Let’s cut through all the pious pronouncements about the horrible Assad regime in Syria. We err when we apply majoritarian democratic criteria to tribal societies. There is a reason that Syria has labored under brutal minority regimes for half a century, since the Ba’ath Party coup of 1963 led by the Christian Michel Aflaq, followed by the Alawite Assad dynasty’s assumption of power in 1971. If you create artificial states with substantial minorities, as British and French cartographers did after the First World War, the only possible stable government is a minority government. That is why the Alawites ran Syria and the minority Sunnis ran Iraq. The minority regime may be brutal, even horribly brutal, but this arrangement sets up a crude system of checks and balances. A government drawn from a minority of the population cannot attempt to exterminate the majority, so it must try to find a modus vivendi. The majority can in fact exterminate a minority. That is why a majority government represents an existential threat to the minority, and that is why minorities fight to the death.
In a 2012 essay for Asia Times Online, I conjured the ghost of Cardinal Richelieu to explain this simple exercise in game theory:
“Isn’t there some way to stabilize these countries?” I asked.
Richelieu looked at me with what might have been contempt. “It is a simple exercise in logique. You had two Ba’athist states, one in Iraq and one in Syria. Both were ruled by minorities. The Assad family came from the Alawite minority Syria and oppressed the Sunnis, while Saddam Hussein came from the Sunni minority in Iraq and oppressed the Shi’ites.
It is a matter of calculation — what today you would call game theory. If you compose a state from antagonistic elements to begin with, the rulers must come from one of the minorities. All the minorities will then feel safe, and the majority knows that there is a limit to how badly a minority can oppress a majority. That is why the Ba’ath Party regimes in Iraq and Syria — tyrannies founded on the same principle – were mirror images of each other.”
“What happens if the majority rules?,” I asked.
“The moment you introduce majority rule in the tribal world,” the cardinal replied, “you destroy the natural equilibrium of oppression.
“The minorities have no recourse but to fight, perhaps to the death. In the case of Iraq, the presence of oil mitigates the problem.
The Shi’ites have the oil, but the Sunnis want some of the revenue, and it is easier for the Shi’ites to share the revenue than to kill the Sunnis. On the other hand, the problem is exacerbated by the presence of an aggressive neighbor who also wants the oil.”
“So civil war is more likely because of Iran?”
“Yes,” said the shade, “and not only in Iraq. Without support from Iran, the Syrian Alawites — barely an eighth of the people — could not hope to crush the Sunnis. Iran will back Assad and the Alawites until the end, because if the Sunnis come to power in Syria, it will make it harder for Iran to suppress the Sunnis in Iraq. As I said, it is a matter of simple logic. Next time you visit, bring a second bottle of Petrus, and my friend Descartes will draw a diagram for you.”
That, by the way, also explains the high incidence of atrocities. The really ugly developments of the past several weeks, including air attacks on civilians with mass casualties, probably are a calculated crime on the part of the Assad regime. Syria’s Alawites face the not-so-remote prospect of the end of their ethnic existence if a Sunni Muslim regime should accede to power. The Bashar al-Assad regime commits atrocities that are designed to be unforgivable, in order to persuade their base to fight to the end. In practice, that means holding out for an Alawi state on the Mediterranean nestled against the Turkish border. The Assad regime’s behavior resembles that of the Nazi regime, which went out of its way to ensure that the German population knew about its worst atrocities, the more to make them complicit in the crimes and persuade them to fight to the bitter end. Benjamin Schwarz of the The Atlantic reviewed new research supporting this interpretation in 2009, concluding, “New histories reveal that the Nazi Regime deliberately insinuated knowledge of the Final Solution, devilishly making Germans complicit in the crime and binding them, with guilt and dread, to their leaders.”
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.