Syria: A Case of Humpty Dumpty
Syria today is a nation-state that is in the midst of a terrible civil war in which some 82,0001 of her citizens have died in the last twenty-eight months. Although the Sunni rebels have made impressive gains and bloodied the regime of Bashir al-Assad in significant ways, the regime, with the aid of its allies, has shown itself to be pugnacious and resilient in its response to the rebellion. After almost two and a half years of fighting, the situation looks to be stalemated.
The question confronting the West, and the United States in particular, is what to do next. President Obama has mentioned "red lines" around the question of the use of chemical weapons, but such lines are proving to be somewhat fuzzier than originally anticipated -- especially since it appears that the rebels recently may have used sarin gas in the north. The Assad regime has played it very coyly, escalating slowly and testing each incremental increase in its use of WMD. But the general direction is clear, and the words "truce," "negotiated settlement," and "surrender" are not part of Assad's vocabulary. This latter fact being the case, we return to the question of what the West should do next.
It is important to realize that the West is not a monolith -- each nation-state of those that make up the "West" has its own set of interests. This fact is especially salient as regards the European Union and the United States, as well as the U.S. and Israel. Whereas the U.S. wants to see the Assad regime go and is willing to see it replaced with a Sunni Islamic state, hopefully no more radical than the Muslim Brotherhood, the Israelis are most leery of such and prefer to see a defanged Assad regime continue, because the Assad family has kept the common Golan border quiet for four decades. Israel's recent attacks on Syria had very little to do with trying to topple the regime; they were strictly an attempt to deny Hezb'allah any upgrade of weaponry that the receipt of Iranian Fateh-110 missiles would cause.
The United States and the EU tend to be conservative in their thinking concerning the Middle East -- that is, they are not inclined to see utility in dividing up broken states and forming new ones, other than to create an Arab Palestinian state. Israel, on the other hand, sees the utility of promoting Kurdish nationalism and the establishment of a Kurdish national state that would include sections of Syria, Iraq, Iran, and probably Turkey. Israel can also see that a Sunni Islamist state in all of current Syria is very likely to be much more belligerent toward the Jewish state than has been the Assad regime, which has been content in allowing the Lebanese Hezb'allah to engage the Israelis in occasional provocations while the Syrians watch with glee from the sidelines. These points spur Israel to promote a situation in which the Assad regime neither wins the upper hand nor succumbs to Islamist-dominated Sunni rebels. Indeed, the formation of a Kurdish nation-state would do much to break the "Shiite Crescent" as well as to curtail the power of a Sunni Islamist Syria bent on regaining control over Coele-Syria. Israel thus can look at Syria and recognize that if Syria is about to become Humpty Dumpty, Israeli interests may be well-served.
The question that now needs to be raised is whether the United States and the EU can be brought to realize that a degree of "Balkanization" of Syria is advantageous, given the current power politics in the region. For Syria's minorities, the prospect of a Sunni takeover is nothing short of catastrophic. The Alawite, Christian, and Druze communities all have been protected by the Assad regime, and they need only to look across their borders to Iraq or Egypt to see how well minorities fare when a new fundamentalist majority comes to power. The Kurds of northeast Syria have managed to remain relatively neutral in the hopes of establishing their own autonomy as their brothers have done in Iraq, or to lay the groundwork for the establishment of a future Kurdish state.
Memory in the West, unfortunately, is very short. Western diplomats forget that the borders of the various Arab states in southwest Asia are less than a century old. The modern Arab states of the region and their borders are all the result of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916, anticipating the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Borders at that time were drawn with little regard for ethnic identities and/or religious sensibilities. Maybe it's time for that egregious error to be corrected. The civil war in Syria should prompt consideration of such a possibility before a decision to tilt the current playing field in Syria is made and implemented.
A lot more is at stake than the borders of the Assad family empire; stopping Islamist attempts to resurrect the caliphate -- whether Sunni or Shiite -- may be accomplished here, if the correct moves are made. Careful thought and coordination are of the essence, as well as common sense and courage.
To my friends in the Iranian resistance: be careful about supporting the Syrian rebellion. Not that Assad deserves to stay in power -- that is clearly not the case, since he is guilty of crimes against humanity. But be careful whom you support -- a lesson that you learned the hard way when overthrowing the shah thirty-five years ago. Remember that a secularist like Mubarak is preferable to an Islamist like Morsi. Not all change is necessarily for the better.
To my friends on the Hill: do your homework; know to whom you give support. Learn some lessons from the mistakes made in Libya; a defanged dictator may be despicable because of his past misdeeds, but being defanged, he is harmless. Overthrowing such types sometimes brings much worse in their place. Al-Qaeda is a far greater threat than the late Moammar al-Gaddafi ever was.
To our intelligence community: invest in the right people to restore a creditable intelligence network in the region so as to know what's going on at ground level. Our "humint" capabilities currently are substandard, especially in the Arab world; that's a situation that must change if we are to succeed in the region. In the meantime, take a lesson or two from the Israelis, whose skills far outstrip ours. And remember, believe only half of what you see and a quarter of what you hear.
Rabbi Dr. Daniel M. Zucker, author of over ninety articles on the Middle East, is founder and chairman of the Board of Americans for Democracy in the Middle-East, a grassroots organization dedicated to teaching the public and its elected officials of the need to promote genuine democratic institutions throughout the Middle-East region as an antidote to the dangers posed by Islamic fundamentalism. He may be contacted at contact@ADME.ws.
1Estimates that the total dead in the civil war reach 120,000 are presented as well.