What Happens Next In Syria

The long-brewing crisis in Syria has entered a critical phase and it is changing the rules of the Middle East. 

If the people keep marching and the regime keeps shooting, the Obama administration could face its toughest Middle East choices yet.  Will Samantha Power bomb yet another country in the region, or will she try to sleep nights with the blood of thousands of Syrians on her hands?

The bloody-minded and repressive Syrian regime — after Saddam Hussein, the slave-trading Sudanese and the gay-murdering and woman-stoning Iranians, the worst bunch of thugs in a nasty neighbourhood — has ripped off the mask.  An estimated 80 plus protesters were killed Friday; at least 6 more when relatives tried to bury Friday’s dead.  The violence can easily escalate.

The outside world, preoccupied by the dramatic events unfolding across northern Africa and in Yemen, had not paid much attention to Syria until the last 36 hours.  But now the scale of the protests and the brutal response have caught the world’s attention.  Britain, France and the US have all condemned the latest violence, with the White House using some of its sharpest language yet.

This crisis could have legs.  Although Syria is not an oil exporter, every moral and political argument that led to the intervention in Libya applies more strongly to Damascus.  And while the political, national interest rationale for regime change in Libya is a little sketchy, the case for regime change in Damascus is close to ironclad.

If the danger of genocidal repression was the reason we intervened in Libya, Syria is a much more clear cut case of genocide waiting to happen.  Perhaps the single worst incident of Arab-on-Arab violence ever recorded was committed by the Assad government in February 1982 when somewhere between 10,000 (the low estimate) and 40,000 (according to the Syrian Human Rights Commission) people were murdered to crush popular demonstrations against the dictatorship.

The current Syrian president did not order the 1982 massacre himself, but the people who did it still populate the Syrian security forces.  Syria’s unhesitating use of mass violence against the current wave of protests suggests that the bad guys are still (literally) calling the shots. Samantha Power, check out the “duty to protect;” everything you said about Libya is true, in spades, for Syria.

The Great Loon of Libya was frothing and raving about his plans for vengeance before the allied intervention and he might well be capable of genocidal violence; in Syria, a security establishment bathed in the blood of past victims stands ready to murder again. If the repression intensifies, and the Syrian government murders thousands and tens of thousands of its citizens once more, it will make a hollow mockery of the fine words NATO and the Arab League used to justify their actions in Libya.

If the humanitarian case against Syria is strong, the national interest case is stronger.  For decades now, Syria has been a principal state sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East.  Hezbollah and Hamas would not exist in their present forms without Syrian protection and support.  On its own behalf, and as Iran’s closest strategic ally in the Arab world, Syria has a long record of arming, training and sheltering terrorists.

Moreover, regime change in Syria would be a body blow to Iran.  Iran is hated and feared by most of the Arab countries.  Only Syria, where a Shi’a-leaning Alawite minority tries to conceal its corrupt dictatorship behind a fig leaf of secular (and often rabid) Arab nationalism, is a reliable ally for the Iranian mullahs.  In the entire Middle East, no other country cooperates with Iran on anything like the Syrian scale.

Regime change in Syria would greatly increase the chance that Iran might come to its senses.  The shock of Assad’s downfall might rekindle the enthusiasm of the democracy protesters in Tehran; alone and friendless, a rattled Iran might be more willing to compromise on the nuclear issue.  Either way, there is a good chance that regime change in Syria would reduce the likelihood of a major confrontation between the US and Iran.

From a US point of view, regime change in Damascus has several possible upsides.  There is not only the sobering and isolating effect on Iran.  Regime change would likely strengthen the moderate camp among Palestinians (including the more realistic elements in Hamas) and could improve the chances for Israeli-Palestinian peace.  It would substantially reduce the chance of new Hezbollah attacks on Israel and could open the door toward a more effective and more democratic government in Lebanon as well as Syria.

There is something else to be gained.  The Assads, père et fils, have been among America’s most consistent opponents for decades.  (Like Gaddafi, they were somewhat more cooperative on anti-Al Qaeda after 9/11; their record on interdicting anti-US fighters crossing into Iraq was more mixed.)  Relying on a hysterical and hypocritical Pan-Arab nationalism, they took every opportunity to frustrate peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and did everything they could to whip up reflexive and unthinking anti-Americanism around the region.  They cooperated with the Soviet Union during the Cold War; they work with Iran today, and they apparently have worked with the North Koreans to develop nuclear weapons.  The fall of this regime will not only remove a long-term annoyance; it will offer an important intelligence windfall by giving the US access to vast amounts of information about what the bad guys have been up to.

