Confused reports from Syria’s northern provinces sketch a depressing picture for even the most optimistic of internationalists. Not only does the rebel cause seem dangerously imperilled by the resurgent aggression of a Hezbollah-backed Assad regime, but its very existence appears critically undermined by polarised loyalties and competing claims for legitimacy. Just last month, British and American aid to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was suspended, as the realisation emerged that its intended recipients no longer constituted a functional political entity. In the same month, around 50 members of the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) were summarily executed by a motley coalition of Islamic militants, led by the rebel camp’s emergent hegemon, the Islamist Front.[1]

Image courtesy of Voice of America, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Voice of America, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Layer upon layer of political upheaval makes the task of Western negotiators increasingly complex with each passing day. Although it would appear that the Islamist Front have secured the ear of US and NATO officials – and a place at the negotiating table in Geneva – their own history is hardly a reassurance to those seeking political stability in the long term. Political power on a daily basis may indeed grow out of the barrel of a gun, but law, security, and peace cannot be bought by force, however irresistible it may seem. Thomas Hobbes is frequently wheeled out to provide a simplistic cliché, yet it seems hard to deny his analytic (if not normative) persuasiveness on blood-stained Syrian streets: bellum omnium contra omnes.

One wouldn’t have to be the most astute observer of foreign affairs to detect a whiff of déjà vu. Across Syria’s eastern border, the smouldering ruins of Iraq attest to the same mistakes in state-building strategy. Clearly, the circumstances were different – post-invasion politics rather than a thinly-veiled puppet show – but the threats to political order and effective governance are striking in their similarity to the challenges faced in Syrian rebel territory today. Indeed, counter-terrorism experts have recently warned that al-Qaida affiliates in Syria are rapidly obtaining an even stronger and more influential position than their counterparts in Iraq managed during the peak of their powers in 2006-07.[2]

What connects and sustains both situations is a critically short-sighted approach in Western internationalism. As James Harkin points out, our ‘institutional anti-extremism’ tends to aggravate already strained political situations by insisting on a dualistic othering (‘good guy’ vs ‘bad guy’). A series of destabilising, temporary, and morally compromising alliances result in the net effect that no particular community feels adequately secure or enfranchised. Law, such as it might be, is seen as the distortion famously defined by Plato: an institution through which the strong trump the interests of the weak. Into the social vacuum tumble particular communities forced, as they see it, into an attempt to pursue their own social good over and above the desires and needs of political competitors. Hence the paranoia felt by marginal communities of faith, political allegiance, professional identity and ethnicity, in the wake of upheavals across the wider region, of which I have written elsewhere. Accepting that recent interventions in the Middle East have failed to escape the clutches of this depressing pattern, Western policymakers should be exploring the alternatives for Syria.

The political tradition known as Pluralism provides a sharp critique of the status quo. Distilled by luminaries such as the theologian David Nicholls, plural theories of the state envisage a sea of ‘first order’ communities, drawing from distinct foundational principles of social and political good, yet, by necessity, sharing much of what constitutes the daily exercise of human and social life. It is these areas of communal convergence which need, above all, an overarching framework of protection by the state, ensuring that no one community’s pursuit of the good (as it envisages it) precludes a similar pursuit by another. Where goals result in conflict, the state provides a vehicle for dialogue, argument and compromise, all the while continuing to protect those foundational resources without which the pursuit of social goods would not be possible in the first place. Western internationalism fails in so far as it perpetuates the image of an interested party gambling for control and benefit within a state or region, through alliances with particular communities at the expense of others. This approach, properly speaking, is an imperialistic one: patterns of social interaction within a cluster of political communities are only permitted if in accord with the particular interests of a hegemonic overlord. Such would be a fitting description of Roman political might, but equally – and all too often – a telling portrait of Western colonialism to this day.

Leaving conceptual abstractions to one side, it should be clear that the recent sectarian bloodshed in Syria can be read as a warning sign. Individual demographic groups, whether united by denomination, ethnicity, commercial interest or political philosophy, lack the basic resources for co-operation and shared political life. The political environment is such that any particular vision of societal good held by one community is assumed to encroach on the integrity and liberty of another. With no guarantee of the space and time to pursue social goals, political engagement is defined by a Melian paradigm of might equalling right. Violence becomes common currency where argument lacks a basic vocabulary of arbitration and compromise.

This is not, incidentally, a problem confined to the Middle East. Though the streets of Western liberal democracies are blessed, on the whole, with peaceful respect for law and liberty, exceptions do occur. Last summer’s murder of a British soldier in Woolwich, London, provides an illustration of the extent to which Western values are not universally perceived as providing the foundational environment in which all communities can flourish. Teenagers can still envisage violent extremism as an appropriate response to the alienation they experience because of race, religion or social context. Churchill’s pointed remark about a country whose empire could rule the waves yet not flush its own sewers remains a haunting spectre.

All of this is far from a roadmap to success amidst the appalling violence, oppression and injustice which constitutes the Syrian situation today. Western involvement may yet veer towards direct intervention or reconciliation with Assad. But, regardless of the direction of political engagement, policymakers could do worse than to learn from colonial mistakes – be they from 19th century Empire or 21st century Iraq – and ensure that a peaceful Syria treats its constituent communities, and all their complex and interwoven loyalties, with the seriousness and respect they demand. The alternative has already been revealed, and continues to smoulder across Syria’s borders to this day.



[1] James Harkin, ‘Fighting ‘extremism’ in Syria is a losing battle’, The Guardian, Monday 20th January 2014. Also online: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/20/fighting-extremism-in-syria

[2] Peter Beaumount, ‘Growing strength of Syria’s Islamist groups undermines hopes of ousting Assad’, The Guardian, Saturday 14th December 2013. Also online: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/14/syria-islamist-militants-growing-strength