Tuesday’s newspapers made for some interesting reading on the subject of the Middle East. First, I take note of a New York Times op-ed called “Finish the Job” by James M. Dubik, who is described as a retired Army Lieut. Gen. who oversaw the training of Iraqi troops from the 2007 to 2008. General Dubik argues that we are in quite a mess in Libya, that we have three policy choices, none of them attractive. I agree with his basic assessment, but then of course I sort of have to since back on March 22, in my piece called “Down the Rabbit Hole“, I predicted that air power alone would not be able to depose the Libyan regime and that we would in fact be faced—hold it, let me rephrase that—the Obama Administration would be faced, with a nasty dilemma: either go in to finish the job lest the wounded loon become quite dangerous, or let the situation fester in the hell of half measures.
Actually, General Dubik posits three choices: do nothing and fail, do only enough to prevent failure, or go in and finish the job. I don’t see these as really three options, because doing only enough to prevent failure is merely a stopgap, albeit such “strategy” can go on for a long time, as the Johnson Administration’s approach to Vietnam proves. Eventually, barring genuine dumb luck, good or bad, the Administration still has to decide one way or the other. Still, that minor criticism aside, I think Gen. Dubik sees the situation very clearly. I want to make my own position very clear: I would rather have stayed away from this Libyan intervention altogether, but having started a war we cannot afford to lose it, and I define any outcome that leaves Muamar Qaddafi in power a loss. To listen to Administration spokesman, time is on our side. To listen to most other analysts, it is not. As with most things, time will tell whether the Administration is indulging in Micawberism—waiting futilely for something to turn up—or if its sense of patience will in the end be vindicated.
Yesterday’s Washington Post, on its front page above the fold, grabbed my attention in a very different way. In a news article signed by Scott Wilson, under the headline “Syria escalates gleeful crackdown”, there appears this sentence, functioning as the article’s entire third paragraph: “The government’s show of force, the largest in weeks of street demonstrations, is sharpening the choice facing President Obama, who has attempted to balance calls for democratic reform in the Arab world with concerns of allies that have counted on President Bashar al-Assad to preserve stability in the volatile Middle East.”
When Wilson speaks of “allies that have counted on President Bashar al-Assad to preserve stability in the volatile Middle East”, it naturally raises the question of which allies he’s talking about. One construction is that he means Arab countries that are friendly with the United States, with the possible addition of Israel and perhaps Turkey. We finally figure out what Wilson means when the article meanders over to page A8. This is what he says: “Many US allies, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, hope that Assad finds a way to remain in power.”
We will come to Israel and Turkey in a moment, but first we will need to find oxygen. Because the idea that Saudi Arabia favors the maintenance of the Assad regime in Syria is truly breathtaking. I would love to know how Wilson came to this conclusion. The fact of the matter is that there are no Arab regimes, and certainly no Sunni Arab regimes, with any affection whatsoever for Assad and his thugs in Damascus. As far as the Arabs go, the Syrian regime is isolated. It has no friends, not even among its fellow military government in Algeria. By allying itself with Iran and murdering scores of Sunni politicians in Lebanon, the Syrian regime has made enemies to one degree or another out of all of them, not least Saudi Arabia, but also including every single Gulf regime except, perhaps, those high-wire diplomatic gamblers in Qatar, the kind of Arab Bedouin magicians who take our money for basing rights and use it to fund the pandamonically anti-American TV station Al-Jazeera.
There is a remote possibility, I suppose, that the Jordanian regime would fear a refugee crisis on its border should things get a lot worse in Syria, particularly so since the town of Dera’a, near the border, has been an epicenter of revolt. But the idea that the Hashemite monarchy would prefer an Alawi-ruled Syria in perpetuity to a Sunni-dominated one just because of that is very difficult to credit.
