Monthly Archives: February 2012
Last year I wrote about the outbreak of violence in Syria, describing it as a surprising development best understood as an uprising of the country’s majority Sunni population in response to generations of domination by the country’s Alawite majority. I concluded the article on a pessimistic note, with the expectation that protestors at the time would continue to be slaughtered by the thousands over the coming months. Since then, however, parts of the Syrian military have broken off to form the Free Syria Army, most countries in the international community have condemned President Assad’s brutal crackdown, Syrian opposition groups have become increasingly unified and vocal, and early this year, in many New Year’s prediction columns, pundits across the American media made clear that they anticipated the fall of the Syrian regime.
But, you know what? President Assad doesn’t really care. He will continue to order his artillery to pulverize his urban opposition, as the deaths pile up by the thousands. What can the U.S. do to help the opposition stand up against their brutal government?
Sadly, not much. Leading figures in the United States have called for arming the Free Syria army in order to help them “to defend themselves.” It worked in Libya, why shouldn’t it work in Syria?
Unfortunately, the situation in Syria is much different in Libya. The Syrian armed forces are much larger and more sophisticated then those of Mommar Gaddafi. Even in Libya, whatever back-channel weapons rebel groups received were insufficient for overcoming government forces without massive (mainly NATO) air support.
In Syria, it’s not just about the imbalance in the number of weapons, but also the types of weapons. Providing small arms to the Free Syrian army is not going to prevent the government of Syria from continuing to blast away at city neighborhoods with powerful artillery. Taking a page from his father’s handbook, Bashir al Assad has mainly avoided becoming involved in urban warfare by simply leveling urban areas where resistance fighters are believed to enjoy local support.
The only way to counter such artillery is through the use of air strikes similar to those used by NATO forces against Serb positions during the Bosnian conflict. However, in that case, Bosnian Serbs lacked air power themselves and possessed only limited air defenses. Neither is true in the case of Syria. In short, the only effective path to aiding the Syrian opposition through military intervention would involve destroying Syrian air defenses, including the Syrian air force, before locating and conducting strikes on Syrian artillery positions while, at the same time, providing generous aid to Syrian opposition forces on the ground. No country has the will or the interest to go that far.
The only hope for the Syrian opposition is for larger scale defections from within the military itself. There are few signs that such divisions are in the offing. Much of the officer corps in the Syrian army is drawn from the middle and upper classes of Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two largest cities and bastions of support for the government. As the hopeful argument goes, international sanctions and continued instability will cause the government to lose support of these classes which will translate into the loss of faith in the Assad government by former loyalists in the military.
All of that seems a lot to hope for, and probably is, especially given that a majority of the officers in the Syrian army are Alawites who identify with the ruling party and who, partly out of fear about the nature of a post-Assad Syria, are willing to do the regime’s dirty work. Assad remains in power because he has strong support of well-placed minorities in the population, has the biggest guns, and because he is willing to do what autocrats in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen were not — use unrestrained brutality while ignoring international pressure. Might may not make right, but, you know what? President Assad doesn’t really care.
I was watching my favorite political television show this week, Fareed Zakaria’s “GPS,” and was surprised to hear Dr. Zakaria suggest that no one could have predicted the near universal disappointment with the way things have gone in the Middle East one year after the Arab Spring of early 2011 (I can’t find his exact quotation — but it was along those lines). I wasn’t writing this blog at that point, but I certainly felt like the honeymoon wouldn’t last and that the excitement of revolution would give way to frustration with new leadership that would inevitably disappoint some segments of society.
Such disappointment happens after almost every revolution. 1990, the year after the wall fell, was a disappointing year for most East Europeans as their economies sunk into depression, and 1992 was equally trying for former citizens of the Soviet Union. Even going back to the early history of the United States, the years 1783 to 1789, between our own revolution and the implementation of the Constitution, witnessed widespread turmoil and economic difficulties. I’m sure a lot of new Americans during that period yearned to be British again.
Should we feel disappointed with what has transpired in the Arab world? I don’t think so. First, various populations have had different experiences, with reform in Morocco and Jordan, tenuous stability in Egypt and Libya, mass killings by leaders in Syria, slow motion revolution in Yemen, and a relatively smooth transition in Tunisia. There was no one-size-fits-all revolution, and some populations have fared better than others.
The larger trend for the region is that new governments will be less secular and will introduce more laws intended to shore up their “Islamic” credentials. These laws will be mostly symbolic, but some might disadvantage women, minorities, and other vulnerable groups in society. While we might find this distasteful as Americans, it is of no more concern to us then Newt Gingrich’s pledge this week to overturn all of the U.S. government’s “anti-religious policies” should be to an Egyptian.
The movement towards democracy in the region has actually revealed how little support there is for Taliban, or even Iranian or Saudi-style theocratic Sharia law. While many were surprised when the fundamentalist Egyptian al-Nour party garnered one quarter of the vote in that country’s parliamentary elections, that seemed like a glass half-empty attitude to me. With only one-quarter of the population supporting strict Sharia law, the Egyptian people voiced their support for moderation over extremism. The same occurred in Tunisia and is likely to occur in Libya when elections are held.
Outside of the region, the biggest winner is the United States. Our biggest enemy in the world remains would-be Islamist terrorists, and the Arab Spring did more to undercut their cause then a decade of our “war on terrorism.” Imagine that you were an Egyptian radical who has been taught that the United States is the mortal “far enemy” that would fight to the end to make sure that Islam remained suppressed under corrupt, autocratic rule. All of a sudden, that view is turned upside down as the U.S. reaches out to governments elected by the people of the country. Maybe you are still bitter about the past, maybe you still hate the United States for its support of Israel, but if you want to see Sharia law implemented in your country, there is a political party that you can work for in an attempt to make it happen peacefully.
The biggest danger to the region is not Islam, but rather a prickly sort of post-revolutionary nationalism. In Egypt in particular, U.S. diplomacy needs to tread lightly and go out-of-the-way to show respect to the leaders that emerge in that country so long as the basic contours of democratic governance are maintained.
Any perceived interference in the affairs of any of the post-revolutionary governments in the area will be counterproductive. A year after the revolutions began, we should be happy that things are moving in the right direction in the region, take advantage of the opportunity to redefine our relations with the peoples of the Arab World, and make sure that we convey the message that, even if most Americans value the separation of church and state, the idea of Islamic-based democracy is just fine with us.