A regime victory is now the least bad outcome for Syria and the world.
It’s cost over 100,000 dead, with millions languishing in refugee camps and swaths of ancient cities heartbreakingly destroyed by all too modern tools of war. Yet we may have reached a critical point in the Syrian Crisis. Assad’s forces are slowly advancing on multiple fronts, with their various opponents falling back or reduced to in-fighting. And with the immediate threat of external intervention now off the table, President Assad looks set to be become the first leader of an Arab state to survive a full on Arab Spring revolt.
Should we be appalled? No. We should quietly and guiltily, breath a sigh of relief and hope the end comes soon.
It’s a difficult proposition for us to stomach in the West. Our idea of war has been warped by nostalgia and our own national narratives. The last three generations have grown up with the Second World War as the benchmark of conflict. And of all wars, that was perhaps the most just. There was an obvious set of villains, each with their own set of sinister uniforms and emblems, goose stepping through foreign capitals as part of a maniacal plan for world domination. The heroes were reluctant and unprepared, but good ultimately triumphed and well became best buddies (roll credits). It’s little surprise that Hollywood has the Second World War as its default action movie backdrop. But so great is the Second World War’s influence on our national identity, that it bleeds into our foreign policy and world view. We crave that binary choice between good and evil, and we are too keen to view the complex world through the monochrome prism of simplistic morality. Indeed, the furore over the alleged chemical weapons attack was in part a desperate attempt by the West to reimpose some sence of duality in the conflict.
Unfortunately, Syria is perhaps as divorced from that Goodie vs. Baddie image as its possible to get. The crisis in Syria is not a war, it’s not even a civil war, but rather a multi-facetted, multi-layered series of smaller conflicts with varying and oscillating degrees of intensity. As much as we’d like to paint the war as Assad vs. the Rebels, it simply isn’t. Assad and his regime are fighting multiple groups, who are in turn fighting each other as often as Assad’s men. And as the military set backs or the rebels, so the rivalries and tensions within the rebel ranks has heightened. The most glaring fissure has been between Kurds and Jihadists in Syria’s north. The native Kurds, with a long history of seeking autonomy, reacted furiously to the self proclaimed Sunni Caliphate imposed by Islamist fighters. Scores have died in the subsequent in fighting, and rebel supplies from Turkey have been interrupted.
The democratic opposition is now little more than a collection of squabbling Syrian expats engaged in the thankless task of giving after dinner speeches and lobbying tin-eared Western legislators for help. They’ve been out of Syria for so long, and with so little to show, that they’re now an irrelevance…and the crazies have filled the void.
This last point is important because Islamists are now thought to make up approximately seventy percent of the anti-government fighters. The Nigerian school massacre, the continued attacks in Yemen, and the Somali shopping mall attackers serve as timely reminders that brutal jihadist groups thrive where central government in the developing world is weak. Libya is becoming a loose confederation of city states, and Afghanistan is…well, Afghanistan. Egypt is only being held together by the mailed fist of the army, and the same is true to a lesser extend with Pakistan. Syria needs Assad, however distasteful he might seem to us. He defeat may bring some joy to Western hearts, but it would be very short lived.
Any sudden regime collapse would open the gates of sectarian Hell. Syria is an incredibly diverse country, with Arab, Druze and Kurdish ethnic identities overlapping with Shia, Sunni, Alawite and Christian religious identities, which then feed into a regional patchwork of rural vs urban, coast vs hinterland, and north vs south.
The sudden collapse of central authority, in a country awash with weapons would create the equivalent of an Arab Yugoslavia on speed. No single group of rebels could ever hope to hold more than a small patch of territory. Dozens of quasi-fiefdoms would establish themselves, with minorities in each area being purged, further fuelling sectarian hatred and making reconciliation ever harder. And as inevitably happens, the most extremist elements would silence the moderates through fear or force. We’d be faced with the very real possibility of an embryonic new Afghanistan on the Mediterranean, bordering Israel, Turkey and Iraq.
An Assad victory on the other hand might just hold the country together long enough for outside aid reach those who need it. Only with some semblance of central authority could relief workers help to get refugees home. And only when fighting has died down or been pushed out into the country side, could UN monitors even hope to start the task of accounting for and destroying Assad’s chemical weapon arsenal.
I’m not asking you to love Assad. You’re not being asked to forgive or condone the horrors his faction have perpetrated. But you are being asked to look, really look at what the alternatives are. There’s no happy endings here; this isn’t Return of the Jedi. Let’s just swallow our pride, and end this carnage as soon as possible.