Now what about Israel? Walter Russell Mead lays out a basic strategic analysis of the Syrian dilemma very nicely in his American Interest blog post of April 23, “War in Syria Next?” One of the comments he makes is that Israel has a stake in the Assad regime. As he put it, the Israelis don’t love the Syrian regime, but it has provided a certain predictability. Actually, Walter isn’t wrong, but he understates and perhaps slightly oversimplifies the situation.
Israelis have for many years disagreed about the role that Syria has played in the region and how it has abutted on Israeli interests. At the risk of simplifying somewhat myself, the Israeli military, and those Israelis who see the world more or less like the military does, have viewed the Alawi regime as the least bad of alternatives in Syria. Why is this? Basically, three reasons.
First, the Alawis are very repressive. They repress Sunnis as their speciality (see Hama, 1982). They repress the Muslim Brotherhood. They repress Salafi fanatics who want to destroy Israel even more than some non-Sunni Syrians say they do. If the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend, then the Syrian regime is a friend to Israel of a certain Middle Eastern kind.
Second, the Syrians are afraid of Israel militarily, and so they renew the United Nations mandate concerning the Golan Heights regularly without complaint or comment. This has made the Golan Heights one of the safest places in the entire region, unless you happen to be a bulgar-eating cow who steps inadvertently on an old Syrian landmine, thus turning itself into many kilos of kibbie. This creates military stability on one of Israel’s borders—not a small matter as such matters go.
Third, the Syrian regime, by insisting on a command economy for political reasons, keeps Syria an economic basketcase. The country is so poor and so lacks economic dynamism that the prospect of it replacing its rusting Soviet order of battle for cash on the barrelhead is about nil. This, of course, is related to the first comment: The Syrian regime is afraid of Israel because it cannot keep up with Israel militarily. That fact may be a main reason that led the Syrian regime to collude with North Korea in trying to create a nuclear weapons capability. Such a capability could leapfrog its conventional inferiority. Of course, that didn’t work out so well for the Syrians either.
Together, these last two circumstances also explain why Israel need not feel particularly pressured to compromise territorially on the matter of the Golan Heights. Experts on this part of the world know that the Alawis, whose home turf is in Latakia province, feel no special attachment to the Golan Heights which, in Syrian terms, amounts to Jebel Druze, or the mountain of the Druze. These two minoritarian groups within Syria have never particularly liked one another or gotten along. The idea that the Alawis would risk their tenure in Damascus for an equity that belongs to the Druze doesn’t make a lot of sense. This doesn’t stop some Americans and others from imagining that the Assad regime, that of the father as well as that of the son, are sincere believers in Syrian nationalism and pan-Arab nationalism, and that they want the Golan Heights back desperately for nationalist reasons. To the extent that one knows little about Syrian history and political culture, this argument makes sense. But of course it’s wrong.
For Israelis who for one reason or another don’t want to return the Golan Heights to Syria, or to anybody else, the Alawi regime thus functions as a kind of guarantee that negotiations will never get that serious. That negotiations may have seemed to get very serious in the fairly recent past is an illusion. The negotiating process itself was valuable to the Syrian regime, but an actual deal that required implementation would not have been. A deal would have deprived the regime of its excuse to funnel money and other resources into the military, which, in addition to the Ba’ath Party, is under the control of the Alawis. It would have ended the pretext that has justified Syria’s emergency laws all these years. It would have created demands for a more normal politics, a normality that sooner or later would undermine Alawi control of the country and the economy.
Here is some evidence that supports this interpretation. Every time a deal seemed to be within reach, the Syrians would predictably haul out a demand that the new border ratified by the peace treaty to be specify the one that existed on the day before June 6, 1967. But the border before June 6, 1967 was not the international border; it was instead the result of demilitarized zones established in the armistice arrangements of 1949 and by subsequent tactical creep in the years after 1949. The de facto border of June 5, 1967 had the Syrians dipping their toes in the Sea of Galilee, while the international border, as drawn between the British and the French mandatory authorities after World War I, did and does not.
