Yes, I recognize that moderate diplomatic solutions like these are for wimps. The gung-ho gang has been advocating supplying arms to the Syrian opposition, setting up no-fly zones and other versions of a military solution. Morally, it’s hard to dispute the justice of the opposition’s cause; the problem is that these military solutions will get a lot more innocent civilians killed and destroy the delicate balance of the Syrian state.
We should learn from recent Middle East history and seek a non-military solution in Syria — even with the inevitable fuzziness and need for compromise with unpleasant people. A Syria peace deal will also give a starring role to Russia and China, two countries that don’t deserve the good press. That’s okay with me: Vladimir Putin gets a ticker-tape parade if he can help broker a relatively peaceful departure for Assad.
The case for this cautious, managed transition can be summarized with a four-letter word: Iraq.
Looking back at the Iraq war, one of the most damaging mistakes was that after toppling Saddam Hussein, the United States went on to destroy Iraq’s state structure and its army. Without these institutions, the country had no stability, and Iraqis retreated for self-protection to the most basic loyalties of sect and tribe. In this sense, the U.S. invasion unintentionally and tragically sent Iraq hurtling backward in time. Iraq gained a measure of “democracy” but lost social cohesion.
The United States shouldn’t make the same mistake in Syria, no matter how appealing the opposition’s pleas for weapons. We’ve seen this movie before. We know that it leads to a kind of lawlessness that’s very hard to reverse. And we know, too, that for all the perversions of Assad and his Baathist goons, the Syrian state and army are national institutions that transcend the ruling family, his Alawite sect or the corrupt Baathists who hijacked the nation in the 1960s.
I credit the Obama administration for resisting the growing chorus of calls to arm the Syrian rebels — and for continuing to seek Moscow’s help even after the Russians’ foot-dragging that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (imprudently but accurately) described last month as “despicable.”
It’s a moment for realpolitik: The West needs Russia’s help in removing Assad without a civil war, and Russia needs to broker a transition to bolster its future influence in the Arab world. That’s the pragmatic logic that’s driving Annan’s peace effort.
Political change (even the cautious, managed-transition version I’m urging) won’t come to Syria without some bloodshed. Over the past year, it has been one-sided, with perhaps 10,000 opposition fighters and civilians slaughtered by Assad’s forces, and there’s bound to be some settling of scores. Friends of Syria should start thinking about ways to prevent reprisals against the Alawite and Christian communities that have been loyal to the regime, once Assad is on a plane for Doha or Moscow. I hope Annan will reach out to religious leaders of these minority communities to offer them reassurance they won’t be massacred if Assad goes.
The alternative to a diplomatic soft landing is a war that shatters the ethnic mosaic in Syria. It’s easy to imagine Sunni militias gaining control of central cities such as Homs, Hama and Idlib, while Alawites retreat to parts of Damascus and Latakia province in the north. Assad might still claim to be president in this scenario, but he would be little more than a warlord (albeit one with access to chemical weapons). It’s a grim scenario in which Western air power would have limited effect.
Patrick Seale, who probably knows Syria better than any other Western writer, captured in his biography of Assad’s father the brutal, fight-to-the-death code that led to the massacre in Hama 30 years ago: “Fear, loathing and a river of spilt blood ruled out any thought of a truce.” You can only pray that the same no-compromise logic doesn’t prevail today, on either side.