I feel the need to write something relevant about this whole Syria-related farce. In the middle of the argument about whether to arm the Syrian opposition, author Marc Lynch proposes that instead, Assad should be told it’s either step down or go before the International Criminal Court as a war criminal. This, he believes, will encourage high-level defections. US SecState Hillary Clinton also believes that a breaking point will come where there will be high level defections and Assad will be forced to step down.
Seriously, how ridiculous is this?
This Assad is a figurehead who has his job solely by virtue of the fact he prevents the heads of the military, who hold the real and tangible power, from needing to bicker among themselves for supremacy. This Assad has his job because his father, the real dictator, is already dead. This Assad is not Gadaffi; he is not running a personality cult and maintaining “police” that are more loyal than the regular military. The military is the regime, and in no way can be separated from it.
The rebels know this. They’re not in this to take Assad down; they’re in this to take down the entire Alawite sect and banish it from its grip on national power. I note that a lot of people think this is a really good idea if it can be achieved, notably lovers of Israel. However, my point is this: if the military is the regime, Assad stepping down is meaningless; and furthermore, the entire governing structure must come crashing down and be replaced with a complete revolution if the opposition is to be satisfied.
This is not Egypt. In Egypt, Mubarak forgot a simple truth: the military was the power behind the country. Mubarak tried to use economic assets and political power to create a family dynasty and shut the military out from control and the more lavish profits. The military decided Mubarak was a liability and needed to be cauterized to stem the bleeding. The military is still in power and isn’t rushing to take orders from Islamic legislators, though we’ll see what eventually happens. My point is, Assad is in good standing with the Syrian military, i.e. the real regime, and therefore is not in much danger of internal betrayal.
In the first place, why are the higher members of Assad’s power structure there to begin with? It’s probably because they’re getting a piece of the action. If they’re getting a piece of the action, I ask seriously, what benefit can they possibly get from defecting to the opposition? Do we really think that they can be swayed by the prospect of abandoning all financial benefit and courageously serving the Syrian opposition as the People’s Army, as if the Syrian opposition (most of it Sunni) would trust these people even an inch?
In short, Marc Lynch and Hillary Clinton think that these people will cut their own throats – that is, their access to the spoils of government – to ingratiate themselves with the rest of the world, which will offer them nothing and may yet decide to put them on trial for war crimes. Failing that, if the opposition becomes the government, drives the Alawis out of power, and seizes the military’s tanks and chemical weapons and so forth, they may find themselves put on trial in Syria itself and hung or shot at the pleasure of their political leaders. This is not much of a carrot, people.
All this gets us back to the core point: you can’t have “regime change” in Syria just by having Assad to step down. Relying on the military to in effect betray itself to its enemies is a ridiculous strategy and not one that has a hope in hell of working.
As for intimidating Syrian military commanders with the prospect of trial at the Hague, that involves a) their losing in the field b) their being taken alive. Given that they are fighting for unenlightened self-interest as much as any loyalty to the Assad name, it’s hard to see what they gain by surrendering. Besides, they’re in the military. There’s probably at least a minimum level of pride involved.
I do not write this in order to advocate arming the opposition. The existing litany of reasons is plenty, but just to cite a few, Islamic radicals are heavily invested in the effort (I care nothing for the Al-Qaeda name branding – I just care that they’re not friends of the West); borders are weak enough that this can’t help but be a trans-national conflict one way or another; and even if NATO ends up going all out and bombing around the clock, it’s not certain if that would really win this.
The simple fact is that Syria is a tough nut to crack due to the interest of the Alawis to not, well, get slaughtered like pigs. That they benefit economically from their position at the top matters, but so does just avoiding pure ethnic cleansing. News flash: They want to live. Losing sucks. So, they’re going to try to avoid losing as much as possible. There’s no substitute for having a body of the population firmly in your camp due to, well, justified fear. I know, I know, the opposition says they’re nice guys, multi-religion, multi-ethnic… but we know the history of mankind. Expecting this to be some sort of rare exception is not a high percentage plan.
The bottom line is, you have to crack the entire nut and completely rebuild Syria in Saudi Arabia’s image – or maybe Qatar – and then, maybe, you’ll get a “good” outcome out of it.
Plans like this depend on every last variable going right. That makes them very bad plans indeed. – J