Posted on 08-09-2012
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Syria was always the most dangerous tinderbox to catch fire in the Arab spring.  While it is not important in oil geopolitics, it occupies a strategic location between Turkey, Iraq and Israel.  Its population is two-thirds that of Iraq and its ethnic quilt far more patchy.  Like Iraq under Saddam Hussein it is ruled by a brutal Baathist regime of a faith different than the vast majority of its people.  The fact that Baathists arose in the socialist and nationalist currents of the 1960s means that the non-Sunni groups like the Christians have been fairly ambivalent in wanting to replace the Alawite regime.  To make things worse, Syria is a proxy between the Sunni Gulf monarchies and Shiite Iran (the biggest sponsor of the Assads).  As previously noted here, the Assad regime is brutal but the Saudis have no business lecturing anybody on human rights – particularly after helping the Sunni Al-Khalifas supress their restive Shiite majority in Bahrain.  If this was not complicated enough, the Russians have proved extremely resistant to letting their last former client state in the region fall.  The expansion of the Libyan intervention from saving Benghazi to toppling (and ultimately lynching Gaddaffi) probably means that Russia will stand firm.

And the fighting is getting worse as Syria’s largest city is now the front-lines of  what is essentially a civil war.  The problem is that the opposition to the Assads is and incoherent hodge podge and there is no clarity on what follows the fall of the regime and how much autonomy to give groups like the Kurds.

Like Iraq, Syria was more of an abstract concept before its creation (like Yugoslavia and Iraq) in the aftermath of World War I by carving up the Ottoman Vilayets of Damascus, Beirut and Aleppo – the residues ending up in Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Turkey.  Like Iraq this state was notoriously unstable until the Assads came to power.  And they have absolutely no incentive to leave.  Likewise the Alawites can probably expect a bloodbath when the Assads fall – so they have no incentive to stop supporting the Assads either.  Syria’s Christians have probably taken a look at the fate of their brethren in Iraq and the worries of the Copts in post-Mubarak Egypt.  Until they can be convinced the fundamentalist element will be kept at bay, they will likely at best remain ambivalent too.

I have to wonder what Israel thinks about the fall of the Assads.  There is no love lost there, but would they prefer the devil they know versus the devil they don’t?

It is striking that the West is calling for Assad to leave but there has been precious little public debate on what happens next.  What have they learned from the Iraq fiasco that they will use to prevent a cycle of violence and ethnic cleansing?  And who will intervene? The EU’s minister in charge of pontificating on foreign policy, Baroness Ashton has made all the necessary pronouncements about organizing the opposition blah blah blah.  There still seems to be nothing on the ground.

There seems precious little appetite among the loudest critics of the Assads (other then war mongerers like John McCain) to bell the Assad cat.  The Libyan or Northern Alliance solution leaves the risk of an ethnic bloodbath at the finish.  Yet preventing the opposition from arming would repeat the tragedy of Bosnia – where the Muslims fought with one are tied behind their back and the Serbs were funded by Yugoslavia/Serbia.  So the tragic civil war continues, as the world ponders the dilemma posed by yet another flawed offspring of Versailles.

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