As the uprising against Syrian president Bashar Assad enters its second year, the U.S. foreign-policy establishment is steadily warming to the idea of arming the opposition, enforcing a no-fly zone, establishing aid corridors and various other forms of direct American involvement. But these plans misread the regional balance.
While strident proponents of intervention invariably cite humanitarian concerns, it is no secret that most see the Syria conflict as first and foremost an opportunity to stick it to Iran. After all, the Syrian regime has been a staunch ally of the Islamic Republic for decades and a critical hub for Palestinian and Lebanese foot soldiers of the rejectionist axis. With Iran and Russia propping up Assad with money and arms, aiding the rebels would ordinarily seem to be a strategic no-brainer.
But this is not an ordinary situation. The secular Baathist dictatorship Assad inherited from his father is dominated by Alawites, a heterodox Islamic sect comprising just 12 percent of the population, with substantial contingent support from the country’s Christian, Druze and Shiite minorities. Syria’s Sunni Arab majority was marginalized for four decades, much as Iraq’s Shiite majority was subjugated by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led minoritarian regime (though not quite in equal measure). Not surprisingly, those who are rebelling today are overwhelmingly Sunni, and those who are shooting them are mostly Alawite. With a five-to-one demographic advantage and nearly universal support from the surrounding Arab world, the rebels are clearly going to prevail when the dust settles.
Whereas Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was one battle away from subduing his enemies, Assad cannot pacify Syria by force. The longer he brutally suppresses the uprising, the more his base of support will contract to its bare Alawite core, which will make it impossible to hold the country together. When this regression reaches a critical mass, Assad and his henchmen may retreat with elite units to the mountains and coastal plains of their ancestors, but their days of governing Syria will be over.
The Regional Balance
Strategically, the situation in Syria is already a nightmare for Iran. Not only is it sure to lose its paramount regional ally in the long run, but it is obligedin the short run to fight a bloody proxy war against Sunnis. This proxy war is steadily eroding its once-formidable support among the (predominantly Sunni) Arab masses and emboldening their weak-kneed rulers to stand up to the “Shiite menace” in Tehran.
The violence is also alienating European governments whose forbearance Iran must gain to realize its nuclear ambitions. Russia, which has vetoed UN Security Council resolutions condemning the Assad regime and shipped vital military supplies to it, is also steadily burning its diplomatic bridges in the region. Neither patron is getting much use out of Syria in the meantime.
Intervention advocates have yet to demonstrate how Western meddling in the civil war could possibly improve upon the strategic status quo. While hastening the transition to a stable Sunni-led regime (democratic or otherwise) would make sense for strategic and humanitarian aims, hastening the fall of Assad won’t necessarily achieve this goal. The collapse of the regime will merely reverse the polarity of the civil war, with a Sunni-led regime squaring off against non-Sunni insurgents—the kind of scenario the Iranians are adept at exploiting. Tehran may exert more leverage working to subvert a post-Assad regime than fighting a losing battle to support the current dictatorship, particularly if the former comes to power with American help.
An overt U.S. role in the insurgency may not even facilitate Assad’s exit, as it would strengthen government claims that the uprising is a Euro-American-Islamist conspiracy. An easier sell on this point won’t allow the regime to turn the tide, but it could make the fight bloodier. Those who claim that Western intervention will save lives or shorten the conflict would do well to study Lebanon’s 1975–1990 civil war. Syria is not Kosovo.
Of course, the United States shouldn’t be neutral. Diplomatic and economic pressure should be brought to bear on the regime, and perhaps a blind eye turned to the involvement of friendly governments in the conflict. But the quickest, least bloody path to a stable, unitary Syria may be for America to stay out: let Assad fully deplete his domestic and regional legitimacy by continuing to desperately flail at an enemy he cannot defeat, without any Western bogeyman to blame. It’s not inconceivable that Iran or Russia will eventually decide that supporting the world’s most hated government is too costly to its broader foreign-policy ambitions. If Uncle Sam goes in, all bets are off.
Gary C. Gambill, a Philadelphia-based political analyst, has published widely on Lebanese and Syrian affairs.