Officially, the Obama Administration is firmly behind Syria’s democratic revolution organized to oust the brutal authoritarian Assad regime. If that were indeed the case it could, under certain conditions, represent an important step to assuring a bright future for Syria. There reportedly remains, however, substantial opposition inside the Administration and in Congress to the intervention.
Some of these opponents of U.S. involvement are invoking the problematic policies of the Reagan era when the United States created and armed Nicaragua’s counter-revolutionaries, or contras, to overthrow the Sandinista Government there in the mid-1980s. This is a misleading and cynical maneuver. In fact, Nicaragua offers a very different lesson when it comes to Syria.
There is little doubt that the intervention of the world’s sole superpower into a complex national conflict is fraught with challenges. In the wake of a decade of war, few Americans are enthusiastic about yet another intervention in the Middle East. And there are, naturally, suspicions in the region about the actual goals of U.S. policy. To be successful the strategy that guides the United States in Syria must reflect our democratic values, both to engender domestic U.S. support and to insure a successful transition to post-revolution stability in Syria.
In the wake of the battle of Qusayr, it is clear the rebels face daunting odds. We must recall, though, the rebels did not ask for war. The movement began peacefully, yet another chapter of the rolling social process know as the “Arab Spring.” But the Syrian dictatorship knew that a peaceful “civil rights” style challenge undermined their legitimacy and it began a brutal crackdown that forced the opposition to take up arms. While they have been joined by some dissident military figures, these ordinary Syrians are also now competing for leadership of their revolution with hard-core Islamic fundamentalists, some of them mercenaries from surrounding states, who are well organized and well armed.
That competition is, in fact, reminiscent of the Nicaraguan experience, but not of the contra war of the 1980’s that failed to oust the Sandinistas. Rather, as I show in my recently published book Rights and Revolution: The Rise and Fall of Nicaragua’s Sandinista Movement, the situation is analogous to the earlier 1970’s insurrectionary period that led to the ouster of the brutal and authoritarian Somoza regime. In that insurrection, the United States took a largely hands off stance, only distancing itself from Somoza very late. As a result, a democratic mass movement of ordinary Nicaraguans was, as in Syria, pushed into armed conflict by a violent dictator. Then, as may happen in Syria, that same movement turned to the small but well armed and well-organized neo-Stalinist Sandinista Front, or FSLN, the only alternative leadership force available.
When the Somoza regime fell at great human and social cost it was those disciplined FSLN cadre who took the reins of the state. They promised to rule democratically, but then delayed elections and set up new authoritarian institutions, using the credibility that their leading role in the insurrection had won them. It took a brave population, which knew the revolution belonged to them, too, a decade to reemerge and oust the FSLN peacefully and democratically. The armed contra force organized by Somoza era figures backed by the United States actually worked to undermine and delay that peaceful effort. The FSLN was able, skillfully, to use this U.S. proxy war as an excuse to crack down on peaceful domestic opponents. It should be recalled that such regimes are artful at exploiting foreign intervention against their domestic opponents.
In other words, the Syrian situation is most similar to what happened in Nicaragua before the FSLN took power. That period offers a lesson about the risks of not intervening, instead allowing a well-armed and disciplined minority to hijack a democratic revolution. In such a case, the fervent authoritarianism of the Islamic forces works in their favor. After the FSLN took power, on the other hand, there was sufficient democratic space even at the peak of the FSLN’s power for the population to turn against it peacefully. The Nicaraguan contras had only limited support among the population. This is the opposite of the situation in Syria where the opposition clearly has no choice but to defend itself and its movement with arms.
In these circumstances, the principles and conditions that accompany U.S. aid are crucial. Not the principles and conditions that we impose on the Syrians, rather those we impose on ourselves. We got it wrong not once but twice in Nicaragua. The lesson we should have learned is that the way in which we aid those fighting for freedom in other lands is critical to their success. We cannot let the fact of our aid be used propagandistically by either Assad or al Qaeda to undermine the Syrian democrats. That is what we did in Nicaragua and only the FSLN gained as a result.
The support we give should, therefore, be given openly not covertly and the process by which we do it should be transparent. Our engagement with the Syrian people should be open to monitoring on the ground by both Congress and representatives of our civil society, including labor, religious and community groups. It must be clear to all that our aid is aimed only at facilitating the success of a new Syrian democracy not at advancing a narrow self-interest. We must commit to long-term support because the country will require an extensive period to rebuild once peace is established.
The mistake we made in Nicaragua was to leave behind our own long-standing commitments to democracy, sustainable development and human rights. We ended up on the side, first, of a hated dictatorship, and, then, of death squads, as the Nicaraguan contra war spread throughout Central America. In Syria we have a chance to rewrite our past and help Syria write its future.