In a period of only two years, over 110,000 have perished and over six million have been displaced from their homes. And on one horrific night on August 21, over 1,000 civilians -- including hundreds of children -- were gassed to death .
As the Syrian people watch to see whether the international community will finally spring into action, we should have some more real talk on Syria's ongoing tragedy and why all of us have a personal stake in combatting state terrorism.
Syria was Designed for Revolution
After defeating the Ottoman Empire, France and Britain promptly partitioned the former Ottoman provinces into various "mandates" to be "temporarily administrated" by colonial authorities. Like much of Africa and Asia, the borders of the modern Middle East encompassed a wide variety of religious and ethnic groups who had no experience living together as citizens in a modern nation state
Just a callous oversight by criminally ignorant British and French mapmakers? Hardly. To a generation of aristocratic French and British policymakers who fervently believed in the "divinity" of their glorious empires, this was simply another manifestation of the classic colonial "divide and conquer" tactic. Four particular nations -- Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and tiny Bahrain -- best illustrate this concerted campaign of ethnic gerrymandering and geopolitical sabotage. In each country, the colonial powers selectively empowered a privileged elite amongst each of the minority communities: Sunnis in Iraq and Bahrain, Maronite Christians in Lebanon, and Alawites in Syria, who would go on to establish minoritarian regimes to protect their own narrow interests.
The consequences for the modern Middle East have been devastating. Lebanon was wracked by three decades of civil war to partially correct this imbalance, while it took a U.S. invasion for Iraq's Shia and Kurds to finally empower themselves. The protests of the Shia majority were brutally suppressed with help from thousands of Saudi and U.A.E. occupation forces with at least tacit U.S. support. The current conflict in Syria should be viewed as one of the last phases of this long-standing, broader struggle against these colonial-era minoritarian regimes.
The Role of Armed Resistance in Civil Disobedience
In 2012, I attended a forum in Washington, D.C. featuring several members of the Syrian National Council in which a SNC member regarded the Free Syrian Army as a "necessary evil," while most of the remaining SNC members rejected the role of the FSA.
One of the lasting legacies of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela's struggles has been a strong tendency to put non-violent resistance on a pedestal as the sole standard of legitimacy for all campaigns of self-determination. Having such a narrow and inflexible perspective distorts historical realities of both India and South Africa's struggle for self-determination and overlooks situation-specific circumstances of contemporary revolutions.
While the Indian National Congress were organizing strikes, marches, and other forms of non-violent resistance, freedom fighters from all walks of life waged a parallel campaign of attrition against the British colonial authorities. Likewise, after the infamous Sharpville Massacre, the African National Congress actually established a military arm which closely coordinated with the ANC's nonviolent street actions. Both the Indian and South African freedom fighters showed their oppressors that there would be a price to pay for every atrocity committed against the non-violent civilian masses, and their actions ultimately helped to convince both the British and apartheid regimes that their tyrannical rule was unsustainable.
The Syrian Revolution transformed from a campaign of nonviolent resistance to civil war when tens of thousands of Syrian soldiers and police could no longer bear to kill their own neighbors, and when ordinary civilians had no choice but to defend themselves. They united to form the Free Syrian Army as the military arm of the revolution.
Upon winning the latest edition of Arab Idol, Palestinian superstar and national hero Mohammad Assaf defined revolutionaries as "not just the one carrying the rifle, it is the paintbrush of an artist, the scalpel of a surgeon, the axe of the farmer. Everyone struggles for their cause in the way they see fit."
In a truly national revolution, every patriotic and conscientious citizen has a role -- not limited to, but certainly including -- soldiers and policemen. Refusing to shoot your own citizens and instead defending them IS non-cooperation, and soldiers who refuse to follow illegal orders ARE honoring the tenets of civil disobedience. This realization is reflected by the growing international recognition and support of the Free Syrian Army, including the lawful activities of American NGOs such as the Syrian Support Group.
The False Choice between "Stability" vs. Self-determination
From the very advent of the Arab Spring, some have condemned this quintessential movement simply because they fear "destabilization." Even ignoring the fact that dictatorships relying on brutality for survival are anything but stable in the long-run, valuing "stability" over basic principles of liberty, democratic governance, and universal human rights is the same one-dimensional mentality that has been responsible for some of the most indefensibly monstrous foreign policy decisions in modern history. U.S. support for right-wing death squads terrorizing Latin America Middle Eastern dictatorships, the throttling of nascent democracies in Iran and the Congo, the 1971 genocide in my native Bangladesh... all of these vile tragedies were engineered by "realpolitik" policymakers who simply did not care about the national aspirations of countries which they cynically used as pawns in their geo-political chess games. They occurred because the rest of us remained silent due to our ignorance, apathy, or exaggerated fears.
Arab Spring nations are certainly embroiled in turmoil, but so are the vast majority of post-revolutionary nations -- as was our nation after our hard-fought independence. As post-conflict countries around the world continue to struggle to establish democratic systems of government which best suites their specific circumstances, we should humbly remember that democracy is not a single moment of national catharsis, but a continuing and ever-evolving process.
