An excruciating fact confronts us: it does not necessarily follow that Bashar al-Assad’s departure would improve the situation in Syria.
By Robert D. Kaplan
The National Interest
October 18, 2016
The National Interest
October 18, 2016
Don’t ever assume that things cannot get worse. Assad remains a secular ruler from a minority group, whose forces and allied criminal bands still control more of the Syrian heartland than any other warlord. These are not altogether negative attributes, given Syria’s level of anarchy and the plethora of Islamic extremist outfits operating in that environment. His departure, rather than leading directly or indirectly to peace, would more likely raise the stakes for those already vying for supremacy. Rebels would not surrender their guns at the sight of his removal—they would have even more cause to keep fighting for each patch of ground. Damascus, in such a circumstance, could quickly descend into another version of the humanitarian hell that is Aleppo, as various rebel groups battle over the frightful carcass of what was once Syria. Fanciful descriptions of Assad ceding command, even as the Alawite power structure survives to provide transitional stability, entirely miss the point: The Alawite state itself may be synonymous with the very person of Assad, who assumed power in 2000 precisely because it was only he who could unite the various factions of the regime built by his father, Hafez al-Assad. Quite possibly, Bashar al-Assad is the state, or what’s left of it. In any case, an outside power demonstrably acting to dislodge him would have to assume moral and political responsibility for the consequences, which might include a variety of dire outcomes: some ethnic cleansing of the Alawites; the slaughter of more Christians; and the eventual establishment of a Sunni jihadist regime in Damascus more hostile than Assad to Israel and Jordan, both U.S. allies.
THE FACT that Russia and Iran are acting, in effect, to prevent such a cascade of events is ironic, but hardly unprecedented. It is an irony that the Israelis can appreciate: The disengagement accords Henry Kissinger negotiated between Israel and the elder Assad regime in the mid-1970s constituted, for all practical purposes, a peace treaty that lasted for over thirty-five years until the present civil war. Who says the Israelis have not found the Assads useful? They may still do.
Moreover, the notion that there is a beneficent negotiated settlement lurking somewhere on the horizon that will lead Assad into exile completely misunderstands the nature of his dictatorship. Assad is complicit in the killing of hundreds of thousands in order to stay in power—not to give it up! He can’t give up. He is trapped. There are likely layers of people around him whose own lives are dependent on him staying in power. Dictators fall when, usually through illness or age, they lose the all-consuming will to remain in control. Both the shah of Iran and Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania were physically failing when they were toppled. They were only shadows of the men that they had been only a few years earlier. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, already in his eighties, was psychologically devastated by the abrupt death of a grandson two years before the Arab Spring, and was never the same afterward, according to those close to him.
Assad, by contrast, is a mere stripling at fifty-one, and he may have a surge of adrenaline having survived so many years after the world assumed he’d be toppled. Russia’s entry into the war can only have improved his morale. His father, who himself had killed tens of thousands of civilians for the sake of remaining in power, would be proud of him, he must now think. This is not a man about to resign from office in an age of the International Criminal Court. Quite the contrary: better to fight on in a rump Alawite state. From his point of view, there would be more honor in such a path.
The truth is that there was probably never a possibility of a soft landing for the sanguinary Baathist regimes of Syria and Iraq, which eviscerated all levels of civil society between the ruler at the top and the tribes and extended families at the bottom. Once these Baathist regimes were challenged or toppled there was only dust left in their wake. For their origins lay less in usurpation than in the demonstrated failure of attempts at democracy in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century in Damascus and Baghdad, owing to ethnic, regional and sectarian divides. The idea that democracy has not been tried in Syria is a myth. Elections in 1947, 1949 and 1954 ultimately broke down along the lines of groups and sects specific to parts of the country. By the time Hafez al-Assad came to power in a coup in 1970 there had been twenty-one changes of government in twenty-four years of independence. Nobody could bring order to the state until he arrived.
During the Cold War phase of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Syria was known as the throbbing heart of Arabism, since the only way to assuage Syria’s internal divisions was to smother them with an uplifting pan-Arab cause: destroying the Jewish state. Indeed, the most virulently anti-Israel states in the Arab world during that period were those that were never really countries to begin with—not the ones with specific, accessible pasts, such as Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, but states that were but vague geographical expressions. Syria, Iraq and Libya housed identities so weak that they depended on extreme authoritarianism and an outside hatred for sustenance. Syria was always more identifiable as a vast region within the Ottoman Empire (stretching from the Taurus Mountains in Turkey to the Nafud Desert in Saudi Arabia) than as a state in the post-Ottoman sense. It was for these reasons, among others, that I predicted Syria’s eventual demise in a February 1993 essay in the Atlantic. In “Syria: Identity Crisis,” I concluded, “Assad’s passing may herald more chaos than a chaotic region has seen in decades.”
