Despite Donald Trump‘s recent bombing of a Syrian airbase, dictator Bashar al-Assad is in an enviable position now. With fierce backing from longstanding allies Russia and China (who wield veto power on the UN Security Council) and a steady supply of funding, weapons, and troops from key Shia ally Iran, Assad’s prospects for holding onto power have never looked better. The US has gone so far as to recently backtrack on the necessity of removing al-Assad from power.
Ever crafty and wily, al-Assad has masterfully played his cards, in a high-stakes political game that has threatened to turn a localized civil war into a super-power backed global war. His most masterful stroke: taking only symbolic and sporadic measures against the apocalyptically devious Islamic State, while directing the vast brunt of Syrian military muscle against more mainstream Sunni rebel elements.
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Thus al-Assad leaves the rest of the world with the problem of eradicating the Islamic State from Syrian territory, which never had legitimate prospects of displacing him, while mercilessly hammering more “moderate” elements of Sunni civil society.
As a libertarian, I could never in good conscience support the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It would be difficult to think of a regime less libertarian than his Syrian dictatorship (Mao Zedong, Stalin, Hitler, Muammar Qaddafi come to mind).
But Trump, whose foreign policy never gave much assurance to libertarians to begin with, appears to have made another serious foreign policy blunder, based on faulty intelligence. Al-Assad is a terrible, repressive dictator, but taking on the al-Assad regime at the behest of the US would usher in an era of chaotic and violent instability so disastrous and apocalyptic that it would make 2004 Iraq look like a family outing to Disney World.
I will reference George Washington’s Farewell Address until I am blue in the face: it was never the intention of our Founding Fathers that we would be an empire, backed by an incredibly pervasive (and expensive) military, bouncing around from global conflict to global conflict, policing the world.
Trump would be wise to heed the words of Ron and Rand Paul and completely take the preposterous notion of “taking out” or “taking on” Assad off the table.
That being said, let’s hope that Trump’s gesture was more symbolic, a matter of “optics”, than a sea change in previous US foreign policy towards Syria.
Assad is the only credible entity capable of protecting the 30% of Syrians who are not Sunni Muslims: Christians, Shia, Alawites, and Druze.
Meanwhile, as Barack Obama quickly discovered, the Syrian Sunni “freedom fighters” are often, in fact, radical jihadi terrorists aligned with Al-Qaeda who make the Assad regime look moderate by comparison. Look at how successful the American funding of the “Free Syrian Army” was…the group where the majority of troops and weapons ended up aligned and in the hands of Al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s local Syrian affiliate, and other jihadist-aligned organizations.
Firing 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase is marginal at best, and at worst, extremely counterproductive.
Don’t believe the mainstream media. As awful as al-Assad is, the consequences of taking him out would be infinitely worse.
Which leads to a conclusion that has not seemed to appear in the discourse of either Obama or Trump. There is only one solution for the Syrian problem. There is only one way to end the carnival of death and destruction: a two-state solution.
In the wake of al-Assad’s unquestionable brutality, it is inconceivable that Syria’s Sunnis, which constitute 68% of the population, would ever live willingly under the totalitarian rule of the al-Assad dynasty. It is equally inconceivable that al-Assad, despite his powerful backing from regional and global allies, and his recent military and geopolitical successes, would be able to bring the entirety of Syria’s territory under regime control.
Unfortunately, the prospects of a moderate and democratic Sunni-dominated transitional government offering equal protection under the law to Syria’s religious minorities (who have strongly backed al-Assad) appear equally remote.
In the context of Iraq, dividing up the country was presented as a viable option: most likely a three state solution with a Shia nation in the South and East, a Sunni nation in the West stretching along the borders with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria, and a Kurdish nation in the North. Such a political division is imperative for lasting peace in Syria.
It is preposterous to envision a free society flourishing anywhere in Syrian territory in the foreseeable future. Fundamentally, democracy, capitalism, human rights, and religious pluralism are alien concepts to the majority of Syrians. Al-Assad’s rule was actually more enlightened with respect to these themes than many of his dictatorial regional counterparts. And al-Assad presents a greater degree of moderation than what is likely to spring forth from Syrian Sunni territory.
If the global diplomatic community in general, and the Trump administration in particular, really want to end the shedding of the blood of innocents, there is a path. First…gather all non-jihadist Sunni parties and the Syrian regime, and sign a ceasefire agreement, while simultaneously pledging to ruthlessly eradicate the Islamic State from Syrian territory.
Second…form a national commission to divide the nation into: a religiously pluralistic Western Syria, stretching from Damascus in the south, through Homs and Tartus, and ending in Latakia, before reaching the Turkish border, and a Sunni Eastern Syria, stretching from the eastern edges of Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo to the vast eastern deserts.
Drawing the borders will not be easy. Syria’s major cities of Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo, for example, are religiously mixed. But Syrian people would have the option of choosing to live in Eastern Syria or Western Syria. Such processes of political division are perilous and invariably more favorable to some than others. Some of the greatest geopolitical and military conflicts have centered around this precise issue: Dividing Yugoslavia between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians. The partition of Indian territory into India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Splitting off South Sudan from Sudan.
The road will not be easy. It never is. But such a plan for a divided Syria could legitimately prevent another half million innocent Syrian civilians from being slaughtered over the course of the next 5 years.
Bashar al-Assad would never go along with such a plan…unless of course, he had no other choice. Donald Trump’s diplomatic mission is clear: if it could be reasonably demonstrated that a two state solution in Syria could dramatically diminish the humanitarian crisis, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Russia and China could use their considerable influence to persuade al-Assad to accept such a deal.
That would be a better use of Trump’s time than launching 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase.