If we had some bagels, we could have bagels and lox, if we had some lox. Syria doesn’t have enough oil to survive in the region. It doesn’t even have enough water, as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman noticed last month, two years after Israeli analysts published the story in depth:
“The drought did not cause Syria’s civil war,” said the Syrian economist Samir Aita, but, he added, the failure of the government to respond to the drought played a huge role in fueling the uprising. What happened, Aita explained, was that after Assad took over in 2000 he opened up the regulated agricultural sector in Syria for big farmers, many of them government cronies, to buy up land and drill as much water as they wanted, eventually severely diminishing the water table. This began driving small farmers off the land into towns, where they had to scrounge for work.
Because of the population explosion that started here in the 1980s and 1990s thanks to better health care, those leaving the countryside came with huge families and settled in towns around cities like Aleppo. Some of those small towns swelled from 2,000 people to 400,000 in a decade or so. The government failed to provide proper schools, jobs or services for this youth bulge, which hit its teens and 20s right when the revolution erupted.
Then, between 2006 and 2011, some 60 percent of Syria’s land mass was ravaged by the drought and, with the water table already too low and river irrigation shrunken, it wiped out the livelihoods of 800,000 Syrian farmers and herders, the United Nations reported. “Half the population in Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers left the land” for urban areas during the last decade, said Aita. And with Assad doing nothing to help the drought refugees, a lot of very simple farmers and their kids got politicized. “State and government was invented in this part of the world, in ancient Mesopotamia, precisely to manage irrigation and crop growing,” said Aita, “and Assad failed in that basic task.”
If we had a Syrian elite dedicated to modernization, free markets, and opportunity, we could have an economic recovery in Syria. But the country is locked into suppurating backwardness precisely because the dominant culture holds back individual initiative and enterprise. The longstanding hatreds among Sunnis and Shi’ites, and Kurds and Druze and Arabs, turn into a fight to the death as the ground shrinks beneath them. The pre-modern culture demands proofs of group loyalty in the form of atrocities which bind the combatants to an all-or-nothing outcome. The Sunni rebels appear quite as enthusiastic in their perpetration of atrocities as does the disgusting Assad government.
What are we supposed to do in the face of such horrors? I am against putting American boots on the ground. As I wrote in the cited May 20 essay, “Westerners cannot deal with this kind of warfare. The United States does not have and cannot train soldiers capable of intervening in the Syrian civil war. Short of raising a foreign legion on the French colonial model, America should keep its military personnel at a distance from a war fought with the instruments of horror.”
The most urgent thing to do, in my judgment, is to eliminate the malignant influence of Iran, which is treating Syria like a satrapy and sending tens of thousands of fighters as well as material aid to the Assad regime. Attacking Iran would widen the conflict, but ultimately make it controllable. No sane American should want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. As Admiral James Stavridis told the New York Times today, “If you can move 10 tons of cocaine into the U.S. in a small, semi-submersible vessel, how hard do you think it would be to move a weapon of mass destruction?”
Ultimately, partition of Syria (and other Middle Eastern countries) on the model of the former Yugoslavia probably will be the outcome of the crisis. There are lots of things to keep diplomats busy for the next generation. But the terrible fact remains that it is not in our power to prevent the decline of a civilization embracing over a billion people, and to prevent some aspects of that decline from turning ugly beyond description. Among the many things we might do, there is one thing we must do: limit the damage to ourselves and our allies.