Speech to the Syria Conference in Geneva
January 29, 2013
James A. Paul
Since the end of the 1990s, global economic and political structures have fallen into increasing crisis. Deep problems have accumulated in the systems of finance, environment, water supply and food. Poverty has increased in many countries and conflicts have spread. Governments have stepped up repression worldwide, narrowing the opportunities for peaceful democratic protest and opposing mass political initiatives. But popular revolt has surged. Dictatorships have toppled and even democratic governments have appeared vulnerable, when they have listened more closely to the bond markets than to their own people. This is a time of tremendous uncertainty and change, sweeping the world system. And today, Syria is at the center of the political hurricane.
For those in the world that seek political simplicity, Western governments and their mass media are ready with simple answers. The global crises are caused, they say, by terrorists, dictators, and corrupt malefactors of all kinds. The system is innocent. Harsh Western measures, they tell us, will be needed to bring the world back to its senses, spread democracy, promote free markets, and restore order. Intervention will be needed to bring advanced values to backward zones. It is a discourse that we have heard often – about Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Libya, and of course now Syria.
This picture of global good and evil is applied with abandon to the Syria crisis. No one cares to remember the history – the Sykes Picot accords when Britain and France secretly carved up the region for a new colonial order, the fierce repression by French military of popular uprisings during the colonial years, intervention by the CIA in 1949 to overthrow a civilian government and impose Syria’s first post-colonial military dictatorship. Lest we are tempted to think that those events are no longer relevant, let us remember that Hafez al-Asad could never have ruled without the complicity of Western governments and their friends in Saudi Arabia, not to mention the Russians. And let us remember also that Bashar’s security services worked hand-in-glove with the CIA in the rendition program, torturing among others an innocent Canadian, Maher Arar, to maintain cordial relations with Washington.
The bien pensants are ready to see the Syria conflict in simplistic terms and to root for a quick victory for the FSA. But we must look beyond simple formulas. We need to find a solution that is attuned to the realities of Syria’s pluralistic society, that rejects an outcome based on violence, and that is properly skeptical about the intentions of foreign interventionists. The goal must be a just and democratic society that will have real durability in a dangerous world. Is there not plenty of evidence that foreign interventions, direct or indirect, are never a good way to remove a dictator and create a stable and fair new order?
Consider the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Liberals throughout Western Europe welcomed the invading French armies as a means to get rid of the backward monarchies then in power. It wasn’t long, however, before disillusionment set in and these same liberals were denouncing the Napoleonic dictatorships.
Looking at more recent evidence, we notice that the United States did not invade Iraq in order to promote democracy as George Bush, Tony Blair and the neo-cons pretended. Oil was the main game, let that be perfectly clear. The invaders created conditions in the country that were far from a stable and democratic order, as reports never cease to confirm. In fact, there have been ten years of disorder, chaos, and inter-communal violence. Years of ferocious violence by the occupiers destroyed the most promising bases of post-Saddam democratic renewal, including the intellectual and professional classes, the nascent trade union movement, and the families and organizations that transcended clannishness and sectarianism.
Libya is another case that should give pause to the advocates of foreign intervention. In Libya, we see an opposition army, financed and armed from abroad, benefiting from Western air strikes and special operations forces. Can we say honestly that the dictator was replaced by a government that has real promise and that the region is more peaceful and better off as a result? The spillover into Mali and then Algeria alerts us to the dangers of this irresponsible approach to so-called “democracy-building.”
Two decades ago, I wrote a book on human rights in Syria. I was shocked at what I learned about the violence and repression by Hafez al-Asad and his henchmen. And I was angry to realize how much complicity I found in Washington when I talked to policy makers there. But I want to emphasize how impressed I was in my research by the strong civil society in Syria, the artists and filmmakers and historians who were committed to building a better society in the country and pushing the dictatorship through mass democratic action into the dustbin of history. I came away with the conviction that Syria would one day emerge as a vital and democratic society.
For this reason I am delighted to be here, to learn from all of you, to have a conversation together. I can perhaps add a few things to the discussion based on my observations at the United Nations, especially of the Security Council, and also from my study of humanitarian intervention. But most of all I want to listen and to learn. I expect in the next few days you will envision a democratic outcome in Syria, bringing the Syrian people together and enabling the country to rise from the present conflict and be a beacon of real democracy and social justice for the region and the world.