The Arab Spring started with a Tunisian street vendor’s self-immolation in December 2010 and we have seen the fall of autocrats in Libya, Yemen, and Egypt. Additionally, monarchies in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan have had to deal with popular uprisings via security forces and populist bribes. The latest chapter is unfolding in Syria and it is turning out to be a free-for-all where nearly a hundred thousand civilians have been killed and millions displaced. Local actors, sovereign states, terror groups, and the global powers are all vying for a solution, control, and a favorable outcome.
When considering all of the possible outcomes, it is difficult to see how the situation can end well. It is why the criticism of President Obama is misplaced; no one can articulate a realistic end. We are instructed to develop SMART (Specific Measurable Actionable Realistic Timely) goals when putting plans together and I remain unconvinced that those calling for increased American involvement have thought this through. Arming rebels, establishing a no-fly zone, leaving F-16’s in Jordan, etc. are all tactics, not goals and certainly not strategies. If the goal is replace Assad by the end of the 2013, that fits the criteria (one could argue about how realistic it is), my question is then what? Tactics support goals and goals support strategy. What is the strategy?
It will be messy. Syria is not Egypt. When Mubarak, was overthrown, a legal system, albeit a flawed corrupt one, was in place as were many of the necessary government functions and institutions. It is also quite homogenous where 91% of the population is ethnic Egyptian and 90% of the population is Sunni, and most importantly it is an ancient nation and people dating back thousands of years. The Sunni majority has ruled without any viable threat except from militant Sunni Islamists which had been silenced by the autocratic Mubarak. In contrast there is Syria, a nation that has existed only since 1946 and for its 1st 25 years it was marked a series of coups and coup attempts followed by 40+ years of Ba’athist Assad family rule. And while it has a Sunni majority, there is still a significant Shia and Christian minority, where the minority Alawites (a Shia offshoot), has held power. Additionally, Syria also has a significant Druze and Kurdish ethnic minorities. That adds up to a sectarian and tribal alliances over national alliances and a history of dictators stunting the development of democratic institutions.
So while Egypt has been able to move towards relative stability post-Mubarak, Syria will be a cauldron that will make Libya look like smooth peaceful post-dictator transition. How far are the Russians willing to go in backing their man Assad and his policies? Will they really walk away from their last USSR-era post in Tartus? Will Iran and its proxy Hezbollah continue to support Assad and the Shia minority? What about the Sunni nations such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia that are arming Sunni rebels affiliated with al-Qaeda, and of course the western darling secular rebels? Did I mention the Druze, Christians, and Kurds?
The U.S. has a less than stellar track record when it comes to Middle and Near Eastern intervention. The best of intentions will can still result in unintended consequences, so while many claim President Obama is dithering, I prefer to describe his performance as calculating. He understands this will end badly, and by badly I mean it is likely that the highest probability is Assad will be forced out and years of civil war will ensue on a scale wider and deadlier than Lebanon between the 70’s – 90’s. Without any government structure, independent courts, or local governance, there can be no peaceful transition. The post-Assad era will be brutal and deadly and will create economic hardships on nearby Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan.
But intervention is in our best interests many say. Really? If the Shias control, Iran maintains its sphere of influence. If the Sunni extremists remain intact and continue to fight, al-Qaeda remains influential. Our only hope is somehow a coalition of pro-western liberal rebel factions can win the war and the peace. Sounds like our similar pipe dreams about the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Sadly, the media is propping this group of rebels as freedom fighters, when they are likely cut from the same cloth as the murderous, kidnapping, drug lord Northern Alliance. Perhaps we should ask what would the Chinese do? Because while we would be getting embroiled in another regional conflict, our Pacific rivals will be positioned to benefit economically. Meanwhile the United Nations and the Arab League ineffectiveness does not offer hope for a peaceful solution and smooth transition.
Americans tend to believe that elections after the overthrow of a dictator represent democracy. Hardly. Our own democracy nearly didn’t survive and our issues were almost exclusively political, to think we can do the same for these people is naïve and arrogant.
No good options, a deteriorating condition, and nothing but dismal prospects. Damned either way. I say we sit this one out militarily while continuing to provide humanitarian aid to the innocent civilians.