The Debate on Syria

Not too long ago, if one wanted to get into a debate about Syrian politics, there was really only one place to go: Joshua Landis’s Syria Comment blog, where I cut my teeth as a thread-lurker. The site’s comment boards played host to an international fraternity of political junkies: Arab nationalists, SSNP pan-Syrianists, Lebanese resistance supporters and regime haters, Israeli hawks and doves, menhebbakjiyyeh avant la lettre, etc.

Today, Syria Comment is still going strong, but there are so many other places to get into an argument about Syrian politics. There’s an op-ed about Syria in a major newspaper pretty much every day alongside a flood of nonstop coverage on the wires and cable news channels, plus an explosion of personal commentary in the blogosphere, Twitter, and Facebook. Suddenly, everyone seems to be talking about Syria, and the range of opinions and perspectives is dizzying.

The trouble is, the conversation is sounding less and less like a debate, and more like a collection of stump speeches. Twitter’s 140 character limit and Facebook’s “Like” button create a rhetorical economy that rewards ringing slogans and absurd overstatements rather than measured reflections. In this environment, there is less incentive to start a conversation with someone you disagree with, and so the exchanges tend to be full of back-slapping and hear-hear-ing by fellow travelers, rather than serious give-and-take.

I thought I’d try to do something different here. The idea is to cajole several friends and acquaintances who are writing on Syria these days into joining a conversation. These include, but are not limited to: Camille-Alexandre Otrakji, Joshua Landis, Robin Yassin-Kassab, Randa Slim, Bilal Saab, Rime Allaf, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, Sharmine Narwani, Andrew Tabler, Emile Hokayem, Michael Young, Andrew Exum, Nadim Shehadi, Bassam Haddad, As`ad Abu Khalil, Blake Hounshell, Sean Lee, Steven Heydemann, Marc Lynch, Mustapha Hamoui, Nick Noe, David Kenner, Maysaloon, Ehsani, Off The Wall, Jiim-Siin, and others. The point of departure will be Foreign Policy‘s recent round-table of articles entitled, “What the Hell Should We Do About Syria?” How convinced are you by any of the solutions/perspectives put forward? What would you have proposed instead? Is there a role for outside powers (the UN, the Arab League, Russia, China, etc.) to play in Syria?

I am not under any illusion that everyone will join this conversation, but if I can convince a half dozen friends who disagree with each other but are willing to do so in a respectful and productive manner, maybe this will be interesting. As people join the conversation, I will paste links to their most recent commentaries below.

Let the games begin!

Commentary by debate participants


219 thoughts on “The Debate on Syria

  1. Ya Gabriel

    I’m starting to realize how impossible it is to communicate with humans.

    You really think I believe “the people” love the regime? … “the people” implies ALL the people. Why did I do that bell curve shape in my article which shows a whole spectrm including those who would love to kill Bashar?

    And did I say success = going back to 2010?

    or “souria allah hamia”?


    Less ambitious goals can be agreed during dialogue between the regime’s side and the opposition’s side. I would not propose what it should be. I would just hope they televise it so that the people can judge if the regime or the opposition act in a non constructive manner.

    Posted by Camille Alexandre Otrakji | June 7, 2012, 4:43 pm
  2. Alex,

    Would you agree to the talks taking place in Europe under UN supervision?

    Why would you not propose what the compromise should be? How would you judge who is constructive or not if you don’t have some idea what the compromise should be?

    I don’t think these kind of negotiations can lead anywhere because the complete lack of trust between the two sides and because the power differences in Syria. Also, negotiating while fighting almost always doesn’t work. You need some cease fire that sticks first. And of course, you need some united opposition to negotiate with, and it is not clear that one is available.

    So while I think your idea is a good one in principle, it is not realistic to implement.

    Posted by AIG | June 7, 2012, 5:06 pm
  3. Camille,

    I didn’t understand a word of what you just wrote. You wrote the axioms. And you are the one who defined the “axioms” of the most staunch regime supporters.

    I contest those axioms, because as I wrote, the ship has sailed. Some from the other side- who might or might not be you- does not have Success as going back to 2010 as an option. In fact, it is not an option. Not after this whole year of events!

    So I think that any communication must begin with a sound set of axioms and expectations.

    PS- Your bell curve is not really relevant. You are focussing on details that are clouding the bigger issues at play. There is one way that Assad can solve this once and for all, and that is: hold a referendum in Syria to tell us whether or not the majority of Syrians want him (and this referendum can be monitored by UN observers)!

    While I may respect the fact that you know the pulse of the Syrian street a little better than some others here, it remains to be seen whether or not your bell curve is realistic or not. Nothing like a polling station to sort that out.

