitors for the Syrian throne. Should we therefore intervene in a battle which is essentially taking place between two opposing sectarian groups and which has little to do with the repression of a genuine democratic movement? I think not. Intervention based on the responsibility to protect civilians from chemical attacks would certainly ease our conscience, but it would not address the root cause of these conflicts which is the almost total lack of democratic values. The lesson of Afghanistan is that several basic conditions, like a functioning state and some fundamental democratic values must be present in a society and in the spirit of a population before any structural improvement in the human rights situation can even be hoped for. If these conditions are lacking, then no amount of foreign intervention can bring true improvements for the population. That is not to say that all forms of intervention should stop. Far from it; intervention should focus on creating the necessary foundations for civil society to welcome and demand democratic reform. But it would be disastrous folly to presume that military intervention would bring an end to sectarian infighting in Syria. At best it would keep Assad, a bloody and brutal dictator by any account, in power and prevent an Islamist take over. Military intervention will not hail in the dawn of a new democratic age; Syria’s history of multi-ethnic tensions resists such a grandiose claim and the West is certainly incapable of delivering on any such promises. Both Iraq and Afghanistan warn against such false hopes. So what can do the trick? How did Western societies evolve from their own equally Hobbesian starting points to the flourishing democracies we see today?
The founding of democracy in America was the result of miserable political conditions in Europe. The explosion of human rights instruments in the 1950’s was a direct result of the Holocaust. As history has attested time and again: It is only in the face of the most extreme barbarism that the most deeply embedded values of a society can be uprooted and replaced by better ones. What is needed is a catalyst. The current human rights drama in Syria could be such a catalyst and the Western world would be wise not to intervene. Let the Arab world experience what it means to suffer the dark fruits of the racist and ethnic hatred they wish unto others. Let them experience the logical consequences of the values they as a society choose to adopt so that they one day might realize that their societies and their children deserve far better. In the meantime, don’t let the gruesome images of the chemical attacks in Syria lead you astray. If these attacks occurred against civilians in Tel Aviv or Washington, the perpetrators would become venerated heroes, martyrs, and have schools named after them. For those who doubt the veracity of this claim I need only to point at the myriad of examples in Gaza, the West-Bank or Lebanon.
The greatest qualitative and quantitative suffering is not imposed upon the Arab world by the infidel imperialist West, the Jews or by Israel but by the political and moral fabric of Arab societies themselves. The political coming of age of the Arab region and its transition towards democracy requires them to take responsibility for their own flaws. For that reason alone, intervention should be reserved to prevent region wide escalation genocide. The rest is a brutally painful lesson in the true meanings of the words tyranny and democracy; a lesson which I would not wish to withhold from any society longing to be taken seriously.