If Jackson Diehl has a humanitarian bone in his body, he doesn’t display it in his mocking call for an American-led war in Syria. While Diehl notes that Bashar al-Assad’s regime is killing civilians, he doesn’t even stop to condemn it; he merely mentions it in passing. Instead, he focuses on “the failure of the United Nations or Syria’s neighbors to stop the country’s slide into civil war in the absence of U.S. leadership.” He details the failed efforts, in turn, of Turkey, the Arab League, Russia, and U.N. envoy Kofi Annan. He says that Sunni Arab efforts to arm the opposition have “floundered.” And then he lays out a doozy of an argument. He explains why Turkey has failed to create a “humanitarian corridor” in Syria:
[Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, a mercurial man, was infuriated. He allowed opposition leaders, including the Free Syrian Army, to take refuge and organize in Turkey. He repeatedly suggested that he supported the creation of a humanitarian corridor or refuge in Syria — in other words, a strip of territory that would be taken over by outside powers and if necessary, defended with military force.
But there is no humanitarian corridor. The reason is fairly simple: The Turkish military would not launch such a bold initiative without the active backing of the United States, if not NATO as a whole. It’s not that Turkey can’t do it: In 1998, it successfully intimidated the Syrian regime simply by massing its large army on the border.
But this crisis has exposed the weaknesses in Erdogan’s regional ambitions. As a former imperial power under the Ottomans, Turkey cannot intervene in an Arab state without risking a broad backlash. Its mildly Islamist Sunni government raises suspicions among Syria’s large Christian and Kurdish minorities — not to mention Assad’s Alawites.
The logic here is terrible. Turkey could create a humanitarian corridor in Syria because they once amassed their troops at the border. Imagine if someone said that the US could successfully occupy Iraq because in 1990 they amassed troops on the Kuwaiti border. He says that Turkey can do this but that they can’t do it because they are seen as an imperial power with a history of lording it over the Arabs. All they need is US and NATO backing, but they risk a “broad backlash.” Isn’t that a synonym for an insurgency?
Mr. Diehl does not explain why Turkey’s history with the Arabs is a problem while Europe and America’s history with the Arabs is not a problem. However, he does at least hint at the fact that Syria has other problems.
Sectarian tensions have also undermined the Arab League’s effort to assert itself. Sunni states, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, that have been eager to intervene have been checked by Shiite governments in Iraq and Lebanon. Meanwhile, independent efforts by the Gulf states to provide arms to the opposition have floundered.
As for Russia, its bid to reestablish itself as a player in the Middle East by brokering a Syrian settlement is also failing. The Kremlin wants to save Assad, but he refuses to take even the modest steps needed to open the way for a regime-preserving deal. Moscow can prevent the Security Council from authorizing tougher sanctions or military intervention, and it can supply the Syrian army with weapons and fuel. But the past few weeks have shown that it can’t stop Syria’s slide into civil war.
So, there it is. Despite the brutality of Assad’s regime, Russia, Iraq, Lebanon, and (obviously) Iran do not want to see the regime overthrown. Things break down along sectarian lines, with Sunnis generally in favor of regime change and Shi’ites generally opposed. Syria is technically ruled by the Alawites, who are a schismatic branch of Shi’a Islam. That explains why they are so closely aligned with Iran and with Hizbollah-dominated Lebanon. It also means that this civil war is about a lot more than humanitarianism. The CIA Factbook says that Syria is 90% Arab, and 74% Sunni Muslim. Alawites and Druze combined comprise only 16% of the population. We can predict how the Alawites would fare in a democratic system, or a Sunni dictatorship. That is why they fight so tenaciously.
The fundamental dishonesty of Mr. Diehl’s argument becomes apparent when we consider these facts. What he wants is not to prevent a civil war but for the opposition forces to win a civil war. I can hope for that, too, in an abstract way. Why should 74% of the population who are Sunni Muslim be ruled over by less than 16% who are Alawites? Why should Syrians live under a dictatorship at all? Why should Assad’s brutality be tolerated? And why not deny Iran a major ally that seems to do nothing but cause trouble for Lebanon and Israel? For political, strategic, and humanitarian reasons, and based on the principle of self-determination, I can certainly hope that the Sunni opposition prevails and throws the regime out.
But it would help if we were honest about what we want. It would also help if we were more realistic about the situation. This is a conflict between Russia and the United States, between Iran and the United States, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, between Iran and Israel, between Sunni Arab states and the Shi’a, between Alawites and the people they oppress in Syria, between Turkey and Syria, and between the European colonial powers and the anti-colonial forces and sentiments of the region.
Should we inject ourselves into this mess with a “humanitarian corridor” occupation? Having just left Iraq where we empowered the Shi’a majority, should we invade Syria in order to empower the Sunnis? These are the questions we need to be asking. But Mr. Diehl doesn’t ask them. Instead, we get this:
The United States, after all, is more than capable of creating and defending a humanitarian zone in Syria, with help from Turkey and NATO. If it were to support the arming of the Free Syrian Army, there is little question that the army would soon have more weapons. Many in the Syrian opposition believe that merely the announcement of such U.S. initiatives would cause Assad’s regime to crumble from within.
What’s missing, of course, is a decision by President Obama to make that commitment. To do so, he would have to set aside the idea that any action must be authorized by the U.N. Security Council. He would have to forge an ad hoc coalition with Turkey and other NATO members, led by the United States. And he would have to order U.S. diplomats to work intensively with Syria’s opposition movements and ethnic communities to build an accord on a post-Assad order.
In other words, Obama would have to behave as if the United States were still what Bill Clinton understood it to be: the indispensable nation.
It’s disingenuous to suggest that the Obama administration’s only consideration is whether or not they can get authority from the UN Security Council. They clearly cannot get such authorization because both Russia and China would exercise their vetoes. Could the United States easily create and defend a humanitarian corridor? Nothing else that Mr. Diehl wrote supports the claim that we could. We’d face a nasty insurgency. Nothing suggests that the competing forces and interests in Syria can be resolved by “intensive” diplomatic work. If the idea is to create some structure that leads to the “consent of the governed,” that’s nothing but wishful thinking that takes no account of reality.
But, even here, Mr. Diehl’s argument is confused and disorganized.
He wants us to not only create a humanitarian corridor, but to arm the opposition. Since these are not supposed to be mutually exclusive policies, that just means that we’d invade and fight with the opposition until they prevailed. This becomes even more clear when you examine Syrian society and realize that the populations are completely intermingled. While there are a few towns that are in open revolt, in most places there is no way to separate the Alawite from the Druze from the Sunni from the Kurd from the Christian from the Jew. To protect people from the government, we’d effectively be engaged in ethnic and sectarian resettlement.
Mr. Diehl’s argument is crafted to say that the only reason civil war is breaking out in Syria is because the only country capable of preventing it (the indispensable nation, America) is sitting on its hands. But what he really wants is for America to fight in the Syrian civil war until it is concluded and the Assad regime is defeated.
He not only makes that job sound too easy, he makes the aftermath sound like a cakewalk. A slam dunk, if you will.
The truth is that it would be an unholy mess. And we’d be right in the middle of it. Again.
We’ve listened to people like Jackson Diehl too many times. It’s time to marginalize him.