The Nightmare that is a U.S. Attack On Syria

The Assads may fall. The Alawis are here to stay.  

Bashar al-Assad has demonstrated that he is truly his father's son: what Hafez al-Assad’s father did to Hama in February 1982, Bashar seems prepared to do in Homs and Daraa today. His snipers are killing civilians from the rooftops, while his tanks are firing at anyone who gets in their way. The casualties continue to mount as the tanks shell Homs, as does the decibel level of international condemnation. But Bashar, no doubt with a close eye on developments in Bahrain—where a tough response by the al-Khalifas has chastened the opposition—and, for that matter, in Libya and Yemen, is determined to ride out the crisis on his terms.

In any event, it is not just Bashar or the Assads that are threatened, but the entire Alawi community, which constitutes ten percent of Syria's population, as well as the not inconsequential number of the regime's Sunni fellow travelers. It is for this reason that the Alawi-dominated Army has not turned against Bashar; and, unlike the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries, it has shown no compunction about firing on its countrymen. At some point, the military may decide that the Assad family has had a long enough run, and needs to be replaced. But the objective would remain the same: preservation of minority Alawi dominance. And for that the Alawis are prepared to fight to the finish.

The Obama Administration, caught in a Libyan quagmire that threatens to go on for quite some time, has therefore wisely elected not to make the same mistake in Syria. On its face, intervention in Syria would make more sense than in Libya. Whereas the West intervened while Qaddafi was still threatening to exterminate his opponents, Syria has been methodically doing so. And Syria is far more strategically important to Washington than is Libya.

But the price of yet another American military operation in the heart of the Middle East could be astronomical. American intervention in Syria, no matter how limited, would definitely have a spillover effect of a kind that Libya is unlikely to produce. Hezbollah, fearing the loss of its Syrian patron, and the installation of a puppet regime that would make peace with Israel, might be panicked into launching a major rocket attack on the Jewish state. Alternately, still hardly much better, Israel, seeing the United States at war with the Assad government, might find the opportunity propitious for a new attack on Hezbollah.

Iran, seeking to aid its Syrian client, and fearing an American presence in Syria, might launch a major effort to destabilize Iraq, in part by encouraging the Sadrists to withdraw support for the Maliki government unless American forces are immediately expelled from the country. Iran might also step up its support for Afghan insurgents, despite their long-standing friction with the Sunni Taliban, on the ever-popular principle that "my enemy's enemy is my friend."

The Arab "street," always ready to condemn the United States (but not even grudgingly approving of Bin Laden's demise) would likely erupt in anti-American protests and attacks on American embassies throughout the region.

Arab governments, though not particularly fond of Syria, have still maintained their silence in the face of the brutal attacks that Assad has launched against his people. They will also look the other way as America is vilified yet again throughout the region.

Added to Arab protests will be those of the rest of the Islamic world—and also of Europe since they seem willing to go no further than to impose relatively weak sanctions on Damascus. And even Latin America, with its own increasingly influential Muslim population, will rise up in anger. Washington will find itself alone, with yet another costly war on its hands, even as it tries to rein in a defense budget that many perceive to be out of control.

Finally, aid to the protesters might simply lead to a radical Sunni regime in Damascus, with fewer qualms about attacking Israel than those of Bashar al-Assad and his father. It is for this reason that the Israelis remain divided about the protests against Bashar; many in the Israeli military still feel it will be easier to do business with him than with a potentially unstable successor regime.

At the end of the day, the Alawis are sure to prevail, even if the Assads disappear; they simply have the guns, and the army will remain with them. Liberal interventionists may howl for American military action against the Assad regime. Obama should continue to ignore them.