I lived in Syria for three and a half years, as a junior diplomat posted to our Embassy in Damascus, but that was over fifty years ago. I’m not privy to any special insights about what is going on there now. All the friends I made there are either dead or long forgotten. So I speak now not as an authority but as someone drawing on very old memories about impressions I made of a country that has changed a great deal since I formed them. Some of the things that I remember may not have changed that much, however, so some of my comments may at least engender some useful speculation for readers.
I never knew any Alawites, as best I remember, but I did know some Christians, mostly Armenians and Maronites, and I well recall the depth of their sectarian passions. The Armenians considered themselves outsiders. They were were mostly in transit, psychologically as well as physically, from Enver Pasha’s Turkey to the promised land to the West, usually America. The other Christians were keeping their heads down, except for the Maronites, who were animated by as powerful a hate for the Muslim majority as I have ever seen. The country was, of course, every bit as much an ethnic mosaic then as it is now. The national bonds that united individual Syrians were very weak, mostly consisting mainly of a shared fear of the Turks and fear and hatred of Israel. Your community was all that mattered, not your country.
When I try to project these memories against what I have learned since, about nation building in other states, and the reverse process which leads to failed states, I can see little hope for democracy in Syria, at least in the near and medium term. There has to be a strong central authority able to crack down on dissident elements or some of those elements will soon be killing each other. Secular-minded Syrians have mostly emigrated. Religious traditions have continued in full force, fulfilling their ancestral role of fortifying divisions, while a succession of despots have kept the cauldron from boiling over.
It could be argued that under such circumstances, when the despot represents a minority, the lid is better maintained on the cauldron than would be the case if he came from the Sunni majority, at least from the viewpoint of that minority, and probably the other minorities as well. The Assad dynasty has kept the lid on for upwards of two generations, during which the country has grown in population, economic strength, and arguably in the sophistication of at least part of the population. Has it grown enough to take the lid off the cauldron? It seems to be coming off now, and the results so far are pretty discouraging.
Recently, Washington got mesmerized by the idea of the so-called “Arab spring” and the prospect of democracy sweeping the whole region. It is now close to conventional wisdom that it is neither right nor effective for us to back any tinpot dictator that rules the roost in a part of the region, simply because he makes the right noises and cooperates with us on the issues most important to us. A lot of Americans have assumed, as a corollary, that we should always back popular efforts to overthrow said dictators. However, after playing the role of deus ex machina in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, some of the soberer heads among us have learned that it is not that simple. We’re getting more sophisticated about democracy and failed states, or at least some of us are trying to. Syria may be the hard rock in the Arab world on which our new-found idealism is crashing into hard realities.
I think we should support the idea of negotiating with Assad, with the aim of giving him and his key associates an honorable way out, rather than insisting on his overthrow first. Our initial aim should be a strong central authority disassociated from the present regime, while capable of maintaining security for all Syrians, of whatever sect. The ultimate aim should be democracy, but the notion that Syria should come out of the present ordeal with its independence intact should be abandoned. First security, and if this requires some supranational or multinational authority to sit in Damascus and Aleppo and keep the peace, so be it. Then, after however long it takes to tamp down the fires that keep that cauldron boiling, independence. Hopefully an indigenous and durable democracy will evolve out of present chaos, if there’s been enough time to reduce those fires to a few embers.
Does this sound like deja vu, an old script justifying our intervention in Iraq? Not at all. The key is that Washington no longer consider itself the commander in chief of the whole operation. Work with everyone, including the UN, regional powers, and the Assad regime itself, toward establishing a common view of the future along the foregoing lines. Be flexible in thinking about who will be in charge during that crucial intermediate stage where the main objective is stopping the fighting. (It should not be us, and it probably should not be one of the dissident Syrian factions either. Some combination of indigenous and external authority may be best for the intermediate phase).
Peace will eventually come to Syria, but we cannot bring it about ourselves. We are outsiders, without any direct vital interests in the outcome. We shouldn’t act more important than we are in that context. We have influence, which we should use intelligently with a clear sense of direction. Humanitarian instincts and an abiding faith in democracy as we define it are not enough to provide that direction. Common sense and acting like good neighbors in the global community will make all the difference.