A Civil War By Any Other Name

If the complexities of international relations could be squeezed allegorically into a high school drama, Syria would be represented by that awkward, depressed nerdy kid that everyone else shuns. In the present room of international relations, Syria occupies dead-center the place where the elephant should be. Whereas other problematic political regimes, such as the exemplary one in Libya, have received their fair due of attention and intervention from the West, Syria has not.

Despite its constant overuse, “crisis,” and a genuine political one at that, is what we have at hand in Syria. Wikipedia has lots of cool names for it: “Civil resistance,” “demonstrations,” “self-immolations” and “hunger-strike” all fall under the “Characteristics” for the Wikipedia page for the 2011 Syrian Uprising. I have another name for it: Civil War. The death count will soon tally to 1,000 if it hasn’t already, and thousands have been arrested. A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet; a civil war by any other name reeks of the same brutality and bloodshed, of the same iniquity and injustice.

The odious, oppressive nature of Syria’s current regime is nothing new. Constitutional rights have been suspended since the early 1960s, and the al-Assad dynasty had led the country for nearly four decades. To insure that the Sunni majority would not threaten his power, Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, conducted a scorched-earth tactic, a stratagem where one destroyed whatever could be useful for the enemy’s survival including sources of food and water, against the town of Hama, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, most of them ethnic Sunnis. Al-Assad Jr. is facing his own Hama in the city of Daraa, which has been under siege by the Syrian army since late March, when protestors in the hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest the autocracy that they have carried on their back for so many decades.

Daraa is the focal point of the entire rebellion against al-Assad. All the anger, unrest and violent evil have gathered there. Daraa is where peaceful protestors are executed, nay, slaughtered by the army in the hundreds. Daraa is where snipers sit on top of buildings and prevent the fresh corpses from receiving the proper care and attention that every corpse deserves. Daraa is where the Syrian government has attempted to cut a town off of all means of communication with the outside world. Daraa is emblematic of the vile, fermenting injustice that has been sitting pretty and untouched in the Middle East for decades. It is a traditional newsroom piety to grant every issue its “complexity” and “ambiguity,” but I speak now in black and white; Bashar al-Assad needs to go, and the United States should give the protestors whatever implements they need to succeed in their revolt, in their search for justice.

Obama promised change. Now, “change” is an ambiguous word. It could mean change from his predecessors, specifically, Bush’s aggressive foreign policy, or it could mean bringing change to the world, a world that includes Syria. Given Obama’s record, especially with his policy orientation toward Libya, he chose the latter.

Now every conflict and every action has its risks. Of course, as Ross Douthat poignantly pointed out in a column on Mubarak a few months ago, empiricism denies any single theory the privilege of being valid for all times: “But history makes fools of us all. We make deals with dictators, and reap the whirlwind of terrorism. We promote democracy, and watch Islamists gain power from Iraq to Palestine. We leap into humanitarian interventions, and get bloodied in Somalia. We stay out, and watch genocide engulf Rwanda. We intervene in Afghanistan and then depart, and watch the Taliban take over. We intervene in Afghanistan and stay, and end up trapped there, with no end in sight. Sooner or later, the theories always fail. The world is too complicated for them, and too tragic.”

The moral of this story is that, in Douthat’s words, “History has its upward arcs, but most crises require weighing unknowns against unknowns, and choosing between competing evils.” It’s time for America, whose military supremacy endows it with the responsibility of being the policeman of the world, to choose between competing evils, and the choice should be obvious.

Despite all of our problems and triumphs, domestic (debt ceiling) or beyond our borders (bin Laden finally killed), our basic necessities — food, water, clothing, shelter, Internet, our constitutional rights — are all secure; for some people a world away, those basic, fundamental rights are under attack. This is where pity and compassion comes in. It is a moral necessity for the strong to protect the weak, and nowhere in the world are there people weaker than those being slaughtered in Daraa.

Free Syria. Down with Bashar al-Assad.

Yichao Hao is a first-year economics major. He can be reached at haoy1@uci.edu.