The Failed State of Syria

Lakhdar Brahimi, UN envoy to Syria, recently resigned his post. He left under the greatest of all possible disillusionments. “Syria,” he said, “will become like Somalia, a failed state.” For Israel, Somalia on the Golan cannot be an enterprise with a promising future. Unlike partition, a failed state consists of many warlords, a fragmented territory in a gang-like setting. Whether it be Iran, Hezbollah, or Assad, a moderate buffer statelet, or any combination of a myriad of radical Islamist mini-provinces, the situation would be unsustainable. The civil war would not be over, the refugee crisis would not be solved, and the jihadists (both Sunni and Shiite) would continue to pour in. Sooner or later Jordan would destabilize, as would Iraq and Lebanon. A failed state might easily spawn a failed region.
Syria needs a political solution. But Geneva I and Geneva II both failed. Russia claims that it has little control over Assad, while American policy has been nebulous at best. Obama can’t allow an Iranian victory, but the president increasingly worries about al Qaeda and the many like-minded groups that dot the Syrian landscape. Yet without substantial US involvement, Assad has little incentive to negotiate. He and his Iranian masters appear to have the slight upper-hand, but victory is a long way off. The same is true for the Free Syrian Army. Even with major NATO material support, the chance that the moderates could completely liberate the major cities of Syria without doubling the refugee crisis is without basis. There are currently 2.5 million refugees outside of Syria. By next year, this number could increase to 4 million. With a Western-backed major rebel offensive, the number of refugees would continue to expand, perhaps even approaching the 6 million mark. Where are they all going to go?
Already, Iraq teeters on the brink of a hot civil war in the west. Its border with Syria has become erased as Sunni jihadists have linked rebel Syrian territory with Iraq’s restive Sunni provinces. After nearly a decade of US occupation, Shiite Iraq looks to Iran, while the Sunnis continue to be radicalized. Unless the central government in Baghdad can come up with an appropriate federal model, the Sunni-Shiite divide can only intensify. The spillover from Syria only exacerbates the problem. Iraq needs a political solution but won’t likely achieve one until Syria does. In other words, the Sunni extremists (al Qaeda, its affiliates and worse) must visibly see their prospects decline within the context of a Syrian political solution before the Sunni community of Iraq will have the incentive to overthrow them.
The same is true for the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. The political solution in Syria must leave Iran isolated from the Alawis, but without endangering them as a community within a new political structure. The Syrian political solution must be inclusive of the Alawi community, and they must be protected. This can only be accomplished through the offices of the UN Security Council and with UN “boots on the ground”. Once the Shiites in Iraq realize that the major world powers are serious about a Syrian political solution, Baghdad will seek its own reconciliation. Iraq has the potential of becoming the ultimate buffer-state, neither pro-Iran nor pro-Sunni states. This must become the goal of the region — a permanent Sunni-Shiite balance with democratic Iraq as its anchor.
But the UN Security Council is frozen in a new Cold War. Strategic differences over the future of both Europe and the seas off Asia have crippled the UN. The recriminations in Europe go all the way back to the 1990’s and the US bombing of Serbia. The promise made to Russia that the end of the first Cold war would not lead to NATO expansion only multiplies the mistrust. Now, with the EU perceived as a “stalking horse” for further NATO expansion into the Ukraine, Russia-US relations have deteriorated. Meanwhile China feels surrounded by a chain of American allies in east Asia. The global geopolitical environment is not healthy. Yet a solution in Syria requires a robust UN Security Council involvement. So the big powers must be shown that not only will making a deal on Syria and the Middle East be in their best interest, but also that the absence of a deal will impact them heavily.
The spread of terrorist groups within the context of a series of failed states certainly must get the world’s attention. This is where the Middle East stands today. Besides Iraq, there are Lebanon and Jordan. Each country could become destabilized by the ascendancy of either Sunnis or Shiites. For Lebanon, a failed state in Syria will have revolutionary consequences for the fragile confessional makeup of the country. The more than one million refugees (mostly Sunni) will not be going home any time soon, not without a safe and structured political solution back home. This bodes ill for the future of Lebanese politics. The Syrian civil war could very easily spread into Lebanon. This is what happened in the 1970’s when the Palestinians, under the banner of the PLO, moved from Jordan to Lebanon in search of a base to attack Israel. The Lebanese civil war lasted sixteen years because the Palestinians unbalanced Lebanon’s fragile confessional system of government. This is now happening again, but this time with Syrian Sunni refugees headed into Lebanon, instead of Palestinians.
