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Syria and the Glass Bead Game

As the civil war in Syria has unfolded over the last two and half years while I’ve been teaching general humanities courses in Ankara, the one question I’ve heard most often from students cued into the conflict is, “what business does America have in Syria?”  It is an interesting question that, oddly, has not gotten the press it deserves.  Our media has instead focused on a debate over the ramifications of various potential actions and inactions, treating Syria’s civil war as a case study for a seminar in consequentialist ethics.  This may be a rare occasion to visit the vantage point of the reflexively cynical, in the hope that it might show us something we’ve overlooked.

An answer to the question of “what business” America has in Syria might begin with recently tapped oil and natural gas reserves, with the contentious regional politics of natural gas pipelines, with the strategic importance of isolating Iran or forcing the Russians to find another market for their weapons industry.  It might take in Syria’s still relatively statist economy, recalling that both Iraq and Serbia also differed considerably from the post-Cold War neoliberal consensus on the eve of the USA’s respective attacks on those two countries.  On that front it might recount what Naomi Klein explained to us about how the US occupying force under L. Paul Bremer wrote “free-trade” and privatization laws for Iraq almost as soon as Saddam was overthrown, thus solidifying the position of multinational corporations and of finance capital in shaping the economic landscape of a new Middle East.  And while we’re at it, it might even be worthwhile revisiting Alexander Coburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, who found a similar calculus at work behind the sainted Kosovo intervention.  Given Washington’s track record on these matters it is not unlikely that such a market-opening project may be underway in Syria, demonstrating in the most unexpected fashion that hegemony in the Middle East is not only about oil.

Whatever our assessment of America’s business, it is worth pondering why such assessments always seem beside the point, a mere footnote to the far more important question, namely “what should we do?”  In the public discussion of whether or not to go to war, suspicions concerning ulterior motives strike most of us as nagging distractions from the far more urgent task of determining what, in these circumstances, is our Duty.  The revisionists may well have a point, we concede, but we’ll leave that to history to decide; now, we must act.

Citizens of the modern West like to think of themselves as transparent ethical subjects whose involvement in the surrounding world begins the moment some problem needs to be solved.  We are like glass prisms surveying the surface of Earth for an unresolved crisis into which we can send the laser-sharp refractions of our moral judgment.  Though we always arrive regrettably late on the scene—this being the price we pay for maintaining the status of dispassionate observer—we at least are unstained by the biases, the tribal belongings, the self-interested factionalism of the other contestants: free, that is, of what we might call the original sin of involvement.

No doubt this pretense of impartiality stems at least in part from the Enlightenment, an experiment that constitutes all that we have and which we would discard at our own peril.  Nonetheless, it can be instructive to recall that the glass-house of Western self-righteousness—abode of Bushes and Chomskys alike—is not the only habitat for human thought, and that sometimes we can learn something about ourselves from the people who don’t live there.

However much one may want to take anecdotal accounts of cultural difference with a grain of salt, I can’t help noticing that the geopolitical view from nowhere is a lot less of a default position for the discussion of these matters in Turkey than it is among my friends from North America and Europe.  Both in conversation and in the comment sections of newspapers here, I have very often come across a sentiment that I find hard to imagine coming from the mouths of many aspiring American world-savers or the moralizing Europeans who upbraid them: “I really can’t blame America, it’s just acting in its own national interest,” or “Obama is acting is in the best interest of his own country, but Erdoğan is not serving Turkey’s interests.  This is the difference between Obama and Erdoğan, alas.”  (I have even seen it in reference to Turkey’s long-running armed conflict with the PKK, in the form of newspaper headlines marveling at the national spirit and solidarity of those Kurds and then wondering why Turkey, allegedly, can’t display the same qualities). The underlying assumption, that the job of a state is to pursue the interests of its own population, renders claims of “humanitarian intervention” prima facie untrustworthy.  What business does America have in Syria?  Once one has grasped the clarity of this viewpoint, it seems bizarre that we in the western chattering class appear not to share it.

I think that many on the Left have underestimated the danger of buying into the way western media has presented the Syrian conflict from the serenity of its glass enclosure.  Here is this beleaguered country, very far away from us, where everyone is slaughtering each other, apparently at the behest of an embattled dictator, and the only question for us is whether we or not we try to do something about it—where “we” are the western powers who get to jump in at a critical point and save the day, or not. What I think is going on in Syria is rather different: a proxy war between, on the one side, the USA and its Sunni allies in the region (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, to some extent Jordan) and on the other Russia and Iran. Both power blocks are already heavily invested in this proxy war, providing funding, weaponry and training to the two sides, both of which have committed terrible atrocities.  There has been a lot of investigative journalism in Turkey on this front, and recently more of these stories have been trickling out into the international press.

Rather than launch an attack or invasion that would only lead to greater destruction and which would necessarily aim to further the geopolitical interests of the invading power, it would be better, both ethically and possibly also in terms of self-interest, for the states officially or unofficially sponsoring this war to work out a compromise—which by necessity would not be fully pleasing to either party—and then try to enforce it by cutting off arms, money and other support to the fighters on the ground. Such a diplomatic action is not certain to work, but I think it is the best chance for a resolution at this point.  I hope our respective leaders will try it, even if the messages broadcast from their brief St. Petersburg summit did not bode so well for such a diplomatic project.  It is still possible that the real diplomacy is taking place elsewhere, and that those ships entering the Eastern Mediterranean will turn out to have been bargaining chips.  One might as well be optimistic.  After all, what more can we do?  We are not the “deciders.”