Syria: The policy dilemma that endures
By Carl O Schuster
The international community remains divided over what policy to take towards the Syria conflict. No one can defend the Assad regime's egregious human-rights record or his alleged employment of chemical weapons against the rebels. Moreover, the Syrian people, particularly the Sunni Muslim majority, have suffered under the Assad family's minority Alawite Muslim regime for over 40 years and their plight deserves sympathy and, if a rational policy can be found for it, active support.
The challenge for the international community is to enact a policy that addresses the current situation without setting the stage for
something worse to follow, as has happened in Libya and, more distantly, in Afghanistan.
The basic dividing line is between those who "want to do something" and those who are focused on what any particularly action or policy is "likely to achieve". The differing objectives separate the interventionists from the non-interventionists.
Intervention advocates fall into two schools of thought. The first believes the rebels are fighting for the freedom of all Syrians against a totalitarian minority-based regime that operates not unlike that of the late Saddam Hussein. America's Senator McCain, who has just returned from talks with some rebel leaders, is the most prominent advocate of that very appealing line of reasoning.
The second school believes that the conflict's ethno-religious mix threatens to spread the fighting into neighboring countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and possibly Turkey. Turkey, most European and many Arab leaders share that belief.
However, intervention opponents reject both of those rationales. The majority of the rebel groups have sworn loyalty to or alliance with al-Qaeda and other militant Islamist groups, who bring hundreds of trained volunteers, weapons and expertise to the fight. Freedom and respect for human rights as Westerners see them are not on the rebel agenda, except as propaganda. Opponents also believe the current conflict is drawing jihadists of both the Shi'ite and Sunni sects into Syria, where they are fighting each other instead of working to remove the "apostate regimes" of their home countries or attacking Westerners.
Therein lies the policy dilemma. No one wants to repeat the mistakes of the past. Nor do they want to miss an opportunity to help a great people overthrow a tyrant. However, the lessons from past interventions both recent and more distant should give interventionists pause to at least consider what they must do to prevent painful historical repetition.
For example, the West provided arms, ammunition and training to Afghanistan's Mujahideen in the 1980s, largely ignoring the Islamist militants fighting nearby. American policy was justified in terms of helping the Afghan people regain their freedom from Soviet aggression. Few American lives were lost in that fight, the Soviets were defeated, and a few years later, the Cold War ended.
Most political leaders and media commentators felt global stability and security had been achieved. However, believing that meant ignoring post-Soviet events in Afghanistan. What followed the Soviet withdrawal neither gave the Afghans freedom nor provided a foundation for regional stability. Quite the opposite occurred.
Militant Islam in the form of the Taliban, supported by al-Qaeda, took over Afghanistan and launched jihad across Central Asia, reaching into China, India, Pakistan, East Africa and even the United States. The first World Trade Center attack took place in 1993, barely two years after the Berlin Wall fell. Al-Qaeda, operating out of its Afghan safe havens, grew to a strength exceeding 15,000 and established terrorist cells across Europe, Africa and Asia. Hundreds died in the terrorist attacks that followed in the eight years that preceded 9/11.
In this century's first decade, regime change in Iraq led to a multi-year civil conflict that continues to this day. There at least, however, the government is nominally democratic. More recently, Western support of the Libyan rebels led to Muammar Gaddafi's fall, followed by Western journalists tearfully stating that the country's militants had changed their views towards America and the West.
As happened in Afghanistan years earlier, reality struck some months later. A Libyan jihadist group attempted to kill the British ambassador in early 2012 and attacked the American consulate in Benghazi that September, killing the American ambassador and three others. More importantly, the Libyans neither acquired their freedom nor was regional stability enhanced.
Libya's "government" barely controls the streets around its key buildings in Tripoli while tribal militias and militant Islamists control vast areas of the countryside. Meanwhile, northwest Africa's militant jihadists are awash with weapons, ammunition, volunteers and funding from their Libyan allies. Two of the al-Qaeda linked groups united with local separatists and nearly conquered Mali. They were stopped in January, after capturing over 60% of the country, by a French-led interventionist force.
The French and a United Nations-mandated African force have retaken most of the country but not before the militants spread out across region, initiating Islamist revolts in northern Nigeria, conducting suicide bombings in Niger and raiding villages Chad and Central Africa. Surely, that was not what Western leaders intended when they launched their air strikes against Gaddafi's forces. Fortunately, Gaddafi surrendered his chemical weapons and nuclear materials years earlier, so there were none for the militants to seize or sell.
Those are the facts on which intervention opponents base their policy position. Military theorists would also argue that no leaders should enter a conflict without a thorough understanding of its participants and what resources may be required to achieve a positive political objective.
