Notes From the Margins…

Response to Michael Neumann

  • April 15, 2012
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I hadn’t heard of the Canadian professor Michael Neumann until yesterday, when I discovered that he had called me ‘sleazy because of an article I wrote on Syria  that was posted on the Stop the War UK website, which he claims makes me an ‘objective’ apologist for Assad.

Neumann’s piece is partly an impassioned call to arm the Syrian opposition, coupled with an angry and bitter assault on opponents of  foreign intervention/manipulation in Syria such as James Petras and John Pilger, who he claims have become   similarly ‘objective’ apologists for torture and murder as a result.

The charge of sleaziness was directed specifically at my article however, and was clearly intended not so much as a personal insult but as a generic categorization of  Stop the War’s position in general.

I’m not a spokesman for the Stop the War coalition, though I do agree with many of its ideas and its general position on Syria, which is why I’m quite happy for my blog posts  to be posted on their website.

The piece in question argued that the western media has largely propagated  a  ‘fairytale version’ of the Syrian conflict in which ‘ an utterly evil dictator is slaughtering a peaceful and unarmed opposition that represents the “Syrian people” in its entirety’.

In it, I pointed out  that crimes and atrocities were being carried out both by the opposition and the regime, and questioned why so many reporters seem unwilling to acknowledge this.  These points were dismissed as ‘stylish gesturing’, by Neumann, who argued that

[stextbox id=”alert”]What’s so sleazy is the suggestion that somehow, hidden facts are going to tip the balance in favor of letting Assad torture and murder some more. Hidden facts about what? In World War II, the allies had some hidden agendas and committed many atrocities. This would not have been justification for backing Hitler, or for claiming the two sides were equally bad.[/stextbox]

This ‘suggestion’ is an entirely subjective interpretation imposed upon my article by Neumann, since I argue no such thing, and it is typical of his hectoring moralistic critique.   Neumann is a leftist and anti-Zionist, and his arguments are in keeping with arguments made by leftists or former leftists who supported the wars in Afghanistan/Iraq/Libya.

Then, as now, such arguments were often couched in the same either/or terms.  Do you oppose the NATO bombing of Afghanistan?  Then you want the Taliban to enslave Afghan women.   Are you against the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq?  Then you want Saddam to stay in power and feed people into shredding machines.   Opposed to  the NATO bombing of Libya?   Then you must be an apologist for Gaddafi who prefers to see a massacre in Benghazi.

Just for the record,  I am not an Assad supporter.  The Arab world has been governed for too long by dynastic rulers that believe they have a right to rule indefinitely, that treat their populations like children and administer brutal punishment at the slightest sign of dissent or protest.

The whole post-colonial Middle East has been dominated by such regimes, even those who, like the FLN in Algeria, were once national liberation movements or come in anti-imperialist Ba’athist clothing.

Despite the manipulation/propaganda propagated by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and the general fog of war, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that Syrian security forces have committed major atrocities in an attempt to crush the rebellion.  

In another piece on Syria I have written that

Those of us who wish to halt the insane rush from one war to the next that western governments are currently embarked on,  or oppose the lies, manipulation and duplicity that underpin this process, cannot condemn acts of state terrorism in one country and then find excuses for it in another.

But it’s also clear that elements within the Syrian opposition have committed crimes and atrocities that have generally not been mentioned or reported, that they have lied and exaggerated those of the Assad regime.   To point this out doesn’t mean that these atrocities are the same in scale, as Neumann accuses me of arguing, but it does suggest a) that there is an armed conflict taking place and b) that the Syrian opposition contains political forces for whom human rights and non-violence are not a priority.  

That said, I have never been convinced by  some of the more conspiratorial arguments emanating from some anti-interventionists, which attribute the entire rebellion in Syria to foreign intervention.  I believe that  the Assad regime should go, and that given the events of the past year, Syria has little chance of a peaceful future unless it does.

At the same time it is clear that Assad does have a significant popular base.  An opinion poll taken in the middle of an armed conflict can’t be considered a popular mandate or a license to remain in power.  But coupled with the inability of the regime to defeat the rebels and the inability of the rebels to bring about a popular revolution, this constituency does suggest that any solution to the Syrian conflict will ultimately have to be  political, not military.