But a Sunni victory in Syria is not the answer either. If and when this should happen, the Syrian Alawi community (three million strong) would flee, most likely to Lebanon. They couldn’t stay in Syria. Their very lives would be in danger. Victory by either side would not end the war; it would just change the location of the war. The Syrian civil war is a regional war. Until there is a regional solution leading to a permanent balance of power, there can only be losers or failed states. Unless everybody wins, nobody wins.
Jordan is another example. The longer the Syrian war lingers, the greater the threat to Jordan. Victory by Assad and his Iranian masters brings Tehran right to Jordan’s borders. With a majority population of Palestinians, this “Resistance Front” could move in a number of directions. But a Sunni jihadist victory in Syria or the continued failed-state stalemate is hardly any better. Jordan, with its minority East Bankers ruling over a vast majority Palestinian population, is as fragile as Lebanon. With seven hundred thousand new refugees, the weak Jordanian economy and the government’s indebtedness make the prospect of destabilization a distinct possibility. In terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Jordan has become the ultimate buffer-state. Its viability and its peace treaty with Israel are of vital concern to the Jewish state. The King of Jordan is a peace partner, and his essential participation in solving the Arab-Israeli conflict is crucial. Israel would not tolerate the Transjordan as a hostile Palestinian vassal of Iran or al Qaeda. Yet a truly democratic outcome in Syria (protected by the UN) could go a long way toward turning Jordan into a constitutional monarchy with a free and independent parliament.
The big powers of the UN Security Council are all members of the P5+1. Their various differences in Europe and Asia have not inhibited their exercise of cooperation over the future of the Iranian nuclear program. But they must realize that even the best possible deal with Iran (zero enrichment) will not come close to solving the regional crisis. They must also address the regional conventional arms balance. The longer the regional war lingers, the more dangerous it becomes for Russia, the US, England, France and even China. Global terrorism is a scourge that will affect all of them. Russia and China must decide that Assad needs to go, and along with him the Sunni jihadists who oppose him. Once this decision is made, a political solution for Syria which protects all communities within a democratic framework can begin to be crafted by the Syrians themselves. However, if Russia and China continue to back the Assad-Iran alliance, there’s no telling where the situation might lead or how bad it might become. Radical Islam is a danger to all the world’s powers, bar none.
Similarly, the US can no longer sit on the fence and ponder its navel when it comes to Syria. It must take the lead by empowering the Free Syrian Army, while at the same time convincing its Russian partners that it has a plan for the region. The essence of the plan must be the decision to back a Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone in the Middle East within the context of regional non-hegemony. That means a demand that Israel join the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) but that its conventional security border be established on the Jordan River. This would be a big step for Israel, but the genie is already out of the nuclear bottle in the Middle East. Nuclear proliferation would be everyone’s nightmare. In the context of a regime of regional non-hegemony, a nuclear monopoly is simply unacceptable. Sooner or later, the architects of Israel’s nuclear strategy must realize that its monopoly cannot last. Without a monopoly, what good are nuclear weapons?
But the long-lasting Arab goal of forcing Israel back to the indefensible 1967 lines can no longer be justified in a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East. The Arab Peace Initiative and the West Bank state idea must become anachronisms if a regional non-nuclear, anti-hegemony, permanent balance is to be created. In other words, to get itself off the fence, the US must think “out of the box” in order to persuade Russia and China that there could be a better outcome throughout the entirety of the Middle East for everyone, including Israel and Iran. That means that the non-hegemony must directly involve the air and naval assets of the US itself. The demilitarization of Hamas and Hezbollah must be a part of any package, along with Iranian support for Damascus. Russia and China must view the push to punish Assad and force him to resign within a UN Security Council context. This must also include the Sunni jihadists. But the push against Assad and the Sunni extremists must have the green light from Moscow and Beijing. It also must be incorporated into a much greater regional “Grand Bargain”.
The future of the Middle East is a daunting prospect. But unless we all start thinking of new and revolutionary paradigms, the slow drift toward failed states and a failed region will cause havoc for us all.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).