WHITHER WESTERN POLICY ON SYRIA? AN UPDATE
"Last year at this time, I argued that Assad would last until 2013 – Why the Assad Regime Will Likely Survive to 2013 – despite the many predictions that he was on the verge of falling in 2012. This year, I make a similar prediction that Assad will last until 2014. The reasons I give are outlined in the following two articles by Karon and Weaver, copied below. Fred Hof’s article, excerpted below, is excellent. His worry that the Syrian opposition may fail to produce a convincing Syrian Nationalism or present a viable alternative to the narrow Assad “rule by clan and clique” is the real problem. Assad has perfected rule by traditional loyalties and patronage combined with fear and intimidation. The regime has survived for so long because Syrians have been unable to unify against it. Divide-and-rule has been the mainstay of this regime. So long as the opposition continues to squabble and Syrians remain deeply divided, and greater powers don’t intervene, the Assad regime will likely find a way to hang on. More importantly, as Fred Hof laments, “If in the end Syria is really akin to Lebanon in terms of the supremacy of sectarian identification, it is finished.”'Joshua Landis, "The Assad Regime May Well Survive to 2014." Syria Comment. 3 January 2013, in www.syriacomment.com.
"But the real problem for the White House is that Mr Panetta has drawn attention to the fact that the administration’s strategy for the Syrian civil war is in tatters. The war is intensifying, the humanitarian disaster growing and the regional consequences expanding. Yet most of the reasons that the US has given for not becoming more involved have become irrelevant. At a rhetorical level, at least, Mr Obama has tried to have it both ways on Syria. In his inaugural address three weeks ago, he promised “a decade of war is ending”. But as far back as August 2011, he called for Mr Assad to step aside. Last April at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, he was asked by Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate: “How is it that Assad is still in power?” Mr Obama responded that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national-security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States”. How to square that circle, to be against both intervention and atrocity? For months, the administration threw its weight behind a negotiated political transition to a new government, an effort that has seemed stillborn since the collapse of Kofi Annan’s UN-Arab League diplomatic initiative last summer. American officials once argued that throwing more arms into the conflict would only accelerate the dominance of local warlords and close all options other than victory by the gun. Yet that is now the reality on the ground. The Obama administration feared that its greater involvement would help turn the conflict into a proxy war for outside powers, but the Syrian conflict is now a battle with Iran supporting one side, Qatar and Saudi Arabia the other. For all the risk that arming the rebels could aggravate regional spillover, Turkey is already drowning in refugees and Israel has recently bombed a convoy in Syria to prevent more weapons leaking into Lebanon. Even the one “red line” for intervention established by the administration – the use of chemical weapons – has come perilously close to being breached with the mysterious gas that was reportedly released in Homs in December. One by one, the reasons given for not getting involved have withered. Of course, just because one strategy has failed does not make the alternatives any better. The Obama administration is right to fear that the Syrian conflict could develop into a quagmire. Washington would not be able to prevent American weapons from ending up in the hands of Jihadis. It is not too hard to imagine the same arms used against the Assad regime today being turned against Israel in the future. There are plenty of good reasons for caution".Geoff Dyer, "Panetta Exposes Obama's Syrian Dilemma." The Financial Times. 10 February 2013, in www.ft.com. The realities expressed by Joshua Landis have not changed since the beginning of the year. Nay they have not changed since January 2012. With that being said, and assuming that Professor Landis surmise about 2014 is indeed correct, where does that leave Western policy? It seems to me that one should tabulate the pros and the cons of overt Western military intervention as follows: i) pro-by overtly intervening, the Western powers will ensure that: a) the Assad Regime will be overthrown; b) that the Assad Regime will be succeeded by pro-Western, anti-Persian, anti-extremist forces; c) that the process involved in 'a' and 'b', will be short and quick, rather than unnecessarily prolonged and bloody (or should one say, confine the 'bloodiness' to the ferocious levels already attained); d) the quick and decisive overthrow by the Western powers of the Assad regime, will result in a heavy defeat for Persia and its allies: Hezbollah in particular, in the region. Increasing the likelihood, that Persia will diplomatically stage a climb-down in its negotiations with the Western powers over the nuclear negotiations; ii) contra-by not intervening overtly, the Western powers will ensure that: a) they will not lose any of their own forces in a conflict which has so far consumed thousand and thousands of Syrian lives; b) they will at the very least, ensure that they do not assume any moral responsibility for the aftermath of the overthrow of the Assad Regime. In particular, sans large numbers of Western troops on the ground, post-facto to the overthrow of the Assad regime for perhaps years, there is a high likelihood of large scale massacres of Alawite, Shiite and other non-Sunni Muslim peoples in Syria, akin to what occurred in Iraq, post-facto to the American invasion; c) similarly, the Western powers will not assume any responsibility for any of the disorders akin to those in Libya currently, which are very well likely, in the absence of large numbers of Western troops on the ground, to occur in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Assad regime; d) the absence of Western military intervention will prevent a break diplomatically speaking with both Russia and with China. An important consideration given the fact that any such Western intervention will have no foundation in International law and be in fact a violation of the same; e) perhaps the most important variable is that any overt Western military intervention, will call forth equally no doubt, more Persian, Iraqi, Russian and Hezbollah intervention on the opposing side. Of course if it came to escalation between these two sides, the West will win, win relatively easily. However, this likelihood of counter-intervention, must be tabulated as a reason to not intervene since there is no exact prediction as to what may occur once the Western powers intervene and the pro-Assad forces counter-intervene. Which is not to gainsay the fact that the Persians and the others are already intervening in Syria. Given the above pros and cons, what is the intelligent observer of international affairs to say? Well first, that there are no good options in approaching the crisis in Syria, merely bad and not so bad. Second, it is perhaps true in retrospect that a full-scale, overt, Western military intervention might eighteen months ago, repeat might have made a great difference and resulted in a quick overthrow of the Assad regime. The problem with this scenario both eighteen months ago and now is that there is no great willingness to throw troops into Syria, much less keep them there for perhaps years on end `a la Iraq, 2003-2011. Given this fact, and the fact, that au fond, Syria is not, per se, a vital Western strategic interest. The horrible massacres going on in this wretched country is precisely that: horrible. However, this fact cannot gainsay the equally horrible fact that similar massacres and death totals are going on in Sub-Saharan Africa at the moment. Viewed from simply a machtpolitik perspective, the continuation in power of the Assad regime is a quite acceptable situation for the Western powers. Just as the continuation in power of the Assad regime (pere et fils) has been 'acceptable', not agreeable mind you, merely acceptable, since Anno Domini 1970. And of course once Assad, et. al., has been ousted there is no predicting what may occur in that wretched country. Indeed, from a purely selfish perspective, the continuation in power of the Assad regime is perhaps a 'lesser evil', to what may happen if in fact Assad were to be ousted. Given all of the above unknown variables, I believe that a policy of 'watchful waiting', and principled 'non-intervention' best suits the Western powers in the current case of Syria. Just as (to use a fruitful historical example) the policy of non-intervention worked best in the case of the Spanish Civil War. Or as former American Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, best expressed the matter almost ten years ago:
"There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know".