It is only a matter of couple of meters really, but it is a critical couple of meters, because it determines whether Syria is entitled to riparian rights to the Sea of Galilee, and hence to the outflow of the sea into the lower Jordan River. There was and there remains no way that any Israeli government, no matter what its politics or its coalition circumstances, would ever agree to allow Syria riparian rights on the Sea of Galilee. Since the Syrians know this, making this demand is a no-fail showstopper.
The Syrians must have been privately terrified at one point, the last time this sort of thing got going, when some clever Israelis, assisted by some clever Americans, reasoned that because the Sea of Galilee had receded in size over the years since 1967, it might be possible to let the Syrians come back to where they were literally on June 5, 1967 without being able to dip their toes into the sea. The idea was to give in to the Syrian demand, thus allowing the sealing of a deal, but without jeopardizing fundamental Israeli security over access to water. According to some accounts, that is when the Syrians pulled the plug and ended the negotiations, since they had run out of excuses not to say “yes.”
This point of view, in which Israelis see some strategic benefit from the Alawi regime in Syria, also explains why at least some Israelis did not disparage particularly Syrian domination of Lebanon between the onset of the Civil War in 1975 and the Cedar Revolution. The reasoning went something as follows: The Syrians, out of their own interests, would enforce limits on how crazy Lebanon might get. Left to their own devices, the Lebanese might collapse themselves again into civil war, one in which Iran might now prove decisive in support of Hezbollah and the Shi’a in general. Better the Syrians to control or balance matters, thought many Israelis, then a Lebanon left completely free to destroy itself, and allow the creation of a new security nightmare in the south of the country even worse for Israel than was the case before the 1982 Israeli invasion.
Moreover, according to the same logic, Syria would never let Lebanese territory pose a genuine military threat to Israel, because if it did, Israel would go to war to upend that threat, and that by definition would have to include Syria. That meant, in essence, that Syrian influence in Lebanon inherently moderated Syrian policy as well as any prospective threat from Lebanon. For many Israelis, that was just fine. Besides, reasoned many, an Israeli peace treaty with Lebanon wasn’t worth very much, even if one could be acquired. Lebanon by itself, as a state, poses no existential threat to Israel, so beyond the symbol of a peace agreement there would be no strategic substance to be gained from it.
This Israeli way of thinking with regard to Syria has not been immune from challenge. It has been challenged by other Israelis, of which more below, but it has also been challenged by reality. The truth of the matter is that Syrian influence in Lebanon did not decisively constrain Hezbollah’s ability to harm Israel. It probably limited it, true, which may be inferred from the fact that since the Syrian military was forced to leave Lebanon in April 2005, Iran’s arming of Hezbollah has accelerated both in quantity and quality. It is precisely that post-Syrian growth that helped lead to the summer 2006 mini-war between Israel and Hezbollah. But it would be a stretch to say that Syrian influence kept the Hezbollah menace controlled within a box. The Syrians wagered, in essence, that they could use Hezbollah’s growing threat to Israel as a kind of stick or asset, propitiate their Iranian ally by doing so, and at the same time not let that threat grow so large as to catalyze an Israeli preemption.
This was always risky business, and the net result today represents a real irony as far as the Syrians are concerned. Whatever role Damascus may have played as a modulator in Lebanese affairs, it now stands vulnerable to the outflow of Iranian behavior such that its alliance with Iran has actually increased the danger to itself. Iran has armed Hezbollah with so many rockets and missiles that it has become a very serious threat to Israel’s civilian population. It is by no means far-fetched that at some point in the near future the Israeli government and military will determine this to be unacceptable. If Israel takes military action to eliminate the threat posed by Hezbollah, it will probably have no choice but to preemptively attack Syrian targets so that Israeli aircraft will not be vulnerable to Syrian air defenses. The Syrians are likely to get smashed but good. Ironically, too, however, Israelis who value the stability that the Alawi regime has provided are not about to do such a thing anytime soon, for fear that it would be the last straw on top of the regime’s funeral pyre.
