Did the West Crush the Arab Spring in Syria?

Kerry_Martin_Movements_Org_2.pngThis article was written for the site Movements.org, a forum for crowdsourcing human rights and opening closed societies. Thanks to Movements’ partnership with The Huffington Post, I have edited foreign writers’ articles and written a couple of my own to call attention to human rights and refugee issues in the Middle East and Africa. This piece is based on a Movements post by a Syrian contributor, but Movements was unable to publish it at this time; I post it here with their permission.


US Marines cover the face of a statue of Saddam Hussein with an American flag before toppling it in downtown in Bagdhad Wednesday, April 9, 2003. (Source: AP, Jerome Delay) (Featured image source: AP, Narciso Contreras)

In the years after 9/11, Western foreign policy–US foreign policy in particular–had a brand name: democratization. Fifteen years later, Western foreign policy remains inextricable from the Middle East and North Africa, yet democratization has taken a back seat to countering terrorism and promoting stable, effective governance.

There are several theories for this divestment in democratization. Some say that the persistent violence and insecurity in Iraq and Afghanistan, which both held democratic elections, demonstrated that the democracy objective was misplaced. Some say that Obama’s controversial “Don’t do stupid sh**” foreign policy has restrained US capacity to nation-build. But another theory, perhaps more popular among Syrians than Westerners, claims that what restrained and arguably reversed our strategy of democratization in the Middle East was just that: democratization in the Middle East.

The so-called Arab Spring of 2011 so shocked Western leaders and scholars because they had struggled for years to implement democracy in a region that now seemed to demand it. Politically, this seemed like a jackpot: Western powers were quick to cash in their chips by voicing support of Arab reformers. Obama addressed these reformers in a 2011 speech: “Our message is simple: If you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States.”

Syrians burn pictures of President Bashar al Assad in the early days of the revolution. (Source: The Independent)

But strategically, the Arab Spring posed a threat: this was a call for legitimate representative democracy, not another opportunity for the West to advance ulterior agendas and elect puppet leaders. Egypt’s election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi proved that the West could not co-opt this movement. The disastrous results of intervention in Libya proved that a few airstrikes and munitions could neither implement democracy nor prevent tragedy. The Arab Spring changed democratization from a Western agenda into a local experiment, and therefore a liability.

Which brings us to Syria. When Bashar al Assad answered calls for his resignation with bloodshed and brutality, Syria’s hopes for reform fell on militants, not candidates. Many soldiers seemingly loyal to democratic values formed a coalition called the Free Syrian Army (FSA). A Syrian contributor to Movements.orgsaid of the FSA’s membership: “These are a people known from the beginning of time for their moderation and for the freedom of religious belief.”

Fractured, under-resourced, and embattled by a regime with powerful allies, the FSA needed all the help it could get. So it asked the democratizers.

The scant, spotty support that the FSA received–a few late and limited munitions and trainings, dialed back with each FSA loss–left the Syrian Civil War’s most pro-democracy combatant as its weakest. The FSA’s initial momentum went unfueled, allowing Assad to dig his heels and extremist groups like the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS to thrive. This is a far cry from the weekly billions spent supporting pro-democracy forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Members of the Free Syrian Army, successors to Syria’s revolutionary spirit who have been eclipsed on the battlefield by extremist organizations. (Source: ThePolar.net)

Furthermore, some Syrians attribute this Western change of heart to the West’s strongest and wealthiest allies in the region, the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Syrian contributor to Movements.org cited above holds the Gulf States responsible for the West’s neglect of the FSA and the proliferation of terrorist organizations: “The majority of [anti-Assad Syrians] believe that Al-Nusra and ISIS were created by the West, and that the neutralization of the Free Syrian Army–which represents the civilian government–was done by the West in order to please the Gulf countries.”

Given that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided more support for the FSA than perhaps any other countries, this may appear a bold claim. But the FSA’s weakness despite persistent Gulf State support demands interrogation.

Despite concluding that the Arab Spring uprisings posed a threat to their existence, Gulf regimes reluctantly lent support to the FSA, in the name of “lifting injustices” from fellow Muslims (but mostly to threaten Assad’s ally and the Saudis’ arch-nemesis, Iran). When groups like Al Nusra and ISIS arose as effective opponents to Assad unlikely to inspire democratic revolution, cloudy Gulf money found its way to their coffers. (Officially, all Gulf States deny this support.)

President Obama hosts the Gulf Cooperation Council at Camp David in May 2015. (Source: NYTimes.com)

By the time the US began seriously debating intervention in Syria, it would have required a costly campaign alongside the FSA, a bold, audacious stand for democracy, as opposed to a foreign policy maneuver branded as democratization. The Gulf States would support no such stand, and the West, ever thirsty for Gulf exports, remained seated.

Hence, the idea of a democratic transition in Syria has become darkly laughable, and the FSA has become an afterthought to the war’s major combatants (and to its ongoing refugee crisis). As a result, the conflict is less manageable and the region less stable, but the Gulf regimes and their allies feel far more secure supporting sectarian terrorists than forward-looking revolutionaries.

That is what some Syrians believe; or at least, it is their best explanation of how democratization became one of the West’s lowest priorities.

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