Academic Failure on Syria

First and foremost, the image of the #Syrianboy who survived a bombardment in Aleppo is emblematic for the human catastrophe of the civil war in Syria – akin Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old who drowned in the Mediterranean last year. But the image of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh has also revived the debate how audiences across the world respond to the unfolding crisis.


Western academics are repeatedly struggling to come to terms with the realities of the conflict, and they can be understood through ‘the Iraq War Syndrome’, an over-reliance on the West and cognitive dissonance.


  1. The Iraq War Syndrome

There is no question that the 2003 Iraq war was illegal, illegitimate and produced a fertile environment for the inception of the Islamic State. Bar the odd exception, academics on the left and right are in agreement on this. The Iraq war was an imperial war, designed to create a client state in the Middle East.

Fast forward ten years later and an initial civil uprising in neighbouring Syria has transformed into a civil war that is increasingly becoming a regional conflict. President Bashar al-Assad has lost most of the country to the armed opposition, but manages to inflict heavy casualties on rebel-controlled areas from the skies. The indiscriminate barrel bombs are by now employed on a daily basis as a form of collective punishment to people living under rebel control.

A no-fly zone could have protected millions of civilians, and would likely have reduced the flow of refugees significantly. Questionnaires of Syrian refugees in German detention centres showed that the majority of them fled because of the violence of Assad (70%), and would support a no-fly zone (58%).

But for some academics this too would be ‘imperial’, and instead we should cooperate with Assad. This is the Iraq War Syndrome – by labelling every possible form of Western military engagement in the Middle East as a form of imperial aggression akin the US-led invasion, with total disregard of the goals of such an operation.


  1. Over-reliance on the West

A second explainer for the academic failure on Syria is the heavy emphasis on the West as the near-sole agent of change. Facilitated by the Iraq War Syndrome, academics repeatedly argue that the US is the main driving force behind the Syrian opposition.

In an interview with Mehdi Hasan, economist Jeffrey Sachs argued that the uprising in Syria in 2011 was effectively a CIA-plot for ‘regime change’. A claim he made earlier for Huffington Post. Whilst being critical of regime change is really, really OK – and one could argue even a duty for political scientists – what this does is that it eradicates the suffering of people living in a dictatorship. As if ordinary people cannot go out and protest simply because they have had enough with having to live in fear of police and security forces; or that they cannot protest the endemic corruption of an authoritarian regime, and the poverty that such a system creates for those with little or no access to state revenues.

Such statements reduce the agency of ordinary people, who in these representations become unable and unwilling to change power dynamics. I would go even further and argue that the over-reliance on the West is a form of reversed orientalism or even racism. Only the West is able to constitute the political in the views of Sachs, or the 70 academics who wrote the open letter to the Guardian arguing that the US, and its allies Turkey and Saudi-Arabia, are primarily responsible – ignoring that Baghdad, Damascus and Tehran have a firm hand in the regional war.

The West no longer holds the monopoly on imperialism in the 21st century. Russia and Iran are major players in the Middle East and are able to influence the course of events in the region largely through military power. Is that not a form of imperialism?


  1. Cognitive dissonance

A final consideration to take into account here is that of the cognitive dissonance. One the one hand, these academics argue against measures that could protect civilians from bombs but simultaneously they proclaim to care about human rights and human suffering. No explanation can obscure that holding these two beliefs simultaneously cause friction.

It is unclear how academics like Sachs work around this. Perhaps by framing the war as a conflict between a democratically elected government and terrorists, as Stephen Kinzer did for the Boston Globe.

It is images of Omran that remind us, however, that Assad is not just targeting murky extremists and terrorists, unveiling the cognitive dissonance of academics such as Sachs and Kinzer.



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