After watching from the sidelines for nearly two years, many of the world’s political and opinion leaders are now calling for the West to supply arms to the Syrian rebels. British Prime Minister David Cameron has spoken of a “strategic imperative” to act, at least in part to prevent extreme jihadist groups from eclipsing more moderate factions. Foreign Affairs has published an article by Michael Bröning with the Orwellian subtitle “Arms for Peace,” which similarly argues that the moderate rebel contingent is the only party to the conflict that does not have a reliable supply of arms and money from the outside, since the Russians continue to supply the Assad regime and most of the Qatari and Saudi funds go to more radical groups.
Although no Western power has yet – officially, at least – supplied arms to the rebels, the idea seems to be gaining currency in both Western and Arab capitals, especially in the wake of the December conference in Marrakech, which declared the Syrian National Coalition “the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” For those who remember the U.N. declaration declaring the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, this too has an Orwellian tint. With the death toll in the conflict standing at an estimated 60,000 it is tempting to conclude that it is time for some kind of intervention: supplying arms at a minimum, but potentially declaring a no-fly zone over portions of the country to protect rebel-held territory from aerial attacks. But it would be a terrible mistake.
Today’s New York Times, in one of the very few Western articles I have seen that do not explicitly take the side of the rebels, reports on the large number of people in Syria, especially in Damascus, who have no love for the Assad regime but who worry about the consequences of a rebel victory. These people include business owners and civil servants, many but not all of them Alawites and Christians, who fear persecution by a future Islamist government as well as a settling of scores by various groups that may not care to lay down their weapons once the regime is deposed. Considering the turn of events in Libya, Egypt, and Iraq, their concerns are far from misplaced. The possible replacement of Syria’s multi-religious character with a monolithic Sunni identity or, worse, the potential partition of the country into ethnic enclaves ruled by warlords ought to give pause to the most enthusiastic supporters of the rebel movement. Women especially may not relish giving up the substantial equality they have enjoyed under the Assads’ secularist government.
What, then, is the solution? UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has announced a new peace plan, which he says has at least tentative backing from the Russians. No details have yet been released, but the plan is likely to involve some kind of transitional unity government that will prepare the way for a new elected government. The opposition has been adamant that no peace talks can take place as long as Assad remains in power, but this may not be the stumbling block it has been in the past, Russia having recently indicated that it is largely indifferent as to whether Assad stays or goes. The offer of a safe haven in Moscow for the Assad family and the ability to spirit out however many millions of dollars they may need to live in their accustomed style could do the trick, especially if the Russians threaten to stop supplying the regime if he doesn’t accept their offer and if the alternative is to end up in the dock of the International Criminal Court or to be gunned down by the side of the road like Muammar Qaddafi. Many of those close to the Assads, seeing an opportunity to escape the worst consequences of a military defeat, would almost certainly be willing to give him an additional push.
This is far from a perfect solution. Even if Bashar and his wife agree to go quietly, his younger brother Maher, who commands the Republican Guard and the Army’s elite Fourth Armored Division, could decide to fight on. But even Maher’s agreement to leave the country would not guarantee a happy ending. After 42 years of authoritarian and often brutal rule by the Assad clique, whatever democratic habits and institutions Syria once possessed have atrophied. Our experience in Iraq shows us how hard it is to build a nation and to graft democracy onto a country with no experience of it. Both Iraq and Egypt demonstrate that even free and fair elections are by themselves no guarantee of liberty.
Still, the available alternatives appear far worse. It is time to start talking to the Russians about engineering an end to the conflict and supporting Syria’s reconstruction.