    Posted by Gabriel | June 7, 2012, 5:25 pm
  4. Gabriel

    1) “You wrote the axioms”? … I also wrote about how Salafis think, does thin mean I am responsible for Salafi ideology? I was simply describing to you a mirror image of the group here. The types that revolutionaries sarcastically call “Men7ebbakjoieh” … the ones I called in my article “emotional support” group for Assad.

    I am type 2 in that graph. I have a preference for reforming “the regime” over the set that calls itself “the opposition”.

    2) Of course there is nothing like a polling station to find out exactly (well, not really exactly) the mean and media of the Bell curve of support/opposition to Assad, but I would like to clarify two points

    – The bell shape of the curve is the only real possible distribution in this case.
    – As I wrote in the article .. you are welcome to shift the mean (center of gravity) of that distribution curve to the right (more support for Assad) or to the left (more opposition to Assad) depending on how you like to imagine the majorities, as long as you agree that none of KNOW or makes statements that imply we KNOW what the Syrian people want.

    If the distribution was not a bell curve and you want to imply that most Syrians are supporters of the revolution, you will end up with a decaying exponential cure like this one

    This is not real … when you have large numbers (over 30 million Syrians, inside and outside) you cannot have that discontinuity at the left side. It implies that in reality if a more negative option/answer in a survey was presented, most people would have chosen that dramatically negative opinion … for example that would be “do you think Bashar and Asma and their children should be cut into pieces and burned on national television?”

    The bell shape of the curve is not my opinion, where I suggest the mean and variance (spread, variability) in that bell shape is my opinion, and I surely can not and did not imply I KNOW where it falls. But it is not “a detail” as you suggest … it is essential to replace “the Syrian people” term that most of you keep assuming and implying.

    Again … Presidential elections in Egypt are a proof that even for non popular Mubarak, even for Egypt that had no more territorial claims against Israel … even for Egypt where religious fears are much less relevant compared to Syria, leftist liberals turned out to be a minority compared to religious conservatives and pro-regime Egyptians.

    So, please be humble about knowing and making that bold “the Syrian people” assumption when you analyze Syria.

    Posted by Camille Alexandre Otrakji | June 8, 2012, 1:14 am
  5. Camille @1:14 on June8 said:

    “(in Egypt) leftist liberals turned out to be a minority compared to religious conservatives and pro-regime Egyptians. So, please be humble about knowing and making that bold “the Syrian people” assumption when you analyze Syria.”

    But we do know that all of them were opposed to Mubarak. The same is true of Syria, there are many factiones and each has its ultimate goals but it seems that the people are united in an immediate goal; the removal of the yoke of Baathist dictatorship. Could it be that you are the one who is misreading the Syrian people? The 30 of 15 months ago have evolved, according to your own calculations to become 8-9 million. In a few months from now you might be force to change these wrong estimtes to be 15-18 million if not more once the Syrians abroad are counted.

    BTW, one can speak clearly only about his/her own axioms. A description of somebody elses axioms is pure guess work.

    Posted by ghassan karam | June 8, 2012, 7:38 am
  6. Camile-

    Re-read what I wrote above. It still stands.

    PS- the Egyptian analogy perhaps can shed some light. Shafiq does not come out to the Egyptian public tooting Mubarak’s horn! He would be lynched. If “Shafiq” represents- as you would have it- the support that pro-Regime forces “still” enjoy in Egypt.. he would not be conductiing his love for Mubarak in such a closeted way!

    So my point stands. Whether or not you “believe” those axioms. Whether you are 1 Part this set of Axioms and a 2nd Part set of Axioms. Whether or not you are 3 or 4 or 2 or 10 on the Bell Curve. It doesn’t change the underlying point, and that is: For the Hardcore Regime supporters… Enough has happened over the last year that mean that talk of “going back to 2010 style “stability” is a non-starter.. and they should purge that notion from their arguments .

    Posted by Gabriel | June 8, 2012, 7:43 am
  7. If there are any sadists amongst the followers of this debate (I know we are all masochists) they may enjoy seeing me being lynched as the only bad guy on the panel asking for intervention in this Frontline Club debate on Syria two days ago.

    Posted by Nadim Shehadi | June 8, 2012, 8:55 am
  8. A statistic for all the statisticians on this blog.

    Highest viewed topics of all time on FPM’s forum:

    1) Situation in Syria : 918,000 views
    2) Metn Elections 2009 : 444,000 views
    3) Lebanese Security Situation: 335,000 views

    **As compared to:**

    Egypt People Revolution: 186,500 views
    Unrest in Libya: 104,400 views

    Posted by Monolith | June 8, 2012, 9:14 am
  9. Thanks for sharing this, Nadim.

    At least you got the last word.

    Posted by Monolith | June 8, 2012, 11:49 am
  10. Nadim,
    When your fellow panelists were busy repeating hackneyed descriptions of the Syrian problem you presented a description and a possible solution based on reason and on attacking the problem at its root, those who are the problem cannot be part of the solution. Good show.

