Syria “Sauve Qui Peut “

By David T. Jones on April 7, 2014

Washington, DC - At some point, one has to recognize that the cause, no matter how noble, has been lost.

And the “West” has lost in Syria.

Recall that approximately two years ago pontificating cognoscenti were saying Syrian leader Assad couldn’t last another six months, that it was “just a matter of time,” that the rebels would shortly prove victorious.

In a word, “Not.”

Assad has not only survived, he is winning; indeed, he has virtually won the civil war.

All that is left for the West is to declare defeat (with some adroit diplomatic terminology or other) and back away from the effort.  In so doing, however, we may wish to examine briefly why we (or at least “our side”) lost:

Assad Was Not the Pushover We Assumed.  We looked at Bashar al-Assad and saw a rather gawky, quiet, reserved, and generally unprepossessing man who trained as a medical doctor/eye specialist with nowhere near the steel of his vicious father and older brother.  We expected that he would quickly be submerged by the “Arab Spring” tides and decamp for luxurious exile with ill-gotten millions.  Instead, whether discovering that genetics trumps training or propped up by advisors, Assad has held on, at first desperately but now with mounting confidence.   In power since 2000, he appears in firm control of the levers of power.  

The Military Has Remained Loyal.  The classic strong man regime has military qualified only to shoot rioting students and torture liberal academics.  Its officers are caricatures dressed in comic opera uniforms bedecked with meaningless medals.   They instantly dissolve as military formations if facing motivated, armed opponents.  Latin American history is replete with such illustrations:  Batista and Somoza are obvious examples; and the Argentine was military unable to hold the Falklands against a British expeditionary force and then collapsed politically.  More recently, Tunisian military put up no resistance to Arab Spring; Egyptian military retreated to their barracks rather than fight for Mubarak; and only NATO intervention overthrew Qhadaffi.

But, in a little examined phenomenon, the Syrian military has fought vigorously and coherently against all rebel factions.  They did not dissolve under pressure, cut and run, or surrender en masse.  Defections to the rebels have been more heralded than frequent.  They held against rebel surges that initially appeared unstoppable.  Now, buttressed by equipment from Iran and Russia along with Hezbollah contingents, they have turned the tide.  They no longer need chemical weapons improvised weapons such as “barrel bombs” are smashing remaining rebel strong points.  

Disorganized Opponents.  Without attempting to sort out the cats in the catfight, one can conclude that the “moderates” have been superseded by the “extremists.”  Such is the classic development in a revolution--driven by ideology/religion, the extremists willingly take any measures and suffer any losses to gain control of the antigovernment movement.  The West never found an effective mechanism to provide meaningful support to the moderates.  The extremists, epitomized by al-Qaeda elements, are effectively supported by Iran.

Indifferent Neighbors.  Bordered by Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon, Syria was geographically vulnerable to potential intervention.  The NATO trained and equipped Turkish military could have made short work of Syrian government forces and installed a government of its choosing.  Supported by a coalition of “willing” Europeans, Turkey could have taken such action immediately in support of the antigovernment demonstrations in early 2011.  

But all those supposedly concerned--weren’t.  Instead, the repeated plaint was that the USG should play Robocop and depose Assad.  Why we should care more about eliminating Assad than did his neighbors has never been convincingly explained.

Instead, we have fibrillated at the United Nations and in Geneva “peace” conferences.  In the meantime, a lot of Syrians have died (not just “rebels” although NGOs are indifferent to deaths of Assad supporters).  There is no expectation any of these efforts will produce an agreement removing Assad/Alawites from power.

Moreover, international interest in Syria has faded; the cause de jour is Ukraine (connected with the mystery of the disappearance of Malaysian Air flight MH370).  It is time to fold the tent on Syria.  In so doing, we should switch focus from arming/training rebels to saving civilian lives.  We should seek first local, then comprehensive truce for the fighting, and offer general economic assistance and rebuilding effort for a much battered Syria.

This is not the result that we desired, but it is the result we have.  And we should bear in mind that there are far worse regimes than Assad’s that we have accepted as best available of worst cases.


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