Now, if you happen to be an Israeli who thinks that a peace deal with Syria is the key to all manner of good things, then the present Syrian regime is and has long been an obstacle to all those good things. And there are many such Israelis. They are not particularly worried that a post-Alawi Sunni regime would be friendly toward, prone to or a victim of Salafi fanaticism. They believe that if the Syrians were not there to mess things up, Israel and Lebanon could sign a peace agreement that would in truth be worth something. And they believe further that an Israeli-Syrian peace deal would make a peace deal with the Palestinians much easier to acquire, implement and enforce. So this is the rationale for those Israelis who think that a peace deal between Israel and Syria is the key to an end-of-conflict series of negotiations. Since the present Alawi regime will not make such a deal, most members of the school by now believe, it stands to reason that its fall is in Israel’s ultimate long-term interests.
I hope no one is surprised to learn that Israelis have taken amongst themselves different views of this issue over the years. Israelis disagree about a great many things. And this is why I said above that Walter’s assessment here is not so much wrong, but perhaps a little on the lite side.
Now Turkey. As Walter points out, Turkey is another country that has invested a fair bit with the Syrian regime in recent years. But I don’t think that the current Turkish government would shed any tears for the Alawis were they to fall to a Sunni-dominated government. After all, the AKP is itself very seriously Sunni, and is likely to see a Damascus restored to the Sunnis as a better potential ally in the long run then the Alawis could ever be.
If there are in Turkey centers of power that look kindly upon Assad and the Ba’ath for the sake of stability, these consist of the army and secularists still in thrall to the Ataturkist legacy elsewhere in the country.
From the U.S. point of view, it is almost too easy to make a list of good things that would, or at least could, happen if the Syrian regime should fall, assuming, of course, that what replaces it isn’t even worse for Western interests (not an assumption that can be made glibly). First, Iran loses a key ally. Its ability to pollute Lebanese politics decreases. It’s ability to arm Hezbollah decreases. Its ability to foil Saudi desiderata goes away. Second, the ability or inclination, or both, of Damascus to support terrorism far and wide presumably decreases as well, if not ends altogether. That includes its ability to continue making trouble inside Iraq.
A reduction in the mischief-making potential of Syria is of course a good thing. It might make Palestinians a bit more pliant, since reining in Hezbollah would also hurt Hamas. This might help the so-called peace process along, but it needs so very much help that this alone is unlikely to be decisive.
The fall of the Assad regime might also give the Iranian regime pause. Walter suggests that it might make the mullahs more flexible in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, but I doubt that. I think the Iranians see the nuclear program as essentially nonnegotiable because it represents the ultimate ace in the hole against Western efforts toward regime change. Walter also suggests, more plausibly in my view, that it might curtail Iranian risk-taking, which might in turn reduce the prospect of a major fight between Iran and the United States. But then again, many factors play in such considerations, some that may be reasonably said to be controllable and some we should very reasonably assume not to be.
It is true, obviously, that the United States has divided interests in what is going on in the Arab world today in general. On the one hand, we support the right of free speech, assembly and peaceable protest against authoritarian regimes, and we wish true democrats (few as they may be) and those fighting for their rights well in such a contest. Indeed, we support them even in the knowledge that their success might well lead to a long period of general political instability. Rapid political change and rapid economic growth are not stabilizing; quite the contrary, as any reading of history will tell you. The success of the anti-authoritarian pulse in the Middle East is more likely to create space for al-Qaeda to plot and take shelter than its failure, and this is true despite the fact that the success of anti-authoritarian protest movements would undermine the appeal of al-Qaeda’s pitch, which is that only its brand of resistance can change the unacceptable status quo.
