Syria’s Alawites do not trust any international guarantees to keep them alive if and when the Assad regime collapses. The record of international guarantees is pretty shabby, and no-one knows this better than Bashar al-Assad. Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice forced Israel to withdraw from Lebanon in August 2006 with the promise that an international force would disarm Hezbollah. Instead of a disarmed Hezbollah, Israel got some 60,000 Hezbollah missiles pointed in its direction, with the backing of the Syrian regime. Having shredded international guarantees with impunity, the Assad regime is not liable to trust them. The West goes through the motions of assembling a Sunni government-in-the-wings, but finds that all the available candidates are tainted by terrorist connections and atrocities. And the punditeska clicks its collective tongue at the horrors that arise from the Arab Spring, without registering the obvious fact that these horrors spring inevitably from the Arab Spring itself.
The obvious and humane solution would be to separate the warring parties: let the Alawites establish their Alawistan in the country’s Northwest, and let the Sunnis rule most of the rest– but the “most” is the sticking point, for there are 2 million Syrian Kurds who do not want to be ruled by a majority Sunni regime, any more than their cousins in Iraq want to be ruled by Sunni Arabs, or their cousins in Turkey want to be ruled by Turks. The breakup of Syria would set loose an ethnic avalanche with deep ramifications for the stability and territorial integrity of Turkey as well as Iraq, which is why no Western government will support the obvious and humane solution. In an earlier essay for JINSA, I showed that Turkey’s inherent demographic instability lurked behind its stance towards Syria. No-one likes Turkey, but everyone fears its failure. The Saudis want a Sunni army next door to threaten Iran. The Russians want a stable government next to their witches’ kettle in the Caucasus to contain the local jihadis. America wants to maintain the fiction that Turkey is still a NATO ally. No-one will sacrifice Turkey to mitigate a humanitarian catastrophe in Turkey, much less to aid the national aspirations of the Kurds, who have proven the hard way that they deserve a state as much as any people on earth.
Consideration for Turkey, or rather fear of the consequences of Turkish failure, requires Western diplomacy to pretend that it is possible for some kind of Sunni coalition to rule Syria in peace. That is hypocritical cant rather than policy, and it contributes to Syria’s descent into ever grimmer atrocities.
It is helpful to recall that the Syrian civil war began with demonstrations against higher food prices, as I reported in March 2011. The unraveling of the old Middle Eastern dictatorships began with a sharp deterioration in the terms of trade of oil-importing Arab countries: Higher energy and food prices made it impossible for the dictators to guarantee security in the essentials of life to their long-suffering populations. Once the fragile equilibrium of ethnic rule was destroyed, however, the logic of civil war led straight to the present calamity. Iraq, the other former Ba’ath Party state, is at constant risk of disintegration, but with a crucial difference: the prospectively parties to a civil war can be placated by a cut in the country’s oil revenues. Syria has no oil. It doesn’t even have enough water to grow the food it needs to feed itself. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, the viciousness of the fight is in inverse proportion to the size of the stakes.
Is there a better way to handle the Syrian calamity? I believe so.
First, neutralize Iran, by which I mean air strikes to destroy its nuclear weapons program and a few other military capabilities. That would remove the Assad regime’s main source of support. It would also make the Turks dispensable: without the Iranian threat, the Turkish army is just a makework program with obsolete weapons. Let the Alawites have their enclave, and let the Sunni Arabs have a rump state, minus the Syrian Kurds, whose autonomy would be an important step towards an eventual Kurdish state. The Turks and the Russians would be the biggest losers.