So we haven’t written much about the war in Syria. Long-time readers of this blog may recall that back in the spring and summer of 2011, we were posting something about the Libyan conflict every couple of weeks or so. Why the relative silence?
Well, a couple of reasons. One, the Syrian conflict is complicated. Libya was a relatively straightforward military struggle, with clearly defined, mostly contiguous areas of rebel and government control. There were fronts and supply lines and any number of classic set-piece battles. You could look at a map and instantly have some notion of what was going on. Syria, not so much.
Two, there was a painful dearth of decent analysis on Libya. I called the date of Qaddafi’s downfall (late August) several months before it actually happened, and I did it using amateur methodology that any bright high school senior could have come up with. What’s striking is not that I got it right but that nobody else did, at least in the public sphere. (In retrospect, it looks to us that the Obama administration and the Pentagon had the same date in mind.) Syria, on the other hand, does not lack for informed commenters; you can begin at Josh Landis’ Syria blog, which is something of a clearinghouse, and then just start clicking through links. There’s enough good stuff out there that I don’t really think I’d be adding much of value.
That said, here are a few throwaway observations.
- Assad loses. The correlation of forces has begun to tilt against him; as with Qaddafi, he’s trying to climb a slope that is only getting steeper. The Russians are backing away (and never provided significant material aid), his army has shrunk down to an Alawite core with unreliable auxiliaries, he’s running out of money, yadda yadda.
- It’s probably going to take a while. Back in August 2011, John Quiggin bet me that Assad wouldn’t last a year; I won that bet. We extended it for another six months, to the end of February 2013. I expect to win that bet too. The regime still has real sources of strength — it controls the capital, has almost all the heavy weaponry, can still access cash and weapons via Iran, the Sunni merchant class hasn’t bolted yet. I don’t dare pick a date, but I think it’s still months and months away. Meanwhile, I’m sorry to say that a lot more people will die, and even more will be impoverished or immiserated. (To understand the dynamics, you could do worse than to read Che Guevara’s book.)
- It’s not going to destabilize the region. Jordan’s stable in part because its neighbors are so screwed; Jordanians who might be inclined to rock the boat have only to look at Iraq and Syria to reconsider. Israel will be fine, at least until a new Syrian regime gets properly settled in. Iraq’s problems are driven by internal politics, not stuff happening in Syria. The one partial, limited exception is Turkey, where Assad’s clever stroke of liberating his Kurds is having some knock-ons. I can’t however really consider it “destabilizing.” The Turkish state is not at risk and the status quo in Turkey is very unlikely to change. (In fact, there are signs that the fallout from the Syrian civil war may be having a constructive effect.)
- In fact, a surprising thing about Syria is how little impact it’s had on regional and world politics so far.
- Boots-on-the-ground foreign military intervention remains extremely unlikely. No-fly zones or a Libya-style bombing campaign are conceivable but very unlikely any time soon. (There is evidence that Assad considered the use of chemical weapons, which would have prompted intervention, but the operational benefits from doing so were iffy at best and the strategic consequences all negative. This is unlikely to change.)
- There’s not going to be an Alawite fortress state in the west. (Or at least, not for long.)
- What follows won’t be pretty. The Islamist Menace (UNDER THE BED AND ALWAYS EVIL) is one of the more tiresome tropes of modern U.S. politics. That said, some pretty unsavory types are coming to the fore. The longer the fighting goes on, the worse this is going to get. Post-Assad Syria will be a fissiparous place and probably pretty violent, and the many interests of outside parties aren’t going to make matters any better. When some sort of stability finally does emerge there’s no reason to think that it will be dominated by bien-pensant liberal democrats.
All of these seem pretty obvious, but I emphasize again that I’m not a Syria expert — this is that same “bright high school senior” level of analysis. If I turn out to be right about most or all of this stuff, I’m actually going to be rather annoyed with our foreign policy commentariat.