Even though the US and its allies have their hands full with three wars in the region already, I would not discount the possibility of military action to protect civilians if the Syrians continue down their current path.  The list of people who want Assad gone is long and influential.  The Saudis have a personal grudge against Syrians for their presumed role in the murder of Rafiq Hariri, a former Lebanese Prime Minister who was very close to the Saudi royals.  More, Syria and the Saudis have been competing for influence in Lebanon for some time, and the Saudis have not been happy to watch the rise of Syria’s Shi’ite Hezbollah allies in a country the Saudis think belongs in the Sunni column.

Regime change in Syria would knock the keystone out of the “Shi’a Crescent” — the string of countries under Shi’a or Shi’a aligned rule stretching from Iran and Iraq through Syria and Lebanon.  This Crescent haunts the imagination of Sunni Arab strategic thinkers.  Some of the fury at the US invasion of Iraq reflected fears that this would give Shi’ites a strategic advantage and offer the Iranians an avenue of influence into the Sunni heartland.

Those fears are not as fanciful as they sometimes sound to American ears.  The Syrian connection gives Iran the opportunity to do more than bluster and fume about Israel; by supporting Hezbollah and the Sunni group Hamas Iran is burnishing its credentials as the leader of the Muslim world.  Taking a strong line against Damascus might help the Obama administration repair badly frayed ties with the Saudis, who have been deeply unimpressed by Obama’s track record in the Middle East.

The French also have reason to resent Syrian meddling in Lebanon.  The French have long had a ‘special relationship’ with their former colony and many educated Lebanese (especially but not only) Christians speak French and have close personal and business ties with the former imperial power.  The marginalization of the Maronite Christians in Lebanon and the reduction of French influence as Syrian power grew did not make many new friends for the Assads on the boulevards of Paris.

Note to aspiring dictators: If France, Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel all have reasons to wish you ill, you should perhaps behave more cautiously than President Assad has recently chosen to do.

If the current government collapses, Syria is likely to rejoin the Sunni Arab world — the overwhelming majority of its people are Sunnis who deeply resent the decades of corrupt and brutal rule by the Alawi minority and Clan Assad.  What that government will look like and how stable it will be are different questions.  While Syria has had a long dictatorship, and has communal tensions as intense as those that have made Lebanon the site of repeated civil wars in the past, it also has some very thoughtful and well-educated people.

Regime change is not a smooth process.  There are many reasons that the neighbours (Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Israel and Iraq) don’t want to see turmoil in Syria.  The Turks in particular have invested money and energy in building a relationship with the Damascus regime.  A porous Syrian border can be a source of weapons and foreign fighters into the still-restive river valleys of Iraq.  There is a chance that an unfriendly Sunni Syria would drive Iraq closer to Iran.  The Jordanians have more than enough on their hands without wanting more refugees and more turbulence.  And while the Israelis don’t love the Assad government, the Golan front has been reasonably quiet for a long time.

Nevertheless, the Syrian government should tread carefully.  Ordinary people in Syria have been watching the events unfolding around the region, and they have followed the news of the international intervention in Libya.  Our actions have encouraged them to risk their lives by standing up for their freedom.  Words like “duty to protect” are ringing in their ears.  If coalition planes weren’t bombing Gaddafi’s forces in Libya, the crowds in Syria might have stayed home.

If the people keep protesting, and the government keeps shooting, can the White House really afford to stand by?

I personally do not want to see the US involved in yet another Middle Eastern war.  The potential that the conflict would spread into Lebanon and plunge both countries into a long period of chaos and civil war is far too significant for me to start beating the war drums.

But the situation in Syria has turned much more critical since Friday’s demonstrations.  Intervention in Syria is likely to involve higher stakes, more bloodshed and greater risks than the intervention in Libya.  We need this like we need a hole in the head.  But the courage of the Syrian people, the brutality of their government, the wishes of our allies and the logic of our interests may yet force our hands.

For the Obama administration, the prospect of making the painful choice between war in Syria or genocide in Syria cannot be welcome.  Whatever it does, the administration will run serious risks and invite bitter criticism; it may also start engaging in some serious introspection.  Both in substance and in the way it was handled the Libyan intervention makes a Syrian intervention both harder to pull off and harder to avoid. That is not normally what a successful policy looks like — but in the administration’s defence, these are not normal times.

This post originally appeared at The American Interest.