So in my opinion, the ‘good-versus-evil’ narrative does not encapsulate what is taking place in Syria, anymore than ‘evil’ explained the internal political/tribal/sectarian forces that enabled Saddam to stay in power in Iraq, and which the countries that professed to liberate Iraq entirely failed to foresee.

Talk of ‘evil’ is simplistic and leads easily to simplistic and externally imposed ‘solutions’ that preclude the possibility of a political outcome, that are invariably tailored to suit the particular agendas of the countries involved.

Neumann insists that

[stextbox id=”alert”]There are two live options in Syria. The first is (at least) arming the FSA. The second is letting Assad continue to torture and murder. Since only the first option will stop Assad, there are no other choices.[/stextbox]

But the current (admittedly fragile) ceasefire suggests that these are not the only choices.  And Neumann is startlingly dismissive of a third possibility, namely that the militarization that he recommends may make things worse.  

He insists that any speculation about the potentially calamitous consequences of further militarization is irrelevant, and that such’  spectres are really excuses, unsuccessful ones’ since

[stextbox id=”alert”]What’s happening in Syria, like what happened in Tunisia and Libya and Egypt, has no precedent and there is no basis for prediction of outcomes. Yes indeed, the new order may be as bad as the old. Yes indeed, there may be endless strife, abject failure and utter defeat. Or not: we don’t even know enough to preclude miracles; we have nothing to go on but a failure to predict what has happened already.[/stextbox]

This casual insouciance is really staggering.   Given the fragmented and often localised nature of the armed opposition, and the external players who are involved in Syria, there is in fact a very good basis ‘ for prediction of outcomes’ – and also grounds to look for alternatives to ‘endless strife, abject failure and utter defeat.’

Such ‘sleazy’ reservations are not limited to critics of Western intervention.  A report by Joseph Holliday, a former US Army officer and a research analyst for the Institute for the Study of War, on  Syria’s Armed Opposition’,    observes that

… any decision to arm syria”s rebels must not be undertaken lightly, as this course would complete the transformation of Syria”s unrest from a peaceful opposition movement to a long-term, multi-layered proxy conflict.

General Martin Dempsey, Chairman  of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has identified over one hundred armed opposition groups in Syria.  Given what is happening in Syria, and given the range of external players involved, it seems to me entirely reasonable to speculate that further militarization of the conflict would massively multiply the death toll, and possibly bring about the implosion of the Syrian state.

Of course I cannot predict the future in Syria, any more than Neumann can, but the devastation and chaos wrought by previous western interventions, and the lies, manipulation and propaganda that preceded them, certainly provide good grounds to be suspect that the interventionist cure could be worse than the disease.

Neumann caricatures opponents of what he calls the ‘über-spectre, The Horrible West’, and suggests that western motives for intervening in Syria are genuinely humanitarian, unlike those of the past, and rejects the idea that ‘  having sinned, the West must be denied the opportunity, the grace, to redeem itself.’

He says that Afghanistan and Iraq – unlike Syria – weren’t motivated by  humanitarian intentions, and that therefore drawing conclusions about what might happen in Syria based on these wars is somehow irrelevant.  

This isn’t strictly true, since various ‘humanitarian’ justifications were invoked to soften public opinion into supporting those wars (womens rights, ‘dictator-killing-his-own people’, ending sanctions etc).

Neumann also skips neatly over Kosovo and especially Libya – a war to ‘save lives’ in which up to 50,000 people died, where racist militias are still wreaking havoc in a country that is close to implosion, and where tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing the conflict in Mali that is also a spillover from the Libya war.

And now the same players that brought about all these interventions are talking about humanitarian interventions and we are supposed to believe not only that their intentions are good – but also that they have the ability to prevent a similarly catastrophic outcome in Syria?

Sorry but I don’t accept it. So my position is that external influence should be brought to bear to demilitarise the conflict and encourage a negotiated solution in which all sides have to compromise – not because this is an ideal solution, but it is better than turning Syria into another Lebanon or Somalia – or Libya.

And Neumann may call that position ‘sleazy’ or ‘stylish gesturing’, but nothing that he has said has inclined me to change it.

 

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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