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An Open Letter on Syria to Western Narcissists

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On the eve of what seem to be ineluctable strikes on Syria, I've been struggling with what my position on Syria should be. Before I get to that though, I should say that while I'm not Syrian, I too have some skin in the game, as it were. On our way to donate blood for a friend's mother's surgery last month, my wife got a call from a friend telling us to avoid the neighborhood of Bir al-Abed in Beirut's southern suburbs, since there had just been a large explosion there. At Bahman Hospital, my wife and baby daughter and I saw ambulances speeding toward us carrying those who had just been wounded. And a few days after I'd left for southern Turkey to conduct interviews with Syrians who had fled the war in their homes, I found out that a car bomb had just gone off a few blocks from my mother in law's home in the "Hezbollah stronghold" of Rweiss. It kills me that my daughter has heard the sound of a car bomb before her first birthday.

Extended family from Yarmouk, the Palestinian camp outside Damascus, have been displaced and are forced to seek refuge yet again in Lebanon, a country that doesn't want them. And even now, we're making plans for what might happen if the impending strikes on Syria fuel an escalation in Lebanon, where living in the southern suburbs can get you killed if there's a war with Israel. And yet all of this pales in comparison to what my Syrian friends continue to go through on a daily basis.

All that to say that the current conflict in Syria isn't just of academic interest to me; it's personal as well. This is partially why I have so little patience for some of the rhetoric I've been seeing from Western leftist circles, where this conflict seems like nothing more than a rhetorical bludgeon for scoring ideological points. This has been illustrated by the passing around of an article by Robert Fisk, who asks, "Does Obama know he's fighting on al Qaeda's side?" This lazy and facile opinion piece assures us that if the U.S. attacks Syria, then "the United States will be on the same side as al Qaeda." It is the flip side of the rhetoric that was so evident in the run-up to war in Iraq that equated any opposition to an idiotic war with support for Saddam Hussein. Well, guess what? There are lots of perfectly fine opinions that might put you on the same side as al Qaeda. Just to name one: if you're against drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, as I am, then you're also "on the same side as al Qaeda" according to this logic.

This is the caricature of knee-jerk leftism, where everything is always and everywhere about the United States. The narcissism of such a position boggles the mind. In such an ideological stance it's not enough to be critical of Washington's actions and motivations, as well we should be, it is necessary to parrot the talking points of Washington's enemies. (The same phenomenon can be seen in certain Islamophobic and right-wing circles.) In this narrative, the militarization of the uprising in Syria was an American plan, not a foreseeable reaction to a brutally violent crackdown on a predominately peaceful opposition movement by the security forces of the Ba'ath regime. This conflict is, so the argument goes, a creation of Washington, and perhaps Riyadh, and the opposition is made up of only of blood-thirsty sectarian Islamists who are generally seen as but tools of malicious statecraft. Such a narrative, of course, denies the agency of Syrians, seeing them as so many lifeless puppets waiting for a tug from the imperialist American hand.

This is why discussions of Syria in such quarters tend not to be discussions of Syria. They're actually discussions of "American capitalism" or "American imperialism" -- take your pick. So let me be clear: if your opinion of Syria is actually an opinion about the United States, I have no interest in hearing it, and it's probably safe to say that most Syrians (or at least all of the ones I know) who are faced with the business end of the regime's ordinance don't either. I can't think of a single Syrian who's willing to get killed so you can flaunt your anti-imperialist street cred from the comfort of your local coffee shop.

Lest I be accused of shilling for American intervention here, let me set a few things straight. In addition to endangering my family's lives, the proposed "punitive strikes" that are all but inevitable probably won't make anything better on the ground, and may make things worse, which is why I'm against them. My opinion on American intervention in general and in this conflict in particular (about which more in a subsequent post) is that the U.S. is not to be trusted to act in anything but what it sees as its interests, and often a woefully short-sighted understanding of those interests to boot. So no, Washington does not really care about those children killed last week in a chemical attack, just as it didn't care about the Iranians or Kurds killed in previous ones. Consequently, my feeling is that a vicious, and viciously short-sighted, realpolitik in Washington would probably like nothing better than to let its enemies fight indefinitely in Syria, burning the country to the ground as they do so.

But please, don't let the conflict in Syria be about opposing America. Let it be about Syria, and what might actually help Syrians -- you know, the actually existing people who are dying by the tens of thousands in this brutal war. But if you can't do that, then do me a favor, and please shut up.

Sean Lee is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University, where he researches communal violence and civil war in the Levant and Central Africa. He blogs at humanprovince.wordpress.com, where this post originally appeared.