Second-Guessing Syria

Syria has been burning now for four years — with millions displaced into Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq, more than 250,000 dead, and no end in sight.

In March of 2014, Stephen Walt, Harvard’s “realist” foreign-policy hand, warned against a costly and uncertain entanglement in Syria as against national security interests on our show.

Today, to his credit, Walt is wondering whether he was wrong to warn against intervention, as we all watch a human tragedy unfold on a grand scale.

What was disturbing in 2012 has become apocalyptic. Russian and Iranian forces are backing the Syrian assault on Aleppo, dislocating tens of thousands of people each day. ISIS has emerged as an uncontrollable third party in the conflict. Our guest Lina Sergie tells us her Syrian-American friends are surprising themselves: many are turning to Jeb Bush, the candidate most loudly saying that we’re “duty bound” to take on Assad with muscle.

In his column at Foreign Policy, Walt concluded “with some genuine reluctance” that holding back the Western military in Syria remained the right course. But we want to dig deeper than that: to the yet-unimagined theory of this country’s military mega-power that allows for both life-saving interventions in terrible situations and for prudence and timely restraint. (Does such a thing exist?)

What would have worked, what were the worries, and what are the war-weary Western powers to do when millions of innocent lives are on the line?

Photo by Srdjan Zivulovic/Reuters.

Guest List
Stephen Walt
professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, columnist-strategist at Foreign Policy, and author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy with John Mearsheimer.
Lina Sergie Attar
Syrian-American architect and co-founder/CEO of the Karam Foundation, which provides Syrian refugees with aid and therapy.
Khaled Fahmy
Egyptian historian, visiting professor at Harvard, and author of Mehmed Ali: From Ottoman Governor to Ruler of Egypt.

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  • Cambridge Forecast


    The late Professor Stanley Hoffmann of Harvard (his books include “In Search of France” and “Janus and Minerva,” which title I borrowed in the title of this post, etc.) said some
    very astute things that bear directly on this ROS discussion.

    For instance, he said something relevant to this excellent ROS discussion a few years ago on an
    appearance on the “Charlie Rose” talk show on TV when he remarked: “sometimes
    the best “Realpolitik” is to be idealistic”. (my paraphrase).

    In the October 1989 issue of the “Atlantic,” Prof. Hoffmann sees that:

    “Many of the new forces of nationalism may lead to explosions and revolutions, about which, again, there will be very little that we or anybody else in the West can do. The task therefore is not to eliminate trouble everywhere in the world. Instead, we must devise what could be described as a new containment: not of the Soviet Union (although this will be part of it,
    insofar as conflicts of interest with the Soviets will continue) but of the
    various forms of violence and chaos that a world no longer dominated by the
    Cold War will entail. It is a complicated agenda, but it is at least different
    from the agenda we have had for so long.”

    Article: What Should We Do in the World? “Idealism and Practicality”

    by Stanley Hoffman


    He also said on TV, that America cannot serve as “Israel’s reliable swift sword” and still expect
    to have friends and wellwishers in the Middle East.

    Since the Syria situation is a byproduct of the Israel/neocon global “mayhemization” strategy, the failure to control Israel and Obama’s pitiful constant thwarting of the Palestinians in the UN, will only embolden Israel and radicalize the Netanyahu government even further and thus lead to even deeper spirals of “mayhemization.”

    Jeb Bush’s name can be seen on the board of the New American Century grouping which was a neocon-created foreign policy “belligerence machine.”

    The neocons are waiting in the wings and hope to complete their program of initiating a global civil war between the West and Islam.

    Stanley Hoffmann’s sane perspectives are one of the few antidotes and try to fuse, as per the title of his book, “Janus and Minerva.”

    Richard Melson

    • Cambridge Forecast



      The famous MIT political scientist wrote a classic book circa 1958 on how India and China were perceived by Americans, called, “Scratches On Our Minds.” Professor Isaacs wanted to convey how Americans had at best a completely insubstantial ephemeral comic book sense of other peoples. This is akin to Edward Said’s idea (and booktitle) of “orientalism.” (ie unreality allowing domination and dehumanization when convenient).

      This applies a fortiori to the Middle East with its “Thief of Baghdad” movie imagery in our minds and memories.
      For Syrians, say, the 1925 uprising against the French is till fresh in their minds as is
      the secret Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916 (discussed in “Lawrence of Arabia” with
      Claude Rains as the wily diplomat character in the movie who explains it) which
      divvied up the Middle East for the main European winners of WWI.

      Great Syrian Revolt:

      “The Great Syrian Revolt or Great Druze Revolt (1925–1927) was a general uprising across Syria and Lebanon aimed at getting rid of the French, who had been in control of the region since the end of World War I. The uprising was not centrally-coordinated; rather, it was attempted by multiple factions – among them Sunni, Druze, Alawite, Christian, and Shia – with the common goal of ending French rule. The revolt was ultimately put down by French forces….

      The impact on Syria itself was profoundly negative. At least 6,000 rebels were killed, and over 100,000 people were left homeless, a fifth of whom made their way to Damascus. After two years of war, the city was ill-equipped to deal with the influx of displaced Syrians, and Hama was similarly devastated. Across Syria, towns and farms had suffered significant damage, and agriculture and commerce temporarily ceased.”


      Sirocco (film):

      Sirocco is a 1951 American film noir directed by Curtis Bernhardt and written by A.I.
      Bezzerides and Hans Jacoby. It is based on the novel Coup de Grace
      written by Joseph Kessel. The drama features Humphrey Bogart, Märta Torén, Lee J.
      Cobb, among others.

      “In 1925 Damascus, the Syrians are engaged in a guerrilla war against the French rule of Syria. Harry Smith (Humphrey Bogart) is an amoral American black marketeer secretly selling them weapons. As the situation deteriorates, French General LaSalle (Everett
      Sloane) orders that civilians be executed each time his soldiers are
      killed, but his head of military intelligence, Colonel Feroud (Lee J.
      Cobb), persuades him to rescind the plan. Feroud presses for negotiations
      with rebel leader Emir Hassan (Onslow Stevens) instead. LaSalle reluctantly lets him try to arrange a meeting, but refuses to let Feroud make contact directly. The young officer sent in his place is later found with his throat cut.”


      You may also recall however vaguely the scene in the 1952 movie, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” based on Hemingway where Gregory Peck’s character (“Harry Street”) suddenly departs for Syria, 1925, as a writer/travel reporter, after being left by Ava Gardner’s character in the movie, “Cynthia Green.”

      The ability to “second-guess Syria”, as per the excellent ROS discussion, starts with the ability to see this “scratches on our mind” phenomenon as one foundation of all this blindness.

      Richard Melson

  • Potter

    Lina Attar was especially good; very articulate. But your other guests were good too, as usual. It’s of course hindsight as it always is as to what we should have done or could have. We seem to be always self-correcting about the last failure in our foreign policy. But it’s true, so true, how we have been meddling selfishly, and not to our benefit either, in all these countries. I am glad that Israel-Palestine was mentioned, my particular interest. On the one hand we have been pushing for a resolution, with all the issues resolved on paper, and on the other hand we have been supporting Israel’s brutal occupation. The latest “solution”,a bandaid, is putting cameras on the Temple Mount. Big solution.

    We should be taking a lot more refugees than we are. Given our meddling, we have a special moral duty. A woman in the waiting room of a medical office I happened to be in was saying why we can’t: they are tribal people. In other words they would not fit in…..this is veiled or not so veiled racism.

    Thank you for covering this topic. I hope you will pick it up again soon.