To be sure, Hafez al-Assad was always a brilliant tactician. He tolerated the peace process with Israel—so long as it never led to formal peace—because it allowed him to have a reasonable relationship with the United States, even as the Warsaw Pact supplied him with arms and closely advised him on the techniques of torture and repression. But true peace, he knew, would have led to chaos, since it would have robbed the Baathist state of its only unifying national purpose. As the British traveler and Arabist Freya Stark wrote in 1928, and later published in Letters from Syria, “I haven’t yet come across one spark of national feeling: it is all sects and hatreds and religions.”
By accomplishing the near impossible—stabilizing a place that for all of its previous postcolonial history had never been stable—Hafez al-Assad had afforded Syria the opportunity to forestall Stark’s bleak, deterministic vision. He could have transformed Syrians from subjects to citizens. After all, he was in power for three decades. But opening up the society and the economy, becoming an enlightened authoritarian, in other words, would have entailed risks and the workings of a much broader vision than his narrow, suspicious gaze allowed. And as the machine-like sterility of his rule suggested, rather than become a statesman, he morphed into an Arab Brezhnev who merely staved off the future—which arrived bloodily during his son’s reign.
As the elder Assad’s rule demonstrates, the tragedy of the Arab world was never a lack of democracy, but a lack of enlightened authoritarianism. What was needed was not someone like Václav Havel but more leaders like Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, an absolute dictator who has ruled in the Asian style according to liberal precepts. Syria’s chance for liberal rule now lies in the past, when it had the prerequisite political order to build upon, without which freedom is impossible. It is Bashar al-Assad’s father who is the true father of today’s chaos. This is all Hobbes 101.
OF COURSE, Hafez al-Assad himself was quite restrained, that is, compared to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Whereas the former killed tens of thousands, the latter was a beast altogether who killed hundreds of thousands. And that excludes the Iran-Iraq War. After Saddam invaded Kuwait, Hafez al-Assad reportedly joked that “Saddam is like a chain smoker; the moment he finishes one war he has to start another.”
The ground-level reality of these two countries in the 1970s and 1980s bore this out. Despite several visits to Syria, I was shocked the first time I arrived in Iraq. In Damascus, I could walk into the telex room of a post office and punch out a story unsupervised. In Baghdad, plate glass separated me from the telex machines. Copy was handed to an Iraqi official on the other side of the window who decided whether or not it would be sent. In Syria, I travelled on my own all over the country. In Iraq, that would have landed me in prison. I remember a conversation I had in Washington with David Newton, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 1985 to 1988, whom I had met during one of my visits to Baghdad. He had hoped that over time, and with U.S. encouragement, “Iraq’s level of repression could have been improved to that of Syria.” Rather than a pathetic goal, Newton’s hope—had it been realized—would have constituted a minor human-rights miracle. In a small and somewhat poignant way, given the sometimes awful psychological conditions that Newton and other Arabists had to labor under during the Cold War, his remark was an example of realism personified, respectful as it was of historical and cultural constraints. But to appreciate it, one had to have—as Peter Bechtold, another Foreign Service Arabist, memorably told me a quarter-century ago—“a frame of reference based on travel experience that not only most Americans lack, but so do people on the National Security Council.”
Many years have passed, and many of us have, or should have, been chastened by events. The idea of bringing democracy overnight to Baathist societies, or to Libya, for that matter—or even installing a better military dictatorship in Iraq following a U.S. invasion, as I had once hoped—now stands exposed as a pipe dream. As I watch the disorder in the Middle East accumulate, no reputations have ripened so well as those of the Cold War–era area specialists I portrayed in The Arabists. Without these State Department figures, Henry Kissinger could not have operationalized his strategy. They were the intuitive children of George F. Kennan, who knew that without interests a state’s values cannot be projected in the first place.