But pace Scott Wilson, Syria does not manifest this dilemma. Of all the cases in the Middle East, the Syrian case is the one in which there is the closest parallel between American strategic interests and American principles. Aside from Israel’s special interpretation of the present Syrian regime, it is clear that, from the American point of view, the upside overwhelms the risks when it comes to Bashar al-Assad. Americans should want him and his murderous Ba’ath regime gone. The risks that a post-Alawi Syria could be worse then the present regime are not zero, but they should not paralyze us. This is a case where American interests and principles are not in conflict, but it is a case in which U.S. interests and Israeli interests, at least as interpreted by many Israelis, may be in conflict.
As to more abstract issues, Walter put his finger on the obvious discomfort that the situation in Syria creates for the Obama Administration, but it’s not the choice, as Wilson would have us believe, between interests and principles. Rather it’s a matter of principles inconsistently applied.
We still don’t know if there would have been a massacre in Benghazi. What we do know is that since March 17, when the cruise missiles started flying toward Tripoli, the death of innocent civilians in Libya, and perhaps not-so-innocent ones in rebel formations, has not ceased. The ordeal in Misurata stands as bleak testimony to that reality. Yet as the Libyan regime has increased the indiscriminate shelling of that town and others, and killed scores of civilians, the Obama Administration has reduced U.S. participation in the air campaign. As Walter points out, the potential for mass murder by the regime of its own people is greater by far in Syria than in Libya. Yet despite some tough words, there is no indication whatsoever that the United States is contemplating military intervention in Syria on behalf of the same principles, embodied in the UN resolution, that we say is the basis of the NATO intervention in Libya. Looked at from the humanitarian perspective, the issues in Libya and Syria are the same, but the gravity of the situation is much worse in Syria. Yet the U.S. government intervenes in the lighter case, however indecisively, but shows no sign of intervening in the latter, heavier case.
As Walter also suggests, but which no one can prove, it is possible that the willingness of the Syrian people go into the street has been buoyed by the sight of NATO aircraft at work in Libya. If that is true, then what United States has done in Libya has made it complicit in developments in Syria. This reminds some of us of the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, when the actions and words of the United States led the Kurds and the Shia to rise up against Saddam Hussein only to be left hung completely out to dry. It also reminds some of us of the American role in stimulating Hungarians to take to the streets against their Soviet occupiers in October 1956, when it was always clear—on this side of the Atlantic anyway—that the United States was not about to start World War III over Budapest. Have we gone and done the same thing again? Have we proved once again that our idealistic posturing, which makes those who do it feel so noble within, is not free of a price, at least not for others?
Walter has a couple of choice questions on this very point for Samantha Power, as if she had made the critical decisions over Libya and not the President. This is a satisfying way of writing about the problem, even if it’s not completely fair. But again, Walter has alluded to the key issue even if he did not name it as such: moral hazard. If the United States acts such a way that it elicits violent anti-regime behavior hither and yon, but does not then come to the aid of those thus elicited, it is morally responsible, at least in part, for the consequences.
This is not just a theory. U.S. behavior and language combined to persuade the KLA in Kosovo that if it started a terror campaign against the Serbs, the Serbs would retaliate in an oafish and disproportional manner such as to draw the United States in on the side of the Kosovars. And that is pretty much what happened, for better or for worse—and I think probably for some of both. But the inarguable fact is that a lot of people got killed as a result of that war, and the United States cannot absolve itself from being at least partly to blame. Whether the outcome justifies the price, a price that, as usual, was paid mainly by others, is a matter on which honest people disagree. Obviously, not acting can carry a price, too. No one is trying to imply that these things are easy or simple.
What this means at the least, however, is that when American Presidents and other leaders utter idealistic statements that make for good applause lines, and that make them feel good inside, and persuade themselves and others that they are being good citizens of the world in affirming the so-called responsibility to protect, it ramifies in practical ways that can lead to very bloody consequences. All high-profile political speech must contend with the problem of multiple audiences. It is never easy to do this, but people who take moral issues seriously should be the first, not the last, to make an extra effort.
We could do worse than to end with a quote from George Orwell. Orwell once said, reportedly at least, that all saints should be presumed guilty until proven innocent. I cannot improve on that.