Why? In the Middle East, the alternative to bad is not always good. It can be worse.
Lord knows I am rooting for the opposition forces in Syria to quickly prevail on their own and turn out to be as democratically inclined as we hope. But the chances of this best-of-all-possible outcomes is low. That’s because Syria is a lot like Iraq. Indeed, Syria is Iraq’s twin – a multisectarian, minority-ruled dictatorship that was held together by an iron fist under Baathist ideology. And, for me, the lesson of Iraq is quite simple: You can’t go from Saddam to Switzerland without getting stuck in Hobbes – a war of all against all – unless you have a well-armed external midwife, whom everyone on the ground both fears and trusts to manage the transition. In Iraq, that was America. The kind of low-cost, remote-control, U.S./NATO midwifery that ousted Qaddafi and gave birth to a new Libya is not likely to be repeated in Syria. Syria is harder. Syria is Iraq.
And Iraq was such a bitter experience for America that we prefer never to speak of it again. But Iraq is relevant here. The only reason Iraq has any chance for a decent outcome today is because America was on the ground with tens of thousands of troops to act as that well-armed midwife, reasonably trusted and certainly feared by all sides, to manage Iraq’s transition to more consensual politics. My gut tells me that Syria will require the same to have the same chance.
But because I absolutely would not advocate U.S. intervention on the ground in Syria or anywhere in the Arab world again – and the U.S. public would not support it – I find myself hoping my analysis is wrong and that Syrians will surprise us by finding their own way, with just arms and diplomatic assistance, to a better political future. I know columnists are supposed to pound the table and declaim what is necessary. But when you believe that what is necessary, an outside midwife for Syria, is impossible, you need to say so. I think those who have been advocating a more activist U.S. intervention in Syria – and excoriating President Obama for not leading that – are not being realistic about what it would take to create a decent outcome.
Why? In the Middle East, the alternative to bad is not always good. It can be worse. I am awed at the bravery of those Syrian rebels who started this uprising, peacefully, without any arms, against a regime that plays by what I call Hama Rules, which are no rules at all. The Assad regime deliberately killed demonstrators to turn this conflict into a sectarian struggle between the ruling minority Alawite sect, led by the Assad clan, and the country’s majority of Sunni Muslims. That’s why the opposite of the Assad dictatorship could be the breakup of Syria – as the Alawites retreat to their coastal redoubt – and a permanent civil war.
There are two things that could divert us from that outcome. One is the Iraq alternative, where America went in and decapitated the Saddam regime, occupied the country and forcibly changed it from a minority Sunni-led dictatorship to a majority Shiite-led democracy. Because of both U.S. incompetence and the nature of Iraq, this U.S. intervention triggered a civil war in which all the parties in Iraq – Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds – tested the new balance of power, inflicting enormous casualties on each other and leading, tragically, to ethnic cleansing that rearranged the country into more homogeneous blocks of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
But the U.S. presence in Iraq contained that civil war and ethnic cleansing from spreading to neighboring states. And once that civil war burned itself out – and all sides were exhausted and more separated – the U.S. successfully brokered a new constitution and power-sharing deal in Iraq, with the Shiites enjoying majority rule, the Sunnis out of power but not powerless, and the Kurds securing semi-autonomy. The cost of this transition in lives and money was huge, and even today Iraq is not a stable or healthy democracy. But it has a chance, and it’s now up to Iraqis.
Since it is highly unlikely that an armed, feared and trusted midwife will dare enter the fray in Syria, the rebels on the ground there will have to do it themselves. Given Syria’s fractured society, that will not be easy – unless there is a surprise. A surprise would be the disparate Syrian opposition groups congealing into a united political front – maybe with the help of U.S., Turkish and Saudi intelligence officers on the ground – and this new front reaching out to moderate Alawites and Christians who supported the Assads out of fear and agreeing to build a new order together that protects majority and minority rights. It would be wonderful to see the tyrannical Assad- Russia-Iran-Hezbollah axis replaced by a democratizing Syria, not a chaotic Syria.
But color me dubious. The 20 percent of Syrians who are pro-Assad Alawites or Christians will be terrified of the new Sunni Muslim majority, with its Muslim Brotherhood component, and this Sunni Muslim majority has suffered such brutality from this regime that reconciliation will be difficult, especially with each passing day of bloodshed. Without an external midwife or a Syrian Mandela, the fires of conflict could burn for a long time. I hope I am surprised.