Can We Learn From Syria?

On a humanitarian trip to Old Damascus shortly before the Syrian civil war began, I visited the ancient remains of the Roman Temple of Jupiter near the revered Umayyad Mosque.

For once, President Trump has done something I agree with: he recently decided to quietly end U.S. support for the so-called “moderate rebels” in the Syrian civil war (Washington Post July 19). It’s too soon to be sure, but it looks like the profoundly wrong and foolish covert CIA program of pouring kerosene on what is essentially a proxy war in Syria is hopefully coming to an end. We should urge our Saudi allies to end their involvement as well.
U.S. intervention has played a key role in so much of the destabilization of the Middle East. I’ve begun to loose track: how many regime changes in the Middle East in recent decades has our country been involved in by now? There was the overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Iran in the 1950’s which still fuels Iranian anger at the U.S., then the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, then the overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya and the chaos that followed and most recently Syria. All of these invasions have ended in disaster.
The rationale for our U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war has been that Assad is an evil dictator and we’re doing the Syrian people a favor by helping then to get rid of him. We don’t bother to ask them, but if we did, I very much suspect the people of Syria and the rest of the Middle East would earnestly beseech us, “Please don’t do us any more military favors; keep your troops at home!”
I am most definitely not an apologist for Bashar Al Assad or the horrors that he has committed, but we should note that the Syrian people as a whole have clearly stayed with him. I visited Syria five times on humanitarian missions before the current war and my guess is that they were more afraid of what would happen if he left than if he had stayed. As the old saying goes, they clearly preferred the devil that they know rather than the devil they don’t.
Can we learn from this? The lessons are clear:
–Regime change by the U.S. in another country is morally wrong. Period.
–A major result of the civil war in Syria has been the worst refugee disaster since World War II with half — HALF — of Syria’s population displaced either inside or outside the country.
–And then what? Throughout all of our meddling, we’ve never been able to answer the question of what would come next if we were to manage to overthrow President Assad.
This summer I had the privilege of seeing Shakespeare in the Park’s production of Julius Caesar here in New York. The production gained a bit of notoriety for its suggestive casting of a Donald Trump-like character as Caesar who was assassinated. Actually, I don’t think that was such a great artistic idea. A much more apt imaginary casting would been Caesar as Sadaam Hussein or Moamar Qaddafi. In both Iraq and Libya we are truly seeing what happens when we think regime change will solve our problems and we “let slip the dogs of war,” as Shakespeare so memorably put it. Our overthrow of Assad would only have let loose many more “dogs of war.”
Why are we in Syria, anyway? I’m increasingly skeptical of what our government tells us its motives are for our policy in the Middle East. We surely aren’t there on humanitarian grounds to help the people of Syria. I suspect a significant part of the reason for our involvement is Israel’s fear of Iran. Thanks in significant part to the effects of our own disastrous U.S. policy, Iranian influence in the region is growing and the Israelis are feeling less secure. After all, as it is often noted, the winner of the Iraq war was Iran. And in the August 6 New York Times we learn that “Iran Gains Ground in Afghanistan As U.S. Eases Out.”
Ha’aretz, the influential Israeli newspaper, reported on July 16 ( that Prime Minister Netanyahu told reporters in Paris “that Israel opposes the cease-fire agreement in southern Syria that the United States and Russia had reached because it perpetuates the Iranian presence in the country.” The article also noted that a senior Israeli official “said Israel is aware of Iranian intensions to substantially expand its presence in Syria.” Our U.S. press seldom reminds us of another significant part of the situation: that the Golan Heights is Syrian territory which is illegally occupied by Israel for the past half century and the Syrians would very much like it back. So it would appear that Israel opposes a ceasefire in the Syrian civil war so that the fighting continues which the Israelis hope will keep Iranian influence and assistance out of Syria.
To quote from another Shakespeare in the Park play I saw this summer, “What fools these mortals be.” The most helpful thing Israel can do for its own security with its Middle East neighbors is to treat the Palestinians within its own borders justly.

Photo credit: Dr. Mazhar Rishi

Mel Lehman

Mel Lehman is the director of of Common Humanity. He has worked in international humanitarian issues for several decades, inducing two decades at the National Council of Churches. He has traveled extensively in the Middle East and has published a number of articles about his experience.