The death toll of the Syrian uprising has now well exceeded 14,000. There’s no sense pretending otherwise, the Syrian government will get away with it, and the death toll will grow much, much higher before these massacres end. If we’re not going to flinch from the truth, it looks for the moment as though Bashar al-Assad will mow down the entire Arab Spring movement in Syria and unless there is an unforeseen solution, he will imprison, exile, or kill anyone in his country who shows the any sympathy with it. And no one in the entire world is in a position to stop him.
To be even blunter, the only option that would remove Assad is military intervention. No amount of arming rebels will bring Assad down – arming Saddam against Iran did not bring down the Ayatollah, and sanctions brought down neither Saddam nor Milosevic, it merely starved the people they didn’t kill themselves. Nor would diplomatic overtures to Iran solve anything. Syria is far too important to Iran for Iran to demand anything of Assad.
No, no diplomatic measure will stop the coming disaster, only military intervention could. But military intervention will not happen at any point in the next ten years. Assad is now the only steadfast ally of Russia and China in the Arab world, and for them to allow him to fall make despots around the world would question the health of any of their alliances with these two 'superpowers.' America is overcommitted to Afghanistan and must still be considered ‘on call’ in case a true Iraqi civil war breaks out. England and France are still entangled in Libya and Germany won’t even bail out Southern Europe. Turkey has already made an enemy out of Iraq on their border and can’t afford a second neighboring enemy. Ironically, the only country in the world with the economic, military, and nation-building strength whose interests might be served by an intervention is Israel; but nothing would give Assad more credibility in the eyes of his countrymen than to have the Syrian government fight yet another war against those ‘Zionist pigs.’
It would appear that Bashar al-Assad, once the ‘idiot son’ whom everyone thought was too weak to even last a decade, held firmly onto power while every one of his ‘more competent’ colleagues fell. And he did it by being firmer, more ruthless, and ‘stronger’ than any of his peers. Like George W. Bush, he was ‘misunderestimated’ by everyone, and the world pays the price for thinking he didn’t have what it takes to rule with an iron hand.
Along with Abdulaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, Assad is one of only two Arab Nationalist dictators remaining – the rest of them, Saddam, Ben Ali, Mubarak, Qaddafi, and Saleh are all gone. Each of them ended their career ignominiously as a dinosaur-like remnant from the age of pan-Arab nationalism – in which newly liberated Arab states thought they could stand up to their former colonial conquerors. Among the major Middle East powers, every military dictator has fallen but Assad.
Ironically, while the model of the pan-Arabist ‘strongman’ seems extremely passé and 20th century, the Kings and Sultans of the Middle East seem to have all the staying power they had in the Middle Ages. The reason for this isn’t hard to figure out: while Middle East dictators traditionally looked to Communist countries as allies, the monarchies looked to the West. The West bequeathed their ancestors with the thrones they currently occupy, and so long as their pipelines stay flowing, the West will protect these ‘sympathetic’ rulers by any means necessary.
The liberals of the Middle East look to America and Western Europe for support, however begrudgingly. They ultimately realize that the only these countries will support their cause with an eye for the liberals to prevail in the inevitable conflict that will arise against religious extremists. The only alternative is to look for support from the autocrats of Russian and Chinese governments, with whom the Islamists share a common loathing of liberal causes like free elections and due process.
So long as Russia answers to Vladimir Putin, Russia in particular will never be convinced to abandon Assad, and it’s lunacy to pretend any diplomatic overture would result otherwise. From the moment that the British and French abandoned their colonies in the Middle East, Russia (and before it the Soviet Union) looked upon the entire Middle East as its colony in all but name. Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya have all overthrown their Russian ‘proxy’ governments. In Vladimir Putin’s mind, this is a cataclysmic loss in prestige. If Putin can’t guarantee the safety of his allies in as firm a Russian stronghold as the Middle East, what chance does he have of building long-term alliances with sympathetic autocrats in Eastern Europe and Central Asia? If Assad goes, Russia’s protection is meaningless.
Turkey may seem to have a vested interest in Assad’s fall, and no doubt, Erdogan would like to see it happen. But whatever the Turkish governments’ defects, Turkey is seen as the world’s sole functioning democracy in the Islamic world and the Middle East’s sole center of stability. To invite open warfare with Syria, to even be seen as supporting the rebels too strongly, is to jeopardize all the influence which Turkey won over the course of the Arab Spring. If conflict with Assad becomes too open, Turkey stands to lose all its stability, and all its reputation for humanitarianism – war is murder, and when waging open warfare against their neighbor, Turkish soldiers could ill-afford to show more mercy than their Syrian counterparts.
For many years, the Iranian government needed Assad far more than Assad needed them. Iran needs safe passage through Syria to wage holy war against Israel. Iran, like Turkey, still harbors dreams of leading the entire Islamic world. To enable Syria to have an Islamic regime would firstly mean to cede Syria to the Sunnis. Assad is Allawite Shia, which is a 12% minority-within-a-minority sect in a mostly Sunni country. But it would secondly rob Iran of the ‘coming glory’ which masterminding the destruction of Israel would endow them – and yes, even if Iran doesn’t use the bomb against Israel, the destruction of Israel is still the centerpiece in their plans to come to the vanguard of the Islamic world. People who say that Iran would abandon Assad because he’s not religious enough have the issue entirely backwards – if Iranian government policy were not so grounded in religious dogma, they’d have long since abandoned Assad. Without Assad, neither Hamas nor Hezbollah would have any rocket supply, and Israel would long since have dismantled the Iranian nuclear program. Now more than ever, the Iranian government has reason to support Assad.
That the Arab Spring happened at all is its own kind of miracle – it only happened because pan-Arabism seems dead, at least for the moment. No matter how effective they once seemed, no military dictator in the Middle East since Ataturk brought anything like the eminence, the wealth, or the progress he promised. The vast majority of the Middle East has long since put its faith in either liberalism or political Islam. But miracles do not happen twice. In every country where a military dictatorship fell, there is an inevitable conflict brewing between liberalism and Islamism – and between all the factions within them both. Every outside country with a vested interest in the Middle East used up its political capital before the Arab Spring reached Damascus. Assad’s held onto power by doing what any good dictator does – suspending rule of law, imprisoning agitators and killing his enemies. He knows that if he can hold onto power for just long enough, the world will forget about Syria. Sadly, the coming violence in the Middle East may well make what’s currently happening in Syria seem rather small scale and insignificant. Assad is banking on that, and the worst part is that he may well be exactly right.