America's Assad Quandary

America's Assad Quandary

An excruciating fact confronts us: it does not necessarily follow that Bashar al-Assad’s departure would improve the situation in Syria.

The ground-level reality of these two countries in the 1970s and 1980s bore this out. Despite several visits to Syria, I was shocked the first time I arrived in Iraq. In Damascus, I could walk into the telex room of a post office and punch out a story unsupervised. In Baghdad, plate glass separated me from the telex machines. Copy was handed to an Iraqi official on the other side of the window who decided whether or not it would be sent. In Syria, I travelled on my own all over the country. In Iraq, that would have landed me in prison. I remember a conversation I had in Washington with David Newton, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 1985 to 1988, whom I had met during one of my visits to Baghdad. He had hoped that over time, and with U.S. encouragement, “Iraq’s level of repression could have been improved to that of Syria.” Rather than a pathetic goal, Newton’s hope—had it been realized—would have constituted a minor human-rights miracle. In a small and somewhat poignant way, given the sometimes awful psychological conditions that Newton and other Arabists had to labor under during the Cold War, his remark was an example of realism personified, respectful as it was of historical and cultural constraints. But to appreciate it, one had to have—as Peter Bechtold, another Foreign Service Arabist, memorably told me a quarter-century ago—“a frame of reference based on travel experience that not only most Americans lack, but so do people on the National Security Council.”

Many years have passed, and many of us have, or should have, been chastened by events. The idea of bringing democracy overnight to Baathist societies, or to Libya, for that matter—or even installing a better military dictatorship in Iraq following a U.S. invasion, as I had once hoped—now stands exposed as a pipe dream. As I watch the disorder in the Middle East accumulate, no reputations have ripened so well as those of the Cold War–era area specialists I portrayed in The Arabists. Without these State Department figures, Henry Kissinger could not have operationalized his strategy. They were the intuitive children of George F. Kennan, who knew that without interests a state’s values cannot be projected in the first place.

The Arabists understood that you work with the material at hand, rather than impose your own historical experience on others. They operated in the narrow realm of the possible; to demand democracy or something like it in many Arab countries was a fantasy. They did not have the advantage of their Foreign Service colleagues in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, where geography and the legacy of empires offered much greater hope for the future. Eastern Europe represented the more enlightened material bequeathed by the Prussian, Habsburg and Ottoman empires, whereas the Middle East represented the most backward areas of Ottoman rule. And besides, there was the intractability of Islam. A degree of religiosity pervades Arab political life that the West has not known since the time when Europe was called Christendom. Yet, these men and women labored incessantly for the most incremental of goals and concessions in dealing with the most benighted regimes. The Arabists arguably lacked sufficient imagination, not to mention a particular lack of empathy for Israel, but at least they were innocent of hubris. They had a built-in granular awareness, based on actually living in these countries, of how much worse things could get if such authoritarians were ever summarily replaced.

In Iraq, the disorder was total after Saddam Hussein was overthrown. In Syria, because the Baathist regime still hangs on in much of the country, the disorder—as truly horrific as it has been—may actually still not be complete. Of course, the Islamic State (ISIS) is a child of this disorder. Therefore, the amelioration of order must take precedence over the battle against injustice. To say Assad must go, while fighting to defeat ISIS, is a manifestation of policy incoherence. Foreign policy is governed by a hierarchy of needs, not by a suite of moral desires.


SOME FACTS are incontrovertible. Assad, a secular leader from a minority group, has spilled too much blood to be eased out of power by the so-called international community. The Russians and the Iranians, who have more skin in the game and are more knowledgeable about internal regime politics in Damascus, than the United States, will fight to keep him in power. The Russians are not in danger of being caught in a quagmire in this endeavor because, unlike America in Iraq, they are not fighting on the ground to topple an existing order and then build a new one. They are fighting from the air merely to maintain the existing order. And in fact, this order that they are helping to maintain, which goes under the name of Assad and the motley groups associated with him, may yet constitute a weapon against ISIS. ISIS, moreover, can only be destroyed by out-administering it—that is, by not only capturing Raqqa (and Mosul) but by establishing a new and more moderate administrative order in those cities. Doing so will be exceedingly difficult. Doing so without at least some sort of a working relationship with Russia and Iran could be nigh impossible.

Because all or much of the above is known but less often admitted, coherent policy has been thwarted. Policy does not require complete public candor, but public statements and actual goals do have to be modestly aligned. For too long, this has not been the case with Syria. Policy discipline requires that the road to defeating ISIS must go, at least to some extent, through Moscow and Tehran. It requires acknowledging that toppling Assad could bring more anarchy, not less. And it requires acknowledging that information on the Syrian opposition remains highly imperfect and unreliable.

America will never control the outcome in Syria. Of course, it can build leverage and improve its standing as a regional player by arming and advising proxy groups in ways that might pay off down the road. Washington might work more closely with Moscow in Syria, if it can extract concessions from the Kremlin in Ukraine. The United States can also work to end conflict between the Kurdish groups and the Arab rebels it is supporting. Meanwhile, progress is already being made on the ground against ISIS. The situation is certainly not hopeless, as long as Washington abjures the requirement for perfect moral outcomes.

Assad is a mass murderer. He is morally repugnant. Yet, there are key differences between Syria and Yugoslavia. The humanitarian intervention in Yugoslavia was aided by a specific geopolitical circumstance absent in Syria. The 1990s were a time when Russia wielded little influence in the Balkans, owing to its own chaotic conditions immediately following the collapse of Communism. Thus, the United States had an unusual window that allowed it to operate with virtual impunity. That window closed with Vladimir Putin. Truly, there were no great and competing regional actors Washington had to contend with in Yugoslavia, beyond the half dozen or so ethnic and religious factions fighting in that civil war, none of which were international terrorists. In Syria, it is not only Russia that America has to take into account, but Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia as well. And rather than a few factions, there are literally dozens fighting. Stabilizing a post-Assad Syria without literally divisions of peacekeepers ready for deployment could be an impossibility.

But can’t we set up safe areas, lift starvation sieges and so forth? All possible. More can be done. But the situation is also more infernally complex and risky by manifold degrees than Yugoslavia. This is, ultimately, the legacy of Baathism, a hollow, woolly-headed ideology that attempted to paper over ethnic, religious and sectarian fissures with an appeal to Communist-style economics and repression. It was this that Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein had to offer, in place of building civil societies. The postcolonial legacy in the Levant has been arguably more lethal than the colonial one. No one as yet has found a solution to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Robert D. Kaplan is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author most recently of Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World.

Image: March in support of Bashar al-Assad in prewar Raqqa, Syria. Flickr/Beshr Abdulhadi