The American Interest
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The Wisdom of Sheikh Zubar
Published on March 6, 2012

I had a friend some years ago, an Israeli (since deceased) of large appetites and an expansive sense of humor, who used to joke that Shakespeare was really an Arab: Sheikh Zubar. I remember one day at a hilltop park near his home in Haifa he acted out a very tall tale of Hamlet with an Arabic accent, to gales of laughter from all assembled. I thought of this moment recently while trying to gather my thoughts about the Syrian cauldron, because the first image that popped into my mind was that of Hamlet. If Sheikh Zubar were around to re-write Hamlet in Arabic today, setting the scene in Syria rather than Denmark, how would the play go? It’s an amusing question, but that’s where the entertainment value in all this stops very short: There is nothing amusing about what is going on in Syria right now.

Hamlet, however, is the right metaphor. There may be other dilemmas about which Americans, not to exclude the American government, have created such a mountainous disproportion of words to deeds, but I can’t think of any. We have talked ourselves all colors of the rainbow, wringing our hands about what to do––and for all practical purposes we have done nothing. The European Union has done nothing. The UN and the so-called international community have done nothing. The Russians and Chinese have done worse than nothing. The Arab League tried to do something and was humiliated—quite deliberately.

All of these efforts have gotten nowhere because they are premised on being able to reason with the Syrian regime, and on the subsidiary assumption that at least at some subterranean level the regime cares what others think about it. American policy for many months seems to have been premised on such assumptions, and this is really unforgivably naïve, not to speak of ignorant. It is cowardly, too, not to face up to reality when that reality is chewing through innocent lives at an accelerating pace. It is good at times like these for diplomats to remember something Dick Gregory once said back in 1969: “You must start with the truth before you tamper with it.”

It is not possible to make the Syrian regime relent with words or implausible threats or mere sanctions. If Kofi Annan doesn’t know this already, he will learn it soon during his impending trip, during which the regime will do all it can to humiliate him while appearing polite—so much more admirable are the skills involved in such a balance on the part of those so well practiced at taqiyah (“righteous dissimulation”; in other words, artful lying). In the regime’s view its problem is existential. In its mentality any sign of weakness or compromise is tantamount to suicide, and they can make an objectively good case for that attitude. Bravado and the mass murder of its own unarmed people combine to form the only strategy the regime can think of under the circumstances: Come after us if you dare, but we will pull down the tent on everyone if you do.

This, then, makes for a very, very hard problem in Syria. At the risk of not being able to add much to what has already been expressed, and without mentioning any names of those recently ripe with expression, let us see why.

First, unlike the Libyan case, Syria is a strategic stake in a strategic region. As many have pointed out, whether the Assad regime falls or stands will have a significant bearing on the Iranian position in the region. The future of that regime will also have a major impact on Lebanon, and a less dramatic but hardly trivial influence on all of Syria’s neighbors. That includes Arab states like Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, but also non-Arab states like Israel and Turkey. Also unlike the Libyan case, Syria has a significant ally: Iran. The Libyan regime had none, and to miss the implications of this distinction is to miss a lot. More to the point: There are no lessons or transportable insights to be applied from Libya to Syria. None.

To say that the future of Syria will matter far and wide is not to claim to know what that future will be even if the Assad regime falls. The rise of a Sunni–majority government in Damascus would portend a sharp reduction in Syrian support for Hizballah in Lebanon, for the current regime is a willing transfer station for arms and money to Hizballah from the Iranian regime. But the elimination of the Syrian transfer station would not necessarily doom Hizballah, which has resources of its own; nor would it by itself guarantee a happier Lebanese future. The point nonetheless stands: The future of the regime in Syria is a causal torque point for the entire Levant and beyond. One might even say (and several commentators have) that it is a kind of tipping point:  If the Sunnis in Syria more or less prevail, then the regional Shi‘a Crescent presumably threatening the Sunni states is broken; if the Alawis prevail, then that Crescent turns into a sword sharper and more likely to swing into action than ever.

Second, these very high stakes are matched by a very low number of attractive policy options. Assuming for a moment that for strategic reasons (that is, not just for aesthetic or moral reasons) the United States wants the Assad regime to fall, we cannot readily send an expeditionary military force to turn the trick. Syria is a country of diverse and sometimes difficult terrain, with about four times the population of Libya. Unlike Libya, it is not for practical military purposes an island (bordered, as is Libya, by barren desert to its south and the sea to the north), where all major targets can be attacked from sea-based airpower. It has a relatively sophisticated air defense system. It has something of an ally in a major power—Russia—although one should not exaggerate the closeness of the relationship these days. Russia would not go to war to protect the Syrian regime from an American- or NATO-led invasion. 

But no such invasion is going to happen, and for good reasons. If the United States put boots on the ground in Syria, we would own the place until someone competent came to claim it—which, given the history of modern, independent Syria in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, might be a very long time coming. There would very predictably be an insurgency, an intifada, perhaps not wildly unlike the one we experienced in Iraq after March 2003. I don’t know anyone who wants to go through something like that again. As we should have learned by now, getting into a place like Syria is much easier than getting back out with one’s body parts intact. It has been said many times, but it is worth saying again: It is one thing to burn down the shithouse, another to install plumbing.

