So, Syria has been on my mind recently. What should we do, what should we not do. I'll try to make this brief.
Syria is probably the worst humanitarian crisis in the 21st century. 100,000 Syrians have died, and 2 million Syrians (10% of the total population) have been displaced. This is because of a civil war that has been raging in Syria for the last 2 years. It all started when a vegetable merchant set himself on fire in Tunisia in 2011, and mass movements erupted throughout the middle east. Some countries such as Tunisia and Egypt transitioned relatively peacefully, while Libya endured a bloody civil war. However, while all the other nations already have elected governments, Syria continues in its civil war.
Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite, which is a small sect of Islam, related to Iranian Shia. Problem is, Syria is 60% Sunni muslim. Now you might be asking why Syrians are killing each other just because they disagree on who should have taken the place of Mohammed as caliph 1400 years ago. And the answer: I don't know. But that's a discussion for another day.
Now, to bring in the actors. First off, the Alawite government. Bashar al-Assad is closely linked to governments in Russia, China, and Iran. Israel tolerates him because he keeps the border quiet and doesn't lob missiles every five seconds like Hamas does. For a while, the US tolerated him too.
The Free Syrian army (FSA) was organized by disaffected army officers, and led by Colonel Riad al-Assad (don't ask) and General Salim Idriss. They are nonsectarian, and have said they are pushing for democratic rule. There are currently about 70,000 FSA members fighting. For a while they have been receiving small arms training from the Americans.
The third group fighting is al-Nusra, a branch of al-Qaeda. They are fighting for a strict islamist state, based on Sharia law. Wherever they have taken towns, they have performed forced conversions, and have led to a crackdown on non-Islamists. They are being covertly supported by Saudi Arabia. What is interesting is that many al-Nusra fighters (about 7,000 in all) are not from Syria, but belong to international al-Qaeda affiliated groups that have descended upon Syria in a veritable Jihad.
Finally, we have the Kurds, an ethnic minority who have long been agitating for an independent or autonomous state. Since entering the war, they have taken over control of many Northern towns near the Turkish border.
So, we have a wonderful little 4-way civil war. those always end up well (I’m looking at you Lebanon). And chemical weapons floating around to boot!
A chemical attack utilizing sarin gas occurred on August 21st, in a Damascus suburb that is also a rebel stronghold. Hard figures are difficult to come by for obvious reasons, but the death toll is estimated at 1400. Last year President Obama drew a “red line”, saying that if chemical weapons were used by the regime, the administration would intervene militarily.
Unfortunately, the measures President Obama has been pushing for will probably not curtail B. Assad’s ability to carry out chemical warfare. The president has been calling for a “limited and proportional” strike against the Syrian government, and any chemical reserves. However, most of Assad’s reserves are stored deep underground in concrete bunkers, probably beyond the range of American rockets. A strike in the sorts President Obama is proposing will not destroy these reserves.
In addition, we do not have conclusive proof that the attack was perpetrated by Assad forces. Recently, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the UN inspector team in the country found “strong circumstantial” evidence. But even if it is likely that Assad used weapons, it would not be a great idea to launch strikes into the region unless the international community has extremely strong evidence. After all, it has been confirmed that al-Nusra has been developing their own chemical weapons, and they are most certainly not above attacking their own people.
A bombshell broke in the international community this week also, with Syria now offering to sign the Geneva Convention outlawing chemical weapons. Currently, Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting with Russian foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the exact terms of a possible diplomatic solution to the crisis. The outcome is currently hopeful, but uncertain.
So now I’m going to switch from a general description of the Syrian conflict to my personal views on what should be done, as well as my hopes and expectations for a post-conflict Syria.
Assad must go. He is massively unpopular, and only holds onto power through brutal crackdown of resistance. That being said, how far should we go toward removing him?
Many opposed to an intervention assert that any action against Assad will strengthen al-Qaeda. That is not quite true: as in Lebanon thirty years ago, the situation is extremely complex. For instance, al-Nusra has not allied itself with any mainstream rebel groups. At least two high level FSA officials have been assassinated by al-Nusra operatives. Wherever Kurdish lands fall under control of al-Nusra, the Kurdish population is often persecuted and forced to leave to neighboring Turkey and Iraq.
Despite the religious zeal exhibited by many jihadist forces, I am doubtful of their ability to control post-conflict Syria. All jihadist/Mujahideen forces make up only 20% of the opposition, and al-Nusra is less than half of that total. In addition, most of their support is coming from outside Syria. Whether these militants remain in Syria or return when the conflict is over is uncertain. The fact that they have alienated both Kurdish forces and the FSA also indicates that their influence post-conflict will not be strong. By contrast, the FSA has done a pretty good job of uniting all of Syria, with various commanders hailing from all regions, and from secularists to fundamentalists-but-not-crazy Islamists.
I think that in order to shorten the war, we should either train or supply the FSA. Currently, they are at a disadvantage in weaponry to the Syrian government. Reports have been leaking in that FSA members have been deserting and joining Saudi-funded jihadist groups due to lack of weapons, Thus, strengthening the FSA would serve two roles: to weaken Assad and to slow the influx of manpower into al-Nusra and other groups.
A problem overlooked has been the Kurdish question. The Kurds have quietly taken control of the northern extremity of Syria. So, assuming the Assad regime falls (which is not a great assumption, but bear with me) what happens to the Kurds? If they are forced to remain within Syria, we will see continued fighting in Kurdish regions, even more so if the new government is anti-anyone who is not Arab. By contrast, if this part of Syria becomes independent (unlikely, but still a possibility) the stability of the northern middle east will reach negative values as Kurds in both Turkey and Iraq attempt independence and possible formation of a new Kurdistan. While not the 800 pound gorilla in the room (that would be the fact that al-Qaeda is fighting here) the Kurds are more like the 300 pound orangutan.
I’m not a big fan of Rand Paul. And when he opposed Syrian intervention because Christians would be persecuted by the new government, I initially brushed it off as just a “Paul moment”. But he really does have a point- if an al-Qaeda supported government takes over, then the 10% of syrians who are Christian will probably be forced to leave. Therefore, it is more important than ever to weaken the extremist groups. However, it would make little sense to stay motionless over the issue just because a certain faction of the opposition is certifiably insane. I think we should cautiously attempt to remove Assad and help elect a government representative of Syria as a whole (for those Rand Paul types out there, in general Syrians have not been happy that al-Qaeda has set up shop in the area).