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Damascus dilemma

Obama has only difficult choices ahead

Obama has only difficult choices ahead

When the Ottoman Empire collapsed as a result of its defeat in World War I,the colonial powers Britain and France were right there,for their own interests,to impose their own order on the diverse tribes,sects and religions that make up the Arab East. When the British and French left,they handed power,in many cases,to monarchs,who,in many cases,gave way to generals,who,in all cases,kept their diverse populations in line with iron fists.

But,now,even the iron-fisted generals are gone. In Tunisia,Yemen,Syria,Egypt,Iraq and Libya,all that’s left is a single question: Can the people in these countries who for so long have been governed vertically — from the top down — now govern themselves horizontally by writing their own social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens with regular rotations in power?

When President Obama says he plans to arm the anti-Bashar Assad rebels in Syria,this is the vortex into which he is inserting America. I see only three possible strategies: the realist,the idealist and the god-I-hope-we-are-lucky approaches.

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The realist says: I really don’t see any hope for building a unified,multisectarian,democratic Syria. The US goal should simply be to arm the rebels enough so they can hurt and enmesh in a quagmire two of America’s main regional foes — Hezbollah and Iran. In the long run,though,this strategy most likely would lead to the partition of Syria into an Alawite zone along the coast,a Kurdish zone in the northeast and a Sunni zone in the rest. While partition might actually be the most stable and humanitarian long-term option — breaking Syria into smaller units capable of self-governance — getting there would be ugly,and the Sunni Muslim chunk could easily end up dominated by jihadists,not “our guys”.

The idealist approach argues that if our goal is a unified,multisectarian,democratic Syria,then simply arming the “good rebel” would not be sufficient to get there. We (or Nato) would have to have boots on the ground to help them topple Assad and then stay for years to keep the warring parties from murdering each other,to suppress the violent extremists in each community and to help the moderates write a new social contract. It would take another Iraq-scale intervention – something we did not do well,and which very few Americans would vote to repeat.

Some would say that we don’t need boots on the ground,as proved by the Libyan intervention. Really? Libya is an example of the let’s-send-them-some-arms-and-hope-we-get-lucky approach. Let’s remove the Gaddafi regime from the air,arm the rebels on the ground and then hope they come together and produce a decent,pluralistic democracy. So far,we’ve not been very lucky. The transition government has not been strong enough to bring order to Libya,and the instability there has metastasised.


In Syria,we would be hoping that,with just small arms,the rebels could at least fight Assad and Friends to a stalemate so the regime would agree to negotiate Assad’s departure. Even if by some miracle that were to happen,so much more blood would be spilled along the way that we would still need an international peacekeeping force to referee any post-Assad power-sharing deal. All volunteers,please raise your hand.

Those are the options as I see it. None feel very good because those in Syria who are truly fighting for a democratic outcome are incredibly brave,but weak and divided. Those who are fighting for a sectarian or Islamist outcome,though,are full of energy and well financed. That’s why staying out guarantees that only more bad things will happen,but going in,big or small,would not guarantee success.

From a leader in ‘The New York Times’

First published on: 24-06-2013 at 05:10 IST
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