Autocracy, Democracy, Theocracy: Reclaiming the Middle Ground in Syria

Author: Andrew Gripp
Created: 13 March, 2015
Updated: 21 November, 2022
4 min read

In London, to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the Syrian Revolution, activists will march from Hyde Park to Downing Street on Saturday, March 14. This protest is intended not only to remind a distracted and jaded West about the horrors taking place on a daily basis in Syria, where the death toll has surpassed 200,000, but also to demand concrete action.

The marchers' vision is clear: "a peaceful, democratic Syria: a Syria without Assad and a Syria without ISIS."

To the public, this vision rings quixotic: "Who else is there in Syria?" one might ask. But this reaction is an index not of the true military situation on the ground, or of the genuine possibility of such an outcome, but of the successful propaganda of the Syrian regime.

In a recent interview, Jeremy Bowen asked Syrian President Bashar al-Assad about his intention to "eliminate the middle ground" and create a "false choice" between his rule (autocracy) or the reign of terrorists (theocracy) to project legitimacy domestically and internationally. Assad responded by invoking the words of President Obama, who called the existence of a moderate opposition a "fantasy."

If the West has swallowed this propaganda about an absent middle ground in Syria, it certainly has its leaders to blame.

These leaders have repeatedly betrayed promises to punctually arm the moderate opposition, attended insincere, bad faith peace talks whose effects have been to enhance Assad's legitimacy and prolong the violence, and even occasionally denied the moderate opposition's existence and integrity (President Obama also dismissively referred to the Free Syrian Army as a motley crew of farmers, pharmacists, and dentists).

In other words, Assad's rhetorical and military strategy to create this false choice between autocracy and theocracy (including through the deliberate release of jihadists from prison to purposefully radicalize, contaminate, and delegitimize the moderate opposition) is working.

Nevertheless, statements about a disorganized, powerless, or non-existent middle ground in Syria are belied by empirical evidence, including the actions and statements of President Obama's own administration.

In 2013, the CIA began sending weaponry to brigades allied with the Free Syrian Army (whose "Proclamation of Principles" is avowedly liberal, democratic, and pluralistic), and in early 2015, the State Department boasted of its generous supply of non-lethal assistance to, well, "the moderate opposition."

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Indeed, despite the CIA's spotty funding of approved brigades allied with the FSA and the Pentagon's paltry military assistance (one such brigade received an average of just 16 bullets per fighter according to the Wall Street Journal), the moderate opposition has been surprisingly resilient. In the last few weeks, it has weathered a major offensive in the strategically invaluable Quneitra-Daraa-Damascus "triangle of death" in the southern theater, and in February 2015, speaking on behalf of the Syrian National Coalition – the political arm of the moderate opposition – military leader Maj. Gen. Salim Idriss announced a plan to unite 60,000 fighters into "one national army."

In other words, those who are skeptical of Western intervention in Syria have the cause-and-effect backwards: it is not that we should abstain because there is little or no moderate opposition to support; it is rather because of our confused, inconsistent, and limited assistance that the moderate opposition, despite its endurance, is so weak. Throughout the conflict, the failure of the West to arm the opposition has caused thousands of rebels to defect to the better armed, more radical groups.

If Syria is to have anything like peace – let alone freedom and prosperity -- then it will involve a refusal to accept that there is no "middle ground" in Syria, a middle ground that is disappearing because of the West's own pusillanimity, if not its exhaustion and guilt. Who hasn't heard at some point that the U.S. should not get involved in another "Mideast conflict" or a civil war in "a Muslim country"?

But these reactions are propaganda of our own making, too. It is not neoconservative hubris or cultural imperialism to fight for a democratic and secular Syria – much less to wish for it. Just think of the female Kurdish pesh merga fighters – every bit as Muslim – who, with American air support, are reclaiming territory from ISIS in a fight for a democratic and semi-autonomous Kurdistan, or listen to the Iraqis like former MP Ayad Jamal al-Din who are now openly and defiantly calling for secularism, adherence to "man-made" law, and even a confrontation with the doctrinal origins of violent Islam.

Recognizing, praising, and supporting figures like these is essential to recovering the embattled middle ground in Syria and across the Muslim world, where the West so often ignores the voices of democrats and embraces the false choice between autocracy and theocracy.

The marchers in London have other ideas, too. In addition to encouraging Western countries to embrace Syrian refugees, this weekend they will call on the West to establish a no-fly zone over Syria and to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 2139, passed in 2013, which calls for an end to all attacks on civilians, the free flow of humanitarian assistance, and "a transition that enables [Syrians] independently and democratically to determine their own future."

These are reasonable demands that do not require anything like a Normandy-like invasion and are redolent of successful Western interventions in the Balkans and at Mount Sinjar. Britons and those living in the West should repeat and amplify them so that Western governments take notice and seriously consider a concerted effort to move Syria into an ISIS-free, post-Assad era.

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