Syria, Israel, and the Trust Problem

Peace is unlikely in either place as long as parties feel it will be perilous.

Instability in the Middle East, including ongoing fighting in Syria and the seemingly intractable dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, has frustrated attempts by the Obama administration to find solutions. This is not due to any lack of sound policy proposals. The general outline of a two-state solution has been on the table for years, while most would conclude that only a decentralized Syrian Union offers the best prospects for holding Syria together as a single entity given its ethnic and religious diversity.

Rather, the problem boils down to security and trust. And here, the Western legacy of peacekeeping efforts in the Middle East, particularly in Lebanon, the island of Cyprus and the former Yugoslavia—not to mention the civil strife unleashed in Iraq in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein—does not give parties to the current disputes much confidence to take any sort of leap of faith for a settlement.

In Syria, the dilemma faced by the Alawites (and to a lesser extent the Christians) is the fear of how they will fare in any sort of post-Assad Syria. Democracy—if defined as consistent majoritarianism—offers no attraction to minorities who would perpetually be outvoted. Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar put together an "alliance of minorities" that offset the numerical predominance of the majority Sunnis.

Balancing majority demands for power and inclusion without relegating minority groups to second-class status is particularly tricky. Ostensibly, this was NATO's mission in Kosovo after the 1999 intervention, to break the cycle of conflict. In reality, preventing casualties among the deployed forces became the highest priority for Western governments. No outside forces were going to take bullets to protect Serb minorities, particularly in the south of the province, especially in the wake of the devastating riots of 2004. These events in turn demonstrated to many ethnic Serbs that they would have no future in an Albanian-dominated Kosovo, while strengthening the position of the Serbian communities north of the Ibar river to maintain a separate status—particularly after the 2008 declaration of independence by Kosovo. The stalemate continues today with little sign of resolution.

In the event of any direct foreign intervention on behalf of the anti-Assad opposition, Alawites in Syria can imagine suffering a fate similar to the ethnic Serbs of Kosovo. Who would guarantee their security? So many Western politicians who urge intervention also explicitly rule out any Western "boots on the ground." Promises of political figures claiming to speak on behalf of the opposition—that all ethnic and religious groups would be respected and safe—are not likely to carry much water. After all, similar statements of unity were offered by Iraqi exile politicians prior to 2003.

In much of the Middle East, English-speaking spokesmen who declare their fealty to democratic principles and to ethnic inclusion usually have little to no control over the groups that actually have the arms and are using them. Pieces of paper signed at international conferences promising respect for the principles of pluralism and multiethnicity have been unable to control what happens on the ground.

This has also been a problem in the talks between Israelis and Palestinians. What will prevent those who do not support a settlement (or may not be amenable to the compromises needed for a durable agreement) from disrupting the situation? The international community's track record in keeping the holy places of Jerusalem open to members of all faiths during the first two decades of its division has never inspired much confidence among Israelis that they should contemplate a renewed division of authority in the Holy City and its environs. (Palestinians, in turn, will not accept a settlement that does not provide for Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem.) Palestinians have no illusions that the United States will ever be prepared to take their side over Israel, even when the Palestinians have legitimate claims.

At the bottom of every current conflict in the Middle East is a variant of the aphorism attributed to the 19th century French journalist Louis Veuillot. The weaker side in any party (right now, the Palestinians or the Syrian opposition) asks for consideration of their rights as well as aid and assistance against the overwhelming conventional military power wielded by the other side. Having gained a greater share of the balance of power, the fear on the other side is that, as Veuillot said, "When I am the stronger, I take away your freedom, because that is my principle." Compare earlier statements made by Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood officials when their organization was banned and persecuted in the Egypt of Hosni Mubarak—about their commitments to protect minorities and respect pluralism—with what is taking place after they came to power, to see Veuillot's principle at work.

It should not be surprising that, in the absence of any real or significant game-changers, neither the pro-Assad forces or the Israeli government headed by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu are prepared to take the risk of compromising if they feel that doing so would put their own fundamental security at risk. Fareed Zakaria has described President Barack Obama's recent visit to Israel and his calls for moving ahead on a settlement with the Palestinians "an appeal to conscience"—but it may fall on deaf ears.