Syria Poses a Tough Dilemma for Progressives

Update (below): New York Times published op-ed by The Progressive's co-panelists

This past weekend, I was on a panel to discuss that with Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, director and associate director, respectively, of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. Hashemi and Postel were here in Madison to promote the recent book they’ve co-edited, “The Syria Dilemma,” which includes a variety of viewpoints on the issue.

The three of us didn’t have an identical perspective, but it would be fair to say that all three of us were skeptical of the do-nothing outlook that a number of progressives have. Postel and I shared the same Sarah Palin quote with the audience, “Let Allah sort it out.”

Palin made the comment on Facebook in the run-up to President Obama’s scrapped plans to attack Syria for its use of chemical weapons. Progressives celebrated the Obama turnabout as a victory, but a good portion of the opposition to the plan was driven by xenophobic, racist beliefs such as Palin’s.

Hashemi advocated the most expansive interventionist option to stop the bloodshed. He admitted that there were many potential pitfalls, but asserted that doing nothing in the face of such a humanitarian catastrophe was worse. He argued that we need to listen to Syrian civil society advocates, many of whom are calling for intervention. He offered Jimmy Carter’s recent op-ed in The Washington Post as a possible blueprint, where the ex-President calls for a “robust peacekeeping force” as part of a three-part plan.

Postel had a less ambitious view of what needs to be done. He focused on stopping the humanitarian crises in cities that are under siege by the Syrian government.

“Some of the nearly 700 people who reached safety said they had been surviving on one meal a day and that some of their neighbors had resorted to eating grass,” The New York Times describes the ongoing situation in the Syrian city of Homs. “One older man evacuated in Homs on Sunday said he had survived on one spoon of bulgur a day for the past week and that his wife had died, malnourished and unable to get medical treatment, according to Dina Elkassaby, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program. ‘Some people were living off roots and weeds and grass and olives if they were lucky,’ Ms. Elkassaby said.”

It is to end misery such as this that Postel wants outside intervention, possibly including the use of force against the Syrian government and radical jihadists, if need be.

My two cents on the panel was that a “let’s ignore them” approach is not constructive, and that, at the very least, international-minded progressives need to show their solidarity with activists struggling on the ground under horribly difficult circumstances. A recent issue of The Progressive has a piece on the nonviolent movement in Syria.

“‘We believe that speaking loudly is stronger than using any weapons,’ says Omar Assil, the awareness program manager for the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, which coordinates peaceful activities and civil resistance throughout Syria, ” Zack Baddorf wrote in the December/January issue of The Progressive. “The movement has run campaigns throughout Syria that allow people to stand up against the powerful military elements in their areas, be it radical Islamists or the Assad regime.”

The Facebook page of the group has a listing of the various creative actions that group has undertaken.

For those wanting to help in relief efforts, Hashemi and Postel are recommending the Syrian American Medical Society (to which they are donating proceeds from their book).

People of good will may disagree on what sort of intervention is needed in Syria. But disengagement in the face of massive suffering shouldn’t be an option.

Update: New York Times published op-ed by The Progressive's panelists

Tuesday's edition of the Times was well-timed indeed. Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi, fresh off their panel with The Progressive, find themselves in the pages of the nation's most-respected newspaper this morning. Their editorial, "Use Force to Save Starving Syrians," cuts right to their point.

"This moral obscenity demands action by the international community," they write. "Any armed group that prevents humanitarian access — whether the Syrian regime’s forces or rebel militias — should be subject to coercive measures."

Read the rest.

Photo: fulya atalay /