The Arabists understood that you work with the material at hand, rather than impose your own historical experience on others. They operated in the narrow realm of the possible; to demand democracy or something like it in many Arab countries was a fantasy. They did not have the advantage of their Foreign Service colleagues in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, where geography and the legacy of empires offered much greater hope for the future. Eastern Europe represented the more enlightened material bequeathed by the Prussian, Habsburg and Ottoman empires, whereas the Middle East represented the most backward areas of Ottoman rule. And besides, there was the intractability of Islam. Yet, these men and women labored incessantly for the most incremental of goals and concessions in dealing with the most benighted regimes. The Arabists arguably lacked sufficient imagination, not to mention a particular lack of empathy for Israel, but at least they were innocent of hubris. They had a built-in granular awareness, based on actually living in these countries, of how much worse things could get if such authoritarians were ever summarily replaced.
In Iraq, the disorder was total after Saddam Hussein was overthrown. In Syria, because the Baathist regime still hangs on in much of the country, the disorder—as truly horrific as it has been—may actually still not be complete. Of course, the Islamic State (ISIS) is a child of this disorder. Therefore, the amelioration of order must take precedence over the battle against injustice. To say Assad must go, while fighting to defeat ISIS, is a manifestation of policy incoherence. Foreign policy is governed by a hierarchy of needs, not by a suite of moral desires.
SOME FACTS are incontrovertible. Assad, a secular leader from a minority group, has spilled too much blood to be eased out of power by the so-called international community. The Russians and the Iranians, who have more skin in the game and are more knowledgeable about internal regime politics in Damascus, than the United States, will fight to keep him in power. The Russians are not in danger of being caught in a quagmire in this endeavor because, unlike America in Iraq, they are not fighting on the ground to topple an existing order and then build a new one. They are fighting from the air merely to maintain the existing order. And in fact, this order that they are helping to maintain, which goes under the name of Assad and the motley groups associated with him, constitutes a weapon against ISIS. ISIS, moreover, can only be destroyed by out-administering it—that is, by not only capturing Raqqa (and Mosul) but by establishing a new and more moderate administrative order in those cities. Doing so will be exceedingly difficult. Doing so without at least some sort of a working relationship with Russia and Iran could be nigh impossible.
Because all or much of the above is known but less often admitted, coherent policy has been thwarted. Policy does not require complete public candor, but public statements and actual goals do have to be modestly aligned. For too long, this has not been the case with Syria. Policy discipline requires that the road to defeating ISIS must go, at least to some extent, through Moscow and Tehran. It requires acknowledging that toppling Assad could bring more anarchy, not less. And it requires acknowledging that information on the Syrian opposition remains highly imperfect and unreliable.
America will never control the outcome in Syria. Of course, it can build leverage and improve its standing as a regional player by arming and advising proxy groups in ways that might pay off down the road. Washington might work more closely with Moscow in Syria, if it can extract concessions from the Kremlin in Ukraine. The United States can also work to end conflict between the Kurdish groups and the Arab rebels it is supporting. Meanwhile, progress is already being made on the ground against ISIS. The situation is certainly not hopeless, as long as Washington abjures the requirement for perfect moral outcomes.
Assad is a mass murderer. He is morally repugnant. Yet, there are key differences between Syria and Yugoslavia. The humanitarian intervention in Yugoslavia was aided by a specific geopolitical circumstance absent in Syria. The 1990s were a time when Russia wielded little influence in the Balkans, owing to its own chaotic conditions immediately following the collapse of Communism. Thus, the United States had an unusual window that allowed it to operate with virtual impunity. That window closed with Vladimir Putin. Truly, there were no great and competing regional actors Washington had to contend with in Yugoslavia, beyond the half dozen or so ethnic and religious factions fighting in that civil war, none of which were international terrorists. In Syria, it is not only Russia that America has to take into account, but Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia as well. And rather than a few factions, there are literally dozens fighting. Stabilizing a post-Assad Syria without literally divisions of peacekeepers ready for deployment could be an impossibility.
But can’t we set up safe areas, lift starvation sieges and so forth? All possible. More can be done. But the situation is also more infernally complex and risky by manifold degrees than Yugoslavia. This is, ultimately, the legacy of Baathism, a hollow, woolly-headed ideology that attempted to paper over ethnic, religious and sectarian fissures with an appeal to Communist-style economics and repression. It was this that Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein had to offer, in place of building civil societies. The postcolonial legacy in the Levant has been arguably more lethal than the colonial one. No one as yet has found a solution to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
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