And this is not to speak of what a U.S.-led operation in Syria would do for our position in Afghanistan (nothing useful) and as regards our reputational capital, such as it is, in the Arab and Muslim world in general. Wars almost never end neatly and cleanly, or with a full plate of consequences that can be reasonably anticipated. Some of those consequences start out as second- or third-order matters, but they often do not remain so peripheral. That is why so-called wars of choice usually end up being recalled through the currency of regret.

So if we are not going to put boots on the ground, what other options are there to consider? Some have suggested creating a U.S.-or NATO-enforced no-fly zone over Syria, but this has to rank as some kind of thoughtless hiccup produced by bad habit. It apparently has not dawned on the people arguing for this that the Syrian regime has not much used its air force against the opposition and doesn’t need to.

Others have suggested creating humanitarian zones, but under the circumstances those zones would have to be both carved out and maintained by force. If those zones are supplied by air, then Syria’s formidable air defense system would have to be engaged and destroyed. If those zones are to be supplied by land, then one is talking about an expeditionary force of some size and nature to protect the corridor to and from the source of triage supplies. There is no such thing, therefore, as an effective non-kinetic option for Syria. Those who claim there is don’t know what they’re talking about.

Since some observers at least recognize the limitations of such ideas, an alternative proposal has been to arm the Syrian opposition. A case can be made for this idea, but a case can also be made against it. The case against it seems to have found an early home at the State Department. (You are shocked, I know.) Many months ago, when the State Department––even at the level of the Secretary herself––was still saying, with no apparent embarrassment or sense of irony, that Bashir al-Assad was just a disappointed reformer and our best hope for resolving the situation, it also warned the Syrian opposition that it would forfeit all sympathy from the United States if it deigned to arm itself. Back on October 27 of last year, I characterized this view as follows:

We have verbally supported the Syrian opposition, but we have made clear that no intervention on our part is in the offing, and even more bizarre—especially in the eyes of Arabs and others in the region—we have conditioned our support for the Syrian opposition on its not taking up arms. . . . Anyone who had read President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech might have concluded from it that this was a man who would never equate aggressive violence with acts of self-defense. But that person, apparently, would be wrong.

I have not changed my mind about this characterization, but in all fairness, it is not a simple matter. What the Administration and others presumably want to avoid is militarizing Syria’s heterogeneous society, for that is the quickest route to an all-out civil war, one that would make the former Lebanese variety look tame by comparison. That is what spokesmen have meant, I think, when they have said that more guns in the country would not conduce to an eventual stable settlement.

That’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Just because the United States will not supply arms doesn’t mean that others won’t. Others will, and are, and the Saudi regime seems more than willing to finance the effort. We will minimize our leverage in the eventual reconstruction of the Syrian government to the extent that we stay aloof from the fight now. If Assad falls, there will be a ferocious competition for influence over the structure and personalities of the succession. Given the stakes here, it does not serve U.S. interests to be absent from the competition.

Favoring a policy of arming the opposition doesn’t solve the policy problem, however. It only opens up a new one. As is well known, the Syrian opposition in-country, while manifestly brave, is neither united, especially competent or all that trustworthy as a recipient of U.S. military aid. It is not clear what arms we might supply, to whom we might supply them, or how. Even so, these problems could probably be worked out, and there is an argument for doing so more quickly. Some observers fear that the United States would be aiding a group that might eventually give rise to a Sunni fundamentalist regime. That kind of regime might be even worse than the present one, which is why I noted above that it is not an open and shut case that the United States should support the fall of the Assad regime. As desirable in many respects as the regime’s fall is, the question has to be approached with some consideration given to the misanthropies of what might follow it. People say all the time that things can’t get worse, but in fact they can and often do.

On balance, however, it is best that the regime fall, and the reason for acting sooner rather than later to achieve that outcome is that, the more time passes, the more likely it is that the Syrian opposition will become radical fundamentalist in orientation. That, after all, is what happened in Bosnia, as others have pointed out. The sooner the United States, without but hopefully with allies, creates equities with a potential new government, the more readily we will be able to steer, or at least limit, political outcomes.

The supply of arms to an unsteady and disunited Syrian opposition is not a reliable enough undertaking to guarantee the fall of the Assad regime. If we supply arms and the regime endures, it will indeed just ensure that more people end up dead. If we can manage it, something more––and something more dramatic––needs to happen. Let me explain what I have in mind.

The most likely exit route for Bashir al-Assad and his immediate entourage is not a storming of the palace by a militarily triumphant opposition. It is a coup from inside, marshaled by Ba‘ath Party officials and military leaders who have concluded that Assad is more trouble then he is worth. In that sense, what Syrian elites might do is very similar to what Egyptian elites did in throwing Hosni Mubarak over the side. That might happen at some point anyway, but it may take many weeks or even many months. In the meantime, many more innocent people will die and, likely, as already indicated, it will radicalize the opposition in a way that will prejudice the future badly. One way to make that coup happen faster is to shock the Syrian system by external means.