Neither side of the Syria debate has issued any indication of that type of reasoning, but it is a critical element of the decision-making process. The Assad regime is a totalitarian regime based almost entirely on the minority Alawite sect, which constitutes less than 18% of the population. The regime relies on Christian fears of the Sunni Muslim majority to ensure that community's loyalty. Sunni Muslims constitute a disenfranchised 55% of the population whose political status is akin to that of Iraq's Shi'ite majority under Hussein. Thus, the regime's political legitimacy is limited at best. However, as was the case in Iraq, there are internal and external players who will influence what follows the regime's fall.
First, Iran has provided the regime both Revolutionary Guards and mercenaries hired from among its Afghan refugee population. Hezbollah, which relies on Syrian support and as a conduit for arms, supplies and money, has also deployed fighters into Syria to assist the regime.
There are also reports of Iranian-funded Shi'ite Iraqi volunteers from al-Sadr's militia fighting for Assad. In these instances, the resources committed to the conflict come at the expense of those organization's domestic and international activities, which are contrary to Western interests and regional security. For the West, helping the rebels defeat Iran and Hezbollah might prove political and strategically useful.
Second, there is the problem of the Syrian opposition's growing ideological divisions. What started as a secular movement involving army defectors and young political activists has become divided among factions of diversified religious and political ideologies. The militant Islamists have gained ascendance in some areas of northern and southwestern Syria.
They have killed Christians and secularists, and in most cases have begun to impose their strict version of Sharia law. As the militants did in Mali, they have thrown out the secular rebels and the less-militant Islamist groups to establish their own governing areas. The militants numbers are growing as foreign volunteers from across the Muslim world continue to pour in, primarily via Iraq but also by sea.
Finally, even among Syria's secularists, there is a desire to exact revenge against pro-regime and Alawite elements for years of regime oppression. Aspiration for revenge was one of the most difficult roadblocks to establishing democracy in Iraq. A similar element will surface in post-Assad Syria unless there is some governing force to contain it.
Finally, there is the regional security issue. The fighting has already touched Turkey and Lebanon while Jordan has been flooded with refugees. The risk of the Syrian conflict spreading to Lebanon is very real. Its communal divisions are also very real and only a decade removed from open civil war, but both the population and their communal leaders have evinced little interest in joining the fight or resuming their civil war.
That could change, particularly if a Sunni regime takes charge in Damascus and seeks revenge against Hezbollah for its involvement in the civil war. Additionally, al-Qaeda and the other Sunni-based Islamist militant groups view Jordan's King Abdullah as an apostate ruler leading an un-Islamic government bordering Israel and doing nothing to help the Palestinian cause.
Should a grateful government come to power in Damascus, as happened in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, Jordan could become a priority target for al-Qaeda and its allies as a stepping stone to threaten Israel, although as a rule al-Qaeda has been very wary of antagonizing Tel Aviv. Acquiring Syrian chemical weapons may change that, a fact that will drive Israeli actions if the regime's control of the weapons ever becomes questionable.
China, whose influence has begun to grow in the Middle East, remains wary of any policy that encompasses interference in a country's domestic sovereignty. Moreover, the two sides supporting the opposing parties in the conflict, Iran and the predominantly Sunni Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, provide 50% of China's energy imports. Also, China's leaders prefer a certain status quo rather than opening a door to unpredictable and probably negative unintended consequences that follow violent change.
Yet, China's silence on the issue is harming its credibility among Arab leaders and populations with whom it is trying strengthen its relations and influence. Nonetheless, Beijing will not change its Syria stance unless the country descends into a failed state.
For Russia, it is committed to supporting the Assad regime, its last remaining Arab ally, to the very end. Russia's political objective is to end the war via an internal political accommodation that results in a pro-Russian regime. It opposes foreign intervention because the resulting regime change would neither be pro-Russian nor enhance Russia's or the region's security. The possibility of Chechen jihadists possessing Syrian chemical weapons is a nightmare Moscow would rather not face.
The international community's divisions add another level of complexity to this already complex problem. Meanwhile, the fighting and dying continues as the world debates. Added to the already extensive human suffering of the Syrian Civil War, the factors described above make a compelling argument for ending the conflict. Doing nothing certainly seems irresponsible at this time. The challenge, however (or better, the objective), is to end the conflict in a way that leads to a stable Syria that becomes a contributing member of the international community and not a safe haven for a regional or global terrorist movement. That is the policy dilemma.
Syria suffers from the same complex ethno-religious mix as Iraq and Lebanon but lacks the latter's democratic traditions. If interventionists truly want to do what is best for Syria and the Middle East, then they need to address what resources they will commit, and from whence they will draw those resources, to assist Syria in building the institutions and inter-communal relations required to achieve the objective stated above. The status and control of Syria's chemical weapons is a question that must be addressed.
No-fly zones and an effective bombing campaign probably will lead to regime change, but is the West, indeed the Middle East, ready to deal with what follows? If not, then what are their plans and requirements to ensure Syria comes of the war truly free and stable? Will ground troops be involved and if so, how many; what will their mandate be and from whence will they come?
Carl O Schuster is a retired United States Navy Captain based in Honolulu, Hawaii. The views expressed here are his own.
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