The Western goal of keeping Syria whole, with its devout Muslims harmoniously living side by side with Alawite tribes they consider heretical, as well as with Syria’s pro-Assad Christian minority, is delusional and guaranteed to fail.
Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is a tyrant who “gasses his own people,” Reuters reported this week, expressing a revulsion echoed countless times in the wake of the latest chemical attack in Syria on innocent women and children.
This Western viewpoint is fundamentally confused, explaining why the West is unable to understand the tragedy of Syria, and to end it.
Assad did not gas his own people. Assad is an Alawite, a minority people that rules over the many non-Alawite tribes that constitute the amalgam of nations that is Syria. If U.S. intelligence is accurate, Assad gassed the non-Alawite Muslim tribal people of Syria’s Idlib region, some of the many peoples — Kurds and Druze among them — that his Alawite regime has subjugated, and tyrannized, since seizing power in 1970.
There is no true Syrian people, except in the imagination of Westerners, and there can be no true Syrian leader, acceptable to all the constituent nations that now reside within Syria’s borders. The Western goal of keeping Syria whole, with its devout Muslims harmoniously living side by side with Alawite tribes they consider heretical, as well as with Syria’s pro-Assad Christian minority, is delusional and guaranteed to fail.
Although the Alawite tribes now have the upper hand in the seesaw Syrian civil war, they remain desperate. They know that, if they lose, they will be mercilessly slaughtered, just as Assad is mercilessly slaughtering those who would overthrow his Alawite regime. Surrender is unthinkable.
The Alawites’ only thinkable option, apart from continuing to fight, is retreating to their mountainous stronghold along the Mediterranean coast. Before the Russians decided to risk an intervention and rescue Assad’s regime from what appeared to be sure defeat, Assad had in fact prepared, with Russian support, an Alawite retreat to what would become a well-armed Alawite state.
An Alawite state where Alawites could defend themselves, and rule only themselves, would remove them from the civil war and begin a needed untangling of peoples — Syria, originally formed as a federation of six mini-states, is an artifice created after World War I by the colonial powers. A further untangling would result from letting the Kurds rule over themselves in their traditional homelands, and the Druze in theirs.
This untangling, which would allow for the self-determination of peoples and the prospect of relative stability, should be the West’s goal. Because the cash-strapped Russians have no interest in a protracted war in the Middle East, this untangling should also be a Russian goal.
Russia’s overriding interest lies in maintaining its Mediterranean naval base on the Alawite coast, protected from the Sunni Arab majority that wants to overthrow Assad, as well as from the Iranians, who want all of Syria as a client state. An easily defended Alawite state, allied with Russia and hosting Russian military facilities, affordably achieves Russian interests. By resisting Assad’s overthrow and remaining his steadfast ally, Russia secures Assad’s support and that of the Alawites. Russia also maintains its reputation of remaining loyal to its allies, a geopolitical asset that the U.S., to its discredit, has lacked.
Tragically, Russia like the United States insists on keeping Syria whole, as Russian Foreign Secretary Lavrov explained at a press conference held jointly with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Wednesday in Moscow. Russia, unconfused and unashamed at backing dictators, believes the rule of a secular strongman over all of Syria would best protect against the terrorist anarchy that currently reigns there. It rightly blames America’s obsession with deposing secular dictators such as Assad in Syria, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gadhafi in Libya for blowing up the entire Middle East, for giving rise to ISIL and other terrorists, and for the migrant crisis engulfing the Middle East and the West. It rightly sees Assad as a counter to terrorism and it rightly is skeptical of a confused and feckless America making casual claims in support of a democratic Syria.
Russia is only wrong in its tolerance of the ruthless suppression that would be required to maintain Syria as a unitary state. Should the Trump administration lose its confusion and convincingly support the self-determination of Syria’s member nations — akin to Trump’s support for the self-determination seen in Brexit and other breakaways in the European Union — Russia would likely acquiesce, join the U.S. in vanquishing the terrorists operating in Syria and settle for an Alawite state. The Syrian crisis can then come to a close.
Lawrence Solomon is a policy analyst with Toronto-based Probe International.