    Posted by ghassan karam | June 8, 2012, 12:23 pm
  11. Nadim and GK,

    The debate keeps reminding me of this fable:

    Posted by AIG | June 8, 2012, 1:49 pm
  12. AIG,
    Thanks for the link about this fable. It is new to me but I love it. There are a few policies tat are adopted but without a plan for implementation. I guess that these examples will also apply to this situation. The latest such example is that giving the vote to the Lebanese overseas but only if they show up in person to the few embassies 🙂

    Posted by ghassan karam | June 8, 2012, 1:57 pm
  13. Nadim:

    Will get around to listening the debate a little later- thanks in advance- however, just as an aside remark, debates are not always lynchings, even if they feel that way.

    Posted by Gabriel | June 8, 2012, 2:59 pm
  14. Here is Michael Young’s very important and valuable contribution to the debate on Syria:

    It will be interesting to see what Michael Young will make of the private emails of Saad Hariri and his entourage, if ever they were leaked.

    Posted by Monolith | June 8, 2012, 5:49 pm
  15. I liked what Dr Rim Turkmani said in the panel, that the International community focused more on how to harm the regime rather than how to help the people. It sounded rational and ethical.
    But if I may, how long can the UN, the international community, the Syrian opposition or any coalition that has a vested interest in protecting civilians endure while the regime is still well and truly alive. I don’t believe the massacres, the chaos, and the violence will stop until the dictatorship has ended, because as far as the Syrian society is concerned, the uprising that started a year and a half ago was the dramatic out pouring of a decades long suppression. For Syrians, it started way way back and now the bottle top has popped.
    How can things go back to normal diplomatically? There is no political solution short of a complete dismantling of the regime and its tentacles in the institutions, the school text books, the media and every aspect of daily life.
    It is closer to Paris 1787,with a genuine revolution demanding change but the longer it goes on,with these sick massacres, the more it will become like Lebanon 1975 or Iraq. Something Nadim alluded to in his introduction at the Frontline club debate.

    Posted by Maverick | June 8, 2012, 8:15 pm
  16. POSTED BY QIFA NABKI | JUNE 7, 2012, 11:34 AM

    “Could I interrupt this broadcast for a moment to say that you guys and gals all rock?

    Yes this has been a 7iwar tourshan at times but all conversations about difficult political issues are usually like that and this one has been very civil in comparison.

    New post coming this afternoon but pls keep this discussion going.

    Elias / QN”

    100% Lebanese Salesman!

    I swear … ! This afternoon !

    Posted by Monolith | June 8, 2012, 9:37 pm
  17. Nadim,

    In all honesty, I think you came off to the rest of the panel and the attendees as someone who seems to think he’s the only one who has read a John Le Care novel in his youth and that the Brits, Russians, Chinese and the Germans are green behind their ears.

    You also seem to think that John Le Care is widely popular and well read in rural Syria?

    At least you were honest enough to admit that you are a coward and need GI Joe to save ass.

    Posted by Monolith | June 8, 2012, 10:11 pm
  18. Nadim-

    Thanks for the link. The debate was very good. And it’s good to see all you intelligent folk are discussing the same issues.

    I certainly sympathize and agree with your argument- I supported intervention in Iraq at the time- and even before Desert Storm. I may even sympathize with intervention in this case.

    One issue I have with the Camille/Reem line of argument is the persistent insistence that they are not Pro-Regime. That they too want this Regime to go, but in the same breath, say that the only ‘effective’ way of doing this is to keep the Regime in a shared power situation.

    But where you fail to make a persuasive argument is that your analysis completely disregards geopolitical interests. I don’t know if “disregard” is the correct word. Perhaps you’ve given the point attention, and don’t think that Russian/Iranian/Chinese interests will influence how they behave. If so, I didn’t hear you address those points.

    The fact that a low level war is taking place now- means that whether Syria is 100 Afghanistans or not, it can become one if geopolitics encourage it to go in that direction. What clout Assad has in the country is at least partially related to funds/support from places like Iran.

    In that sense, i feel the strategy or thought process is not completely ironed out.

    Posted by Gabriel | June 9, 2012, 12:46 am
  19. I Was a lurker for a long time. The problem in Syria as in other places in the ME is that there is no school master any more. The children can fight to the bitter, very bitter, end.
    In such mixture of groups every so often a friction will start or a local leader have become just too much and people will start fighting. It is so since at least the Bronze Age as we see in El Amarna tablets. Then an out side power “Big Power” will come and by force make peace. The question is the amount of force and the timing, In general a clever external force will appear very soon and use as little force as possible. The Turks were the power befor last and then after 1920 the European powers.There is no such power now. These who could come will not do it any more for many reason. But without such untervention it will be very bad fefore it will be just bad.

    Posted by Rani Hazbabi | June 9, 2012, 12:32 pm

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