Does anyone in any position of responsibility realize that for the Alawites lead by Assad, this is a matter of life and death? That if they don’t win the civil war, they are in for a round of murder and pillage at the hands of their enemies? While they are Muslims, they are considered to be a sort of heretical Islam by the dominant Sunni Muslims and for centuries before Syria fell under French rule post-WWI, they were oppressed by their fellow Muslims. To be sure, they have used cruelty and chicanery to gain and maintain mastery as a minority Ruling Class in Syria, but now the fat is in the fire – the Alawites are not expecting mercy and brotherhood from the other side if they lose, so they’ll fight on until destroyed or they have secured their own homes and families. Lobbing a few missiles at them will not make them stop doing whatever they think proves necessary to, at minimum, maintain their control over predominantly Alawite ares of Syria. Only an army more powerful than they can do the trick…and if you’re wondering why this minority of 12% of Syria’s population has maintained control for decades and has an even chance of winning the Civil War look no further than the fact that the Alawites retained for themselves the best weapons…and constituted a majority of the total Syrian armed forces pre-Civil War.
I bring this up because no one seems to be thinking along these lines – that people with their backs to the wall are not likely to be easily swayed. We’re treating them as if they are concerned about the whole of Syria and its welfare. In some theoretical sense, this might be true – but in the concrete, the Alawite soldiers are fighting for lives of their wives and children. These people will not go down easily. Of course, they are not the only minority group in Syria. In fact, Syria is a grab-bag of minority groups. Sure, its overwhelmingly Muslim – but there are nearly as many Christians as there are Alawites (and the Christians probably do favor the Alawites because, point blank, the more secular-minded Alawites have tended to live and let live with the Christians…meanwhile, the rebels are increasingly infected with Islamism, and so Christians are increasingly brutalized); Islam in Syria is broken up in to quite a lot of different sects.
Syria isn’t really a nation as we think of it – its just another one of those colonial left-overs. Ruled for centuries by the Turks, taken over by the French post-WWI, the people there never thought of themselves as “Syrians” in the sense that we think of ourselves as “Americans”…people with a common history, a shared set of basic values and a willingness to sink sectarian differences for the good of the larger community. Essentially, the Alawites have provided what the Ottomans provided until 1918 and the French until 1946 – a group of people who keep down everyone else, until just lately, when for a variety of reasons a rebellion broke out (not in any case the first), at a time when non-Syrian forces were willing to back the rebels (and not us, good people – quite a lot of Gulf State Muslim money has poured in to the rebels). And don’t think the rebels are keen on establishing a republic in which all Syrians live in brotherhood. There might be a few such trotted out to meet with a junketing Senator McCain, but most of them are primarily interested in securing their own particular interests…and, if things work out, grabbing the sort of power the Alawites have held on to since the 1970’s. I almost hate to point this out, but the only thing which can be found in common among most Syrians is probably a loathing of Israel…but even that has been set aside so that they can kill each other in a mad scramble for power.
Crucial to any expectations of results is to understand the reality of things. Syria is not just “Syria”. Its a lot of different things and the people battling there with extreme cruelty have clear ideas of what they want. If we don’t have a clear idea of what we want and how it relates to the reality on the ground in Syria, then whatever we do will fail. This does not at all preclude a diplomatic solution to the problem, by the way – in fact, it opens up wide vistas of diplomatic action, if we will understand the facts and figure out what it is we want.
Furthermore, we do have the power to impose a solution – our weight thrown on to any particular side will allow that side to emerge victorious. If, that is, we make it clear that if we decide to come in on a side that we’ll come all the way in with whatever level of force would prove necessary. Half measure won’t do; lobbing a few missiles is absurd. If we want to have any particular result in Syria, then we have to will the means as well as envision the ends. We could, perhaps, use our overwhelming power to convince all sides that it is time to sit down and talk – to set up some sort of federal or cantonal system of government which will allow each major element its own absolute sphere, surrendering only enough power to the central government as is necessary to make Syria a functional, national unit. Carrots for everyone – and a threat of the Big Stick for anyone who decides that they’d rather keep fighting instead of negotiating a settlement…and, yes, this does mean that in certain circumstances we throw our weight behind Assad’s Alawites (if not behind Assad, who probably could be eased out by Alawites convinced that we’ll ensure their lives and property against revenge).
But if we are not willing to envision an end and unwilling to provide the means to achieve the end, then it is best we stay out. At this stage of the game, staying out is probably the best course of action – mostly because Obama has botched it so badly to this point. It is not because people are getting isolationist that intervention in Syria is unpopular, but because Obama has proven himself a fool and no one wants to dive in to a murky situation without some idea of what we hope to accomplish, what it might cost and how long it will take. But good things can be done with American power – wisdom is not to be found in launching endless wars, nor in the twin follies of pacifism and isolationism. Clear headed, rational thinking informed by the actual facts can get us out of this mess – and help the people of Syria, in to the bargain. My prayer is that some how, some way even Obama will start to see things clearly and a reasonable, humane policy will emerge.
UPDATE: I’ve pondered it some more and here’s a follow-on comment I left elsewhere:
…(we have) all the ingredients which cool headed diplomacy can make much hay with. If we understood diplomacy (ie, if we didn’t have Obama and team in charge) we would long-ago have said that our interest is peace in Syria and to that end we will exert pressure on all sides to engage in talks to reform the government of Syria to secure absolutely minority rights. Once that announcement is made, support can be rounded up in the world for the effort and support built at home for a forward policy – while backstairs negotiations let all and sundry know that we are determined upon a peace settlement to be imposed on the warring sides with the carrot being US and international help to rebuild and the stick being US force being thrown against whichever sides proves most resistant to compromise (in other words, we’re telling them that we’ll even fight on Assad’s side, if he proves most willing to compromise). Once the preliminary work is done, we call a conference of all the interested parties to reach an agreement to embargo all arms and impose sanctions on the warring factions…Russia, China and Iran would strongly object to this (and thus no such thing could be done through the UN…which is why we’d ignore the UN and go for genuine diplomacy), and we’d lay down the marker: we’re going to do this and we’re willing to fight…and if Russia, China and Iran want to fight us in order to maintain their particular clients in Syria, then let’s have at it. They would back down in front of that as no one in the world wants to go to actual war with the United States of America. Once a cease-fire agreement is hammered out it is presented to the Syrian factions and they are given 36 hours to comply or face sustained military action by the United States until they do agree. More than likely, all but the Islamist fanatics would agree, and they could be swiftly exterminated. We can then mid-wife in Syria a Cantonal form of government allowing each group to keep its own while cooperating to sustain the larger entity of Syria.
At any rate, that’s what I would do.