There are two armies on the borders of Syria that are capable of providing this catalytic pretext for action by the Syrian military against the core of the present regime: those of Israel and Turkey. We can rule out any Israeli use of force in Syria under current circumstances for a variety of reasons. If there were ever an over-determined conclusion, this is it. Turkey, on the other hand, is a different matter.

The Turkish government has been embarrassed by the turn of events in recent months in Syria. Prime Minister Erdogan had invested quite a bit of political capital in improved relations with Syria, and only after events in that country grew gruesomely out of control did the Turkish elite change its tune. One reason it did so is because it feared an influx of refugees, mainly Kurdish, across the border from Syria into Turkey. Alas, that fear has materialized. The last thing the Turkish government wants inside its borders is more Kurds, especially ones who will become wards of the state––until, in due course, they turn on that state.

Therefore, the Turkish government and military must have at least discussed by now the idea of creating a holding area for refugees on the Syrian side of their common frontier. It would not be difficult for the Turkish military to enter Syria to set up such a zone. It would not be difficult either for the Turkish military to enter Syria much more deeply than that. It could march directly toward Aleppo and even Damascus if it felt like it, doing medical triage, distributing food and clothing and keeping order as necessary along the way. It could also invite Syrian soldiers and police to join the Turkish effort (one need not use the word “defect” in public)—a far better option for said soldiers and police than being killed by Turkish arms, one would think. An operation premised on humanitarian grounds but that nonetheless had the appearance of a threat to the regime could very well prompt the coup. The tactical logic of such an operation is simple: Its message to the hesitant Syrian elite would be, “The sooner you remove the Assads from power, the less Syrian territory we will occupy, and the less territory we will consequently need to evacuate as a new government is built and achieves a capacity to restore and maintain order.”

The Turkish government thus far has not made any threats about moving into Syrian territory. Indeed, it has expressed a great reluctance to think in such terms. Perhaps one of the reasons is that the government and the military in Turkey do not exactly trust one another these days, and that is no trivial matter standing in the way of a Turkish operation. But this reluctance could change. The idea of a Turkish force returning to the Arab world, this time as a welcome savior, and with the imprimatur of the Arab League, has to paint a beautiful picture in the eyes of Turkey’s current neo-Ottoman dreamers.

For Turkish reluctance to change, however, the United States and Turkey’s other major NATO allies would have to privately assure Turkey that such an operation would be in the interest of the alliance, and that Turkey would not be left hung out to dry if anything went wrong. It would be a good thing, of course, for symbolic purposes if the United Nations would bless such an operation, but this seems highly unlikely given Russian and Chinese attitudes. It might be designated a NATO operation, which sufficed in Bosnia, or a joint NATO-Arab League operation, but that is a complicated matter and not really necessary to get the job done. Whether it becomes a formal NATO operation or not, Turkey’s NATO allies could and should provide all necessary financial and logistic support. The U.S. government needs to lead the effort.

A second-order benefit of a NATO-blessed Turkish operation in Syria could very well be to significantly improve Turkey’s relationship with the major countries in the European Union. One may doubt whether Turkey will ever be admitted to full membership in the European Union, but certainly relations can be improved over their current state. A “band of brothers” episode may not hurt, especially if it does not stumble badly.

If the Turkish military is present on Syrian soil, and the expected coup takes place partly in consequence, that will be only the end of the beginning in the reconstruction of the Syrian government. (If the coup doesn’t happen, the Turks can withdraw as far as they like, even all the way home, claiming the humanitarian effort has succeeded and is over.) Turkey, the European Union, the Arab League, Russia (if it plays nice) and the United States would need to sponsor a Bonn-like conference to work out a transitional arrangement and eventually a new constitutional structure for the Syrian government—just as occurred in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, but in this case we should do a better job of understanding the country and arranging matters accordingly than we did in the Afghan case.

That effort to work out internal matters would need to be cocooned by an international contact group, sponsored by the same parties, to protect a transitional arrangement in Syria from hostile penetration from outsiders. Such a contact group should rightly include Israel, but if this turns out to be a deal-breaker, then the United States would have to carry Israel’s proxy. But it should include Iran. If such a regional contact group were to include both Israel and Iran, so much the better. Another second-order benefit might come from it.

In the context of a shepherded reconstruction of Syrian politics, a parallel effort might be mounted to do the same for Lebanon, in the context of which Lebanon’s genuine independence could be more firmly guaranteed. Lebanon has suffered when Syria is strong, and it has suffered when Syria is weak. The Lebanese people are not blameless in all this, but clearly they have suffered enough.

I recognize full well that there are many pitfalls in the suggestions I have just made. But there are no simple and risk-free courses of action in circumstances such as those we confront today in Syria. No one can say, I think, that the status quo is either tolerable or stable. At least what I am suggesting approaches a strategy, and one sensitive to the interests of the United States. If anyone else has a better idea, one that faces reality square on and has some chance of actually working, I would like to hear it. I love Hamlet. Really, I do. But the time has come to stop whining and wringing our hands, to exit the theater, to tell ourselves the truth and to act accordingly.

Adam Garfinkle is editor of The American Interest.