It takes a Global Village: The Evolution of International Law
Perhaps the most principled hesitation for a humanitarian intervention has been concern over its legality within international law. While legal scholars revisit this debate every time there a potential for international intervention in a civil conflict, what is remarkable is how such debates are a relatively new phenomenon.
For most of human history, governments which committed mass atrocities against their own citizens could invoke the principle of nullen crimen sine lege -- no crime without law. While aggression and war crimes committed against citizens of other nations were punishable offenses, a nation's treatment of its own citizens -- even naked genocide -- was deemed a strictly internal matter.
Fortunately, the body of international criminal law has progressed significantly at the end of the century in order to reflect ever-evolving international norms. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court has since established both genocide and crimes against humanity as punishable crimes regardless of whether the perpetrators commit such crimes internally or externally.
State sovereignty is no longer a sacrosanct right, but a solemn responsibility borne out of a social contract between a government and its people. Just as abusive parents can lose custody of their children, countries which commit the gravest abuses against their own people under international law can similarly lose not only their legitimacy, but also their access to state sovereignty in order to continue their repression.
Military Interventions: Not just a Neo-Con Cowboy Fad
Much of the opposition towards interventions -- military inventions of any form -- can be traced to the following binary schema: The use of force is always bad; the absence of external intervention is always good.
Yet one can certainly support limited, situation-specific intervention without being a neo-con war-mongering cowboy. Even in the Muslim world, the principle of international humanitarian intervention has accomplished much. It is how millions were saved from famine in Somalia. It is the reason Bosnia and Kosovo are independent nations today -- and how the latter, despite only being an independent nation for 14 years, has already beat us in shattering the glass ceiling. Even with Libya's many post-revolutionary challenges, at least its long-oppressed citizens no longer have to fear living under a madman.
It is so much more convenient to be ideologically "consistent" than to tackle nuance and develop informed, situation-specific positions. For true humanitarians and progressives, information and context must trump dogmatic ideology.
Setting a Timeless Precedent
If nothing else convinces you why it is so vital for the U.S. to help maintain an international, timeless precedent against crimes against humanity: Because Syria's tragedy could one day be our own.
Imagine: Thousands of long-oppressed citizens marching peacefully together to demand their rights. Police officers then pounce on the protesters with batons, high pressure hoses, and police dogs. Dozens are gravely injured, while many others promptly arrested for "disturbing public order."
This was not a scene from the Middle East , but the streets of Alabama from 1965-65. The Civil Rights Movement was America's own Arab Spring; the Million Man March its Tahrir Square. Although there were still many outbreaks of vigilante as well as state brutality, there was no mass repression. Our nation has been mostly fortunate in that it never had a legacy of dictatorship or an entrenched police state.
Yet does this mean that our nation could never fall to such depths? During the height of the war in Iraq, Fareed Zakaria exposed the root cause of the surge of violence in Iraq. Not sectarian or ethnic hatred, but the collapse of state and social institutions. In particular, a 70 percent unemployment rate.
Seventy percent. At the height of the Great Depression, our unemployment rates only briefly exceeded 20 percent, and there were serious fears of the collapse of the capitalist free-market system and even the institutions of democratic governance. Both The Lord of the Flies and The Dark Knight illustrate this fundamental truth of human nature: People are only as "good" as the world allows them to be. If in the distant future we were to be inflicted with the most horrific of national calamities -- in which our existing political, economic, and social institutions collapse -- how many of us could remain "civilized?" In such desperate circumstances, is it completely unfathomable for a repressive government to seize the reins of power and begin imposing its will on us?
This is not just some dystopian fantasy, but reflects the actual ideological underpinning of modern international human rights, and represents a genuine contingency which every American ought to solemnly consider when it comes to setting precedent on international law. If the unspeakable were ever to happen to our nation, I would hope that the international community would have the courage to come to our aid. I would hope that citizens of other nations would be conscientious enough to advocate their own governments to help deliver our salvation.
POTUS: An Unique Responsibility
For a variety of reasons ranging from ideological partisanship to genuine war-fatigue, many members of congress remain deeply hesitant to even consider Syria's plight, as does the majority of the American public. However, the old adage speaks true: What is right is not always popular, and what is popular is not always right.
As the sole remaining superpower, we have special obligations and responsibilities to the international community. As Commander-in-Chief, our president has the unique duty to make difficult decisions on the global stage as he tries his best to exercise vital leadership in such a turbulent and uncertain world.
I may not agree with all aspects of President Obama's foreign policy, but like the decisive stance he took in Libya, I stand by our president -- and I hope our elected representative and the American people will as well.
Regardless of whether President Obama successfully secures political and popular support, I sincerely hope he will nevertheless join the international community in supporting whatever solution they deem to best help resolve this tragedy. Millions of Syrians are depending on it -- and one day, our children may as well.
This post has been updated from a previously published version.