The fastest way to end the killing in Syria is to give that bastard Bashar “Ducky” Assad his win.
Supporting the insurgency (or, more accurately, insurgencies) in Syria fuels the civil war. If after a long, bloody conflict Assad ends up hanging from a tall, tall tree; then the bloodshed will continue through the confessional cleansing of Alawite heretics, through the struggle between Islamist-supported militias and the rest, and through the struggle between Shiite militias and the rest.
An acknowledged Assad victory would be a triumphal moment for the Quds Force, the segment of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps which, among other things, spreads Iranian influence in the region. Letting the Quds Force have this victory is hard, but it’s a victory they’ve already won. Bleeding Syria to pretend they haven’t won is immoral and counterproductive.
Even if Assad swings, Iran can win. The Quds Force leadership must already be planning to convert elements of a fallen Assad regime into an Alawite militia which would enjoy the conditional support of Hezbollah, another Quds Force proxy. After that, their task will be to create a more orthodox Shiite militia, because the Alawite heretics will have to be converted, cleansed or killed when they are no longer useful to Tehran.
All the militias will still be rooted in tribal and geographic loyalties, not just the Iranian ones: The Turkish-supported ones and the Gulf-supported ones, the French-supported ones and the Anglo-Saxon-Supported ones.
The vision of a Syria without Assad is a beautiful idea, but with a pile of almost 100,000 corpses stacked in Syria it is time to consider the best way to achieve that vision.
From 1990, when Syria was no longer a Soviet ally and not yet a Russian ally, we were happy with the Assads. Old Man Assad helped out with the First Gulf War, contained Saddam Hussein from the West, rubbed along with Turkey on NATO’s southern flank, and kept his border with Israel quiet. We all knew he was a bastard, but he was a useful bastard.
When his son Bashar took over, there was a lot of spin about how he was a reformer and how he would liberalize Syria. This was important to the West because he was such a useful bastard, and we wanted to avoid his becoming a liability because of his awful human rights record.
Bashar, like his father, also provided stability. The Assads have been state sponsors of terrorism and large-scale producers of drugs and American banknotes. Their long-time hegemony in Lebanon and their confrontation with Israel both directly and through proxies have been irksome, mostly to Lebanese and Israeli people; but apart from this they have offered stability. The Israeli border had been quiet since 1973. The borders with Turkey and Iraq had been secure since colonial times.
Bashar kept the region stable until we ruined it by tempting people to dump him and then sustaining them.
Arabs ought to have the same right to choose their leaders as everyone else. We often ignore this, and we had in Syria for generations.
We didn’t take a sound strategic approach to enfranchising Arabs. We ignored them, apart from that bizarre burst of de-Ba’athification in Iraq. We ignored them until the romantic excitement of Arab Spring welled up. Then we relied on a happy ending to the Arab Spring story, and we watched a nonviolent protest movement in Syria turn into the very armed uprising that the Assad regime was designed to destroy. We were so caught up in the Arab Spring narrative that we expected Assad to obligingly topple from power the way Mubarak had.
Did we assume that the Russians would dump Assad the way we dumped Mubarak? No, we didn’t even think it through that far. For years, we kept Egyptians disenfranchised because we knew that a free election would bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power. That is the same calculation that keeps us discouraging a Palestinian election which would again hand victory to Hamas. That calculation wasn’t part of the Arab Spring narrative. In our narrative, Mubarak fell because he was a bad old dictator, not because the Yanks cut him loose. We ignored Western complicity in the Mubarak regime’s longevity, and we ignored Russian support for Assad.
The Russians, of course, were not interested in the Arab Spring narrative. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has spent the last two years speaking sensible truths about Syria, and we in the West have put our fingers into our ears. Lavrov is the Dick Deadeye of the gruesome Syrian farce: ‘From such a face and form as mine the noblest utterances sound like the black utterances of a depraved imagination’, laments the villain in HMS Pinafore. Because Lavrov is Putin’s man we overlook his sound judgement when he says that supporting anti-Assad insurgents prolongs the killing.
The insurgents were useless at insurgency; and so even with cash arriving from Qatar by the lorry-load, they were thrashed again and again.
Not only did the Syrian insurgents think they could briskly knock Assad off his perch, so did a lot of Western governments who found the delicious Arab Spring narrative more palatable than the skeptical grumblings of people who know the region’s history. They, we, have been disappointed. The insurgents were useless at insurgency; and so even with cash arriving from Qatar by the lorry-load, they were thrashed again and again.
One rarely gets the chance to start training insurgents before the insurgency starts. Mao Zedong, who knew a thing or two about insurgency, prescribed a period of organizing and building before a period of guerrilla warfare and then open war. Hezbollah, Assad’s friends in the Lebanon, know all about this and so do the clever folks at Hamas who provide education and health care along with waistcoats made of high explosives.
Mao wrote about a period of internal discipline and establishing credibility, but the quickie insurgency in Libya showed that with the wholehearted participation of several NATO air forces this dull period could be skipped. The Libyan insurgents went straight to open war, and with a lot of help they managed to overthrow Gaddafi almost before they had unwrapped their American-made uniforms.
Now the best endgame that the West can imagine is a Balkanized Syria: a Sunni entity that will be sponsored by Qatar and the Saudis and that will resist Tehran, an Alawite enclave sentenced in advance to poverty and dependence, and a thick slice of Kurdistan which will be artificially divided from Iraqi Kurdistan and which will somehow be accepted by the Turks and Iraq’s Shiites. Also, a Hezbollah-dominated entity spanning the increasingly-irrelevant border between Lebanon and Syria. They envision one big happy super-Lebanon, probably to include Lebanon itself. It’s imaginative but implausible.
The vision of a Syria without Assad is a beautiful idea, but with a pile of almost 100,000 corpses stacked in Syria it is time to consider the best way to achieve that vision. Putting Western policy in the Eastern Mediterranean in the hands of proxies who are, to put it bluntly, neither as competent nor as amenable to authority as Hezbollah, is not the best way to achieve it.
We in the West encouraged Arabs to take up arms against their dictators, and for that we bear responsibility. The mess which has resulted has been partly our responsibility, and partly the responsibility of those who have supported or joined the insurgency. Assad’s way to end the killing is to make a wilderness and call it peace. We should take responsibility for ending the killing before everyone in Syria is dead, and the only way to do it immediately is to switch off support for the rebels in Syria, and to arrange for their sponsors to withdraw and resettle them away from Assad’s clutches.
By all means train and equip them and prepare them to return and overthrow Assad in a well-planned and well-coordinated stroke. Build a gallows for Assad and make sure he swings from it. But stop this preposterous bloodbath first.