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opinion | H.D.S. Greenway

The temptation of other people’s civil wars


I could smell the sulfur and brimstone the moment I opened the door. It was late at night, and there, sitting in my favorite chair, was my old nemesis, the Devil’s Advocate. “What, you again?” I said. “Are you trying to peddle those nagging doubts again? And I don’t like people smoking cigarettes in my house.”

“You know very well my smoke doesn’t come from cigarettes,” he said, with his usual off-putting smirk. “I just came by to have a chat about Syria.”

“You are not going to defend Bashar Assad to me are you? What he’s doing to his own people is indefensible.”

“No doubt my boss has a certain fondness for him,” he replied, “but you must know we have some very good people among the rebels,” he replied. “And do you think for a moment that the rebels aren’t doing their share of slaughtering innocents?”

“Your boss?”

“Well, I am the Devil’s Advocate,” he said. “You must have read about some of our friends. Take that outstanding rebel commander known as Abu Sakkar.”


“You mean the guy filmed cutting out the heart and lungs of a Syrian soldier and eating bits on camera? Surely that is an aberration and not typical of the rebels?”

“You may think that,” he said, “but I can tell you we have some pretty choice people among the rebels, and their numbers are growing. Do you think your sweetie Syrians in exile are going to run Syria if Assad goes? Our guys are going to be in charge, and I’m talking Islamist extremists. I’m talking Al Qaeda, I’m talking forces of darkness that will make you wish that silly little eye doctor holding out in Damascus was back in power.

“And you have those naifs, Senators McCain and Graham, always urging you to get mixed up in somebody else’s civil war,” he said. “One might have thought that after Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan you might get sick of other people’s civil wars. And you haven’t succeeded in any of them,” he said.

“Wait just a minute,” I said. “Yes, we got off to a slow start, but didn’t we finally prevent a civil war in Iraq?’’ I asked.


“That’s rich,” he said. “Your occupation starts a civil war, and then you want to tell me you prevented it? Do you know how many people are killed by sectarian strife every day in Iraq?”

“Don’t we need to come in on the side of the Syrian rebels to maintain our influence in the Middle East, to prevent the war from spreading to other countries?’’ I asked.

“You seem to forget what’s going on,’’ he said. “Don’t you know that there is a volcanic struggle between Sunni and Shia in the Middle East? Syria is just where the hot lava is breaking through the surface. What do you think Iraq is all about? You went in there and turfed out the Sunnis, the traditional rulers of Iraq, and empowered the Shia, all but handing the country over to Iran. Do you really think that furthered American interests in the Middle East? Don’t you know that every Muslim country you get involved in militarily just makes more recruits for extremists? Don’t get me wrong. My boss would be delighted if you get involved in another Muslim civil war, but do you really think you are going to further American interests by sending weapons to those nice fellows who would like to cut your heart out and eat it?

“You can say what you like about Assad,” he said, “but the minorities in Syria were protected more than practically any other Arab country. My boss scolded him on that score. But what do you think will happen to the Syrian Christians if McCain and Graham’s friends take power? You remember that Abu Sakkar said he wanted to kill every single Alawite in the country.


“Arm the rebels?” he went on. “My boss would love it, but do you really want to get a lot more people killed? Level the playing field? Civil wars are not soccer matches. American influence? American intervention is just another word for nothing left to lose.”

“I’ve heard enough,” I said, but he was gone, and I threw open the windows to clear the air of unsettling thoughts.

H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe.