Hands Off Syria?

WASHINGTON, DC – More than any of the previous events in the Arab Spring, Syria’s turmoil has presented serious difficulties for Western policymakers. Just as Syria comprises a more complex society than the other Arab countries currently in the throes of political transition, so, too, are its external relations more complex. As a result, any attempt at decisive military intervention would be not only difficult, but also extremely risky.

Syria’s leading role in Lebanon, even after withdrawing its occupying forces there, is only one complication. Another is Alawite-minority rule in a Sunni-majority country, which makes Syria a proxy for Shia Iran in the Sunni Arab world. Still other Syrian minority groups – non-Alawite Shia, Orthodox and Catholic Christians, and Druze – are linked to neighboring countries and regional players, inviting intense external interest and even active support. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Russia all have strategic interests and factional connections to Syria.

The United States and its NATO allies would, of course, prefer a democratic, Western-oriented regime to emerge in Syria. But, given the country’s complex society and external ties, the West should happily settle for a stable government not dominated by Russia or Iran, and not in military conflict with its neighbors, including Israel.

So what is the best US and Western policy? A negotiated end to the current warfare could leave President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in power, albeit with a different face in charge. Such an outcome would be a triumph for the cause of hardline dictatorship, suppression of human rights, and Iran and Russia. But it also becomes less feasible as the violence mounts.