Republished from Insufficient Respect 1 May 2013 by Michael Neumann. I have added the bold highlighting:
Many reasons are given for supporting either the Syrian revolution or the units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). But while there is sympathy for the Syrian people, hardly ever do those reasons speak to or from Syrian needs. Instead the appeal is to the quite narrow interests of others, always in negative terms: not supporting the FSA will encourage Islamic extremism, invite a regional conflagration, squander opportunities to 'have a say in Syria's future'(!), counter-productively encourage uncontrolled arms proliferation, leave a legacy of anti-Western sentiment in Syria. Syrians are essentially seen either as a menace, or as weaklings likely incapable of countering some menace in their midst.
Of course the idea here is that solid reasons can only rest on hard-headed realism, not sloppy sentiment. But there may be at least two other reasons rooted in a less myopic assessment of the situation. They invoke principles and large historical opportunities - which does not distinguish them from the sort of 'higher' motives that in fact drive a good deal of political activity. They do have implications for the whole world, but they originate not only in the interests but also in the achievements of the Syrian people and their revolution One reason is 'negative', the other, positive.
The negative reason has to do with what Syrians suffer.
It's taken me a while to realize that most people probably don't really know the full extent of Assad's cruelties, or how they compare to the cruelty we know has been inflicted in so many times and places. It's not the sort of material that makes the front pages. An appendix to this post gives some details. For several reasons, none solely sufficient but in combination decisive, the horrors of Syria have unique significance.
First there is the sheer barbarism. Many régimes which have inflicted tortures perhaps as ghastly as Assad's - Chile's Pinochet and the Iran under the Shah come to mind - do not quite match his barbarism for one simple reason: Assad's tortures are not confined to adults, much less to those who have ever posed any threat, but also to children not into their teens. The torture of injured people in their hospital beds, and of medical staff, is also very unusual. Sometimes victims are tortured in order to reveal information, or at least to admit to something, whether or not they did it. Often they are simply tortured to death, simply to have them die in agony.
Second there is the scale of it. Those tortured run into the tens, perhaps the hundreds of thousands. Multiple deaths under torture are reported almost daily. Perhaps as many suffered in Cambodia, or Rwanda, or the Congo; no figures are available.
In practicing such spare-no-one savagery on so vast a scale, Assad has had very few rivals - perhaps Saddam Hussein. But in Syria there's another dimension to the nightmare - and it's no less significant for being less brutally tangible. Never before have such atrocities been not only so visible, but so close to what might be called the mainstream world.
The torturers 'get' Twitter and Facebook. They often record their torture sessions, down to death and mutilation, on their cell phones. When the perpetrators are captured, these videos get onto Youtube. In a world civilization that practically defines itself through its exposure on digital media, this sort of shamelessly public sadism gains a prominence unique in modern history.
Because Syria's atrocities are so open to the world - so much a part of that world - the failure to support the Syrian resistance is no mere strategic error. Though history almost seems a succession of moral failures, this one is special.
Other evils, the mainstream world could ignore or minimize or pretend to ignore. Not this one. Nor can some ideology or reason of state be invoked as even a partial explanation or excuse. Syria is not important enough to be strategically or economically key. Assad is no longer a useful ally to anyone, and his régime represents neither a cause nor the pursuit of any ideal. Indeed no cause can be invoked to support him. If the type and scale of these cruelties are not worth opposing with determination and ferocity, what is? What sort of justice or benevolence - for anyone - can be worth pursuing if this evil is not worth confronting?
The world's cowardice and passivity in the face of these crimes brings the mainstream political order into irredeemable disrepute. No one can assess the consequences of this failure, but it's hard to imagine anything much less than a definitive loss of stature for every mainstream principle and every institution dedicated to uphold them, from the UN to the International Court of Justice to NATO and the whole panoply of apparently useless human rights organizations. Here is an outcome whose dangers go far beyond such bogeymen as extreme Islamists, sectarian warfare, stray weapons or regional destabilization. The danger, though occasioned by Syria's agonies, is of the mainstream world's own making. It will probably exceed by far whatever Syrians could possibly do to others.
In short, the refusal to support the Syrian revolution exposes the uselessness of every political entity - every nation, every court, every assembly, every movement, every human-rights outfit - supposedly out to civilize the world. If that sounds extreme, ask yourself by what date you'd expect these worthy institutions to protect us from savage repression. You might also ask how long it will take to forget so prolonged and public a failure.
But there is also a 'positive' reason rooted in what the Syrian revolution represents.
If it prevails, the Syrian uprising will be the first truly popular revolt to succeed since 1789 - the first since the dawn of the industrial age. Unlike the Russian or Chinese or Vietnamese or Cuban revolutions, it is not the design or possession of some élite vanguard. Unlike the 19th century revolutions of Italy or Latin America, it did not coalesce around the leadership of, quite literally, a man on horseback. It did not arise under the aegis of a military hero like Turkey's Kemal Ataturk. Unlike the Tunisian revolt, it did not succeed because the régime collapsed. Unlike the Libyan revolution, it did not rely on outside participation. Unlike the Egyptian revolution, it did not leave much of the old order in place, so that nothing happens without at least the passive approval of the armed forces.
When people go on about the disunity of the opposition, they haven't considered this difference. Usually you speak of disunity in reference to something once united - a movement, a party, a state. And normally, that's what you find when there is a revolution. But no one tut-tutted that the French Revolution 'lacked unity'. Like the Syrian revolution, that was a spontaneous uprising whose very disunity testified to the depth and breath of its roots.
This is no mere historical oddity. It is proof of something quite unexpected: that a people, starting with nothing, can prevail against a tyrannous modern state with as large and sophisticated a repressive apparatus and any tyrant could desire. The key component of this proof is the courage of the Syrian people. That too exceeds anything previously encountered: never before have civilians refused to be cowed by such widespread cruelty, such firepower, and such slaughter.
The Syrian revolution brings new hope to the world, and therefore demands wholehearted, unqualified support. Unqualified support does not mean heedless support. It does not preclude resolve to address the very real dangers such a revolution poses. Of course supporters also must be ready to work against sectarian infighting and other forms of extremist violence, both in Syria itself and beyond. But these dangers must be countered in any case. These frightening possibilities should blind no one to the compelling obligation, not to sit on the sidelines, but to help that revolution succeed.