By Fareed Zakaria, CNN
We need to ask ourselves three interrelated questions about Syria. First, what is likely to happen there? Second, what should the United States do about it? And third, what is the broader impact of instability in Syria? I’ll tackle each question in turn.
What is likely to happen?
Bashar al-Assad drew an unfortunate lesson from the Arab Spring: Don’t waiver; don’t make concessions; don’t show weakness. In al-Assad’s eyes, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak vacillated in his response to protests and ended up in prison. Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi wasn’t ruthless enough and ended up dead. Al-Assad has chosen to be brutal.
If you look throughout history, you’ll find that such brutality often works. The killings in Tiananmen Square did disperse the pro-democracy movement in China. For more examples, look at Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968.
History suggests that al-Assad might be successful, except for one fact: The Syrian regime is truly isolated and weak. It doesn’t have a lot of money and it doesn’t have a superpower sponsor like Hungary and Czechoslovakia did.
Syria’s main patron is Iran. But there must be limits to Iran’s economic support. Iran is facing serious financial pressures of its own. I don’t doubt Syria’s intention to crack down, but I do question its capacity to fund its crackdown indefinitely.
For these reasons, I think we’re going to see a low-grade civil war in Syria for the foreseeable future. The government will not be able to fully suppress this revolt. The opposition will prove unable to completely overturn the government. The stalemate could go on for a long, long time. For examples of this, look at Yemen in the 1970s, Lebanon in the 1980s, or Somalia in the 1990s.
What should the United States do?
The United States should try to help the forces of democracy and freedom in Syria. But we don’t know who the opposition is, exactly. Does it favor democracy? We only know that it is opposed to a brutal dictatorship. That entitles it to some support from us, but we need to learn more.
For now, I think we should continue isolating the Syrian regime. We should help Syria’s opposition politically and perhaps economically. I would not, however, advocate arming the rebels or embracing any other kind of military role for the United States. That is a big leap and it is not clear that military intervention will succeed.
First of all, such intervention would be viewed as unilateral. It would be very different from the situation leading up to the Libyan intervention, which came after the Transitional National Council in Libya, the Arab League, and the United Nations endorsed it and after the Europeans agreed to do the heavy lifting.
We have to think carefully about when and where the U.S. uses its military power. It should be in places where we feel the costs are not high, the dangers are not huge, and the likelihood of success is reasonable. There is no point in getting involved in a military intervention that is going to be a fiasco, ultimately won’t work, or will backfire.
What is the broader impact of instability in Syria?
The regional or global consequences of low-grade civil war in Syria are limited. Syria is not an oil-producing country. It is not right next door to the Strait of Hormuz. It is not a vital supply route. Syria has been an isolated country for a while.
In today’s world of trade, globalization and interdependence, political instability in one country tends to get cordoned off. I was stunned during the Iraq War at how complete chaos in Iraq had no discernable effect on the economies of nearby Jordan, Turkey or the United Arab Emirates. All of these places are a 45-minute flight from Iraq. But while Iraq was in a complete meltdown, these neighbors were booming. As far as I could tell, the only effect of the Iraq War on their economies was that it boosted real estate prices in Amman, Dubai, and Istanbul because a flood of Iraqis were buying up real estate.
In a similar way, we aren’t seeing major regional or global repercussions of the violence in Syria.
The only country that is really affected by instability in Syria is Iran. Iran has gone all-in backing al-Assad’s regime. So to the extent that we’re seeing a slow motion collapse of that regime, the situation becomes increasingly expensive for Iran and associates Iran with repression, brutality, and failure.
What to watch
Repressive regimes usually start their downward spiral when internal divisions open up. So far, you haven’t seen that in Syria. The regime’s base has stayed intact. The Nobel Prize-winning economist and international relations theorist Thomas Schelling writes about a “focal point” - the one thing that everyone can agree on in a regime. The Syrian regime endures because it has Bashar al-Assad as its agreed-upon head. He serves as a “focal point” just as the young Kim Jong-un does in North Korea. Neither has all of the power, but they are the common denominator that all powerful factions in the country can agree on.
Once you see army defections, cracks within the intelligence apparatus, and the fracturing of the business elites, then you’ll know that the end is near. At that point, the United States might want to reevaluate its options.
However, we should also keep in mind that while al-Assad is brutal and Syria is a mess, Syria after al-Assad may be even worse. Syria could end up being Libya on steroids.