The thing about Syria’s President Bashar Assad is that not even Israel knows whether it would be better if he stayed or if he left. I was puzzled by recent reports: Some claimed that Assad remains the middle-man between Iran (and the country’s Russian backers) and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. If you get rid of Assad – who is an Alawite Shiite – the Sunni majority would take over in Syria and the Shia terrorist connection would presumably disappear. We should welcome that prospect. Yet, with Assad gone, the Sunni government might also undergo a transformation that leads to free elections, the victory of an Islamist right-wing party, and radicalization of the country with the corollary of ethnic cleansing.
A Sunni controlled Syria would be unpredictable. It would not cooperate with the Hashemite King of Jordan, the pro-American Abdullah II (and with his wife Rania), but would try to destabilize Abdullah’s rule by providing a safe haven to radical Islamists. It would support groups that contribute to widespread Islamization in Jordan. Radical Syria and Jordan would then likely team up with radicalized Egypt (thanks to the politics of president Mursi) and target “enlightened” Emirates. In the end, the whole region could be destabilized. The Iraqi civil conflict could possibly reignite as well – as if we have not had enough Iraqi sectarian conflict yet!
Which one is Syria’s lesser evil: radical Shiites or radical Sunnis? I recently spoke with Shlomo Brom, a Senior Fellow at Tel Aviv’s “Institute for National Security Studies,” who also held very high posts in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). He clearly admitted: “There is no consensus in the Israeli defense establishment on this subject. In any case I believe we can forget about peace negotiations between Israel and Syria taking place for the coming years.”
No end in sight for Syria’s conflict
It seems therefore that the only possible solution is the one that existed before the conflict: equilibrium. Assad was a dictator, yet he wasn’t as cruel as Saddam Hussein. He was more like the Shah of Iran, who had special forces – the Savak, commanded by Reza Pahlavi – doing the dirty job for him. Indeed, Assad’s image remained polished enough for his wife to appear in Vogue Magazine. He has kept the border with Israel quiet, and – while his rule in Syria was uncontested – Assad was smart enough to play with the leash of Hezbollah, thereby “filtering” Iranian demands to the Lebanese fighters. Syria’s attitude towards Hezbollah varied according to the region’s political equilibrium.
But the past is gone and will never return. There is no end in sight for the Syrian conflict as factions are thriving on cash support from outside forces. Sectarian warfare might last a decade, as resources are virtually unlimited. We know from historical experience how drawn-out these conflicts can become. In Angola, civil war raged for 27 years, from 1975 to 2002. One faction was backed by the West, another one by Cuba and the Soviet Union. Conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Sudan followed a similar pattern.
As long as a new “stalemate” (another name for “equilibrium”) cannot be reached, it seems that the only possible solution is to change the board of the game altogether: split up Syria. Establishing a “Shiite” Syria in the south, governed by the Assads, would avoid ethnic cleansing of the Shiite minority by an eventually victorious Sunni faction. A Shiite Syria would also allow Russia to retain its geostrategic interests: the Iran-Hezbollah connection through the “Shiite Crescent,” and access to the Tartus naval base on the Syrian coast of the Mediterranean. The stability of the Assad regime would also ensure that the Golan border with Israel isn’t put under excessive pressure. On the other hand, a “Sunni” Syria in the north would be geographically disconnected from Jordan – thereby avoiding the domino collapse I described above – and might enjoy the moderate influence of Turkey.
Middle-Eastern borders are artificial constructs
Such a “Sudanese” solution would prevent Syria from turning into a new Somalia. Moreover, we should keep in mind that the Assads were able to survive until today because of the necessity of an inter-ethnic equilibrium. Once new national borders correspond to cultural borders, no central strongman would be needed and the democratization of the country could at least be considered (although it remains an unlikely outcome). More likely is that the Shiite part of today’s Syria would be modeled on the Iranian theocratic model, while the Sunni north would replicate Turkey’s approach (which has also provided the blueprint for Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt). But such radicalizations would be nothing in comparison to the radicalization of a multi-ethnic Syria that is dominated by either the Sunnis or Shiites.
Forget Iraq: It doesn’t work as a comparative case study. In and around Baghdad, peace agreements have been based on redistribution of oil revenues. Yet Syria produces very little oil, and peace cannot be bought out. We should also not be overly sentimental about a possible disappearance of Syria as we know it: At the end of the day, national borders in the Middle East are a Western invention, loosely based on Ottoman administrative division, but more closely related to Western interests. If a country explodes, it is because it does not represent popular needs anymore (and possibly never did).
If your worry is about the “Balkanization” of Syria, solve the conflict the Balkan way: separate. And we can learn another lesson from the Balkans: It pays to spend a lot of money and relocate people. It is brutal, but it is still less brutal than having it done through mass killings in ethnic enclaves – we’ve seen enough replications of the Srebrenica massacre already. Two Syrias may be better than one, if this is what people want.