WASHINGTON-In the western media’s telling, the civil war in Syria began and continues as a morality play, good versus evil, and for good reason. The regime headed for nearly a decade and a half by Bashar al-Assad has pursued policies of extreme brutality, including large-scale executions of rebellious groups’ women and children. But could this tale end in a tragedy of unintended consequences? What should America do?
The West has focused on why the regime should fall. In addition to its record of human rights abuse, the Assad alliance with Iran gives ample motivation for Europe and the United States to want Syria under new management. So after a seemingly interminable period of vacillation, the Obama administration has joined other western powers in supplying selected Syrian rebel groups.
Rebels now control parts of the capital, Damascus, itself. Pitched but inconclusive battles have been fought for other cities. Media coverage all but assumes that the armed opposition will eventually win, perhaps by year’s end. But will it, and if it does, what then?
The “will it” question is not a small one. On one hand the Assad-Iranian partnership has given the dictator and his supporters a vital source for its own supplies. Troops loyal to Mr. Assad will not run out of guns, ammunition, fuel, food or other essentials of war fighting anytime soon, despite global embargoes.
Equally critical, a number of groups within the country remain fiercely loyal to the government. The list extends far beyond members of Assad’s Shi’ite-related Alawite sect and his Ba’ath Party, first cousins to Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Ba’athists.
For in a country that is seventy percent Sunni Muslim, the backers of the regime that Mr. Assad’s father – Hafez al-Assad – put in place in 1970 can best be described as the coalition of everyone else: Alawites, yes, but also other Shi’ites, Christians, Druze and any other sect not part of the Sunni majority. In the eyes of these groups, Assad is a protector, having long maintained order, respected property, permitted diversity and protected religious freedom.
Further, as one Alawite man told a reporter recently, if only because of Assad’s bloody record, “I am sure there will be massacres [of Alawites]; the regime made us [everyone else’s] enemies over the past two years.” He had good reason to worry. Syria’s vast displaced population – now estimated at fifteen percent of the country – gives a good measure of the extent of the regime’s assaults on its own people.
If the fear of score settling were not enough, the increasing radicalism of the rebels is a galvanizing worry, too. As the same Alawite man also said, he was determined “to fight Wahhai radicals who will force my wife and daughters to wear the veil and will close all the wine shops.”
Much has been written regarding western worries about the al-Qaeda and other jihadists’ role within the ever-shifting ranks of the insurrection. The rebel umbrella group formed last November, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, now recognized in the West as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, has announced a goal that the global democracies embrace, formation of a “democratic, civil, pluralistic, strong and stable state.” But will the secularists behind that goal prevail in the power struggles that will inevitably follow victory? One astute British observer recently wrote that many have long regarded it as “evident that Saudi money and influence would dominate the secular opposition, and that the Salafists and al-Qaeda would fight more brutally and emerge on top.”
With all the talk in Washington of what we do now in Syria, there is much too little talk of what we do next. How many times will we wade into one of these imbroglios without asking, what about the Second Act?
In Iraq we overthrew Saddam Hussein. Now the regime we installed is more or less aligned with Iran.
In Afghanistan we are still fighting, a decade after we defeated the Taliban. Will the Karzai government be our ally after we leave? Is it even now? Will the Taliban return to power as soon as we are gone?
There is nothing complicated about our goal in Syria: a friendly or neutral country, neither allied with Iran nor a haven for jihadists, where minorities and the majority enjoy the same rights and security. Here are five strategies for getting there:
Strategy #1: Harbor no illusions about which players serve our interests. Give them significant support, with this unambiguous proviso, that they work with us in fighting both the jihadist and all allies of Iran, not just the regime.
Strategy #2: Remember in the Middle East betrayal is a sport. Be ready to reward and punish. In that part of the world, making clear that actions have consequences is respected – even more, letting bad actions have no consequences is despised. So when the friend moves back to us, welcome him into the fold, but let him know he is on probation.
Strategy #3: Also remember that friends will be defined by tribal as well as religious affiliations. Tribal loyalties can cross sectarian lines, with some tribes split between Shi’ites and Sunnis. Long-standing rivalries and vendettas will play a role in who our allies are – with “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” rule more than political or religious ideology often determining who cooperates with us. We need to pay much more attention to alliance building with tribes.
Strategy #4: Exert maximum pressure on the Saudis to stop the flow of aid to radicals in the rebel movement. If the Saudis want to help bring down Assad, tell them to use their agents and funds to disrupt Iranian support for the regime.
Strategy #5: Listen to our non-Syrian allies in the region: Israelis, Turks and non-Hezbollah Lebanese. Determine in particular whom in Syria they trust and how to best engage with those elements.
Does this sound familiar? It is Chicago politics writ large, something the president and his team well understand. It has won Team Obama two elections at home. Now it can make America a winner in this critical contest overseas.