The promised question, “Could Assad be useful in a solution?”, will follow this necessary preliminary.
Imagine that you are a bank robber on the run. But the law has closed in. You’re in a shack surrounded by cops, who have shouted, “Come out with your hands up!” But you don’t, even though you’re outnumbered, outgunned, and without a friend in the world. By trying to live for a few more moments on your own terms, you commit suicide by cop.
Too extreme? How about a paternity suit, in which DNA would declare you the responsible loser, yet you refuse to settle out of court. Still too much? How about a petty argument that could end with your admission? All of these examples involve ceding an element of control. In the case of the robber, it’s control of the few square yards you occupy, and with it, the illusion of personal freedom. With the paternity suit, it’s control over money. With the argument, it’s control over a true/false variable. Given the frequency of arguments that last forever, control over the declaration of a fact has value.
The above are common occurrences of human behavior, replicated on all scales of intensity and numbers. The common element is refusal to cede control of an item that may be anything from land to a mere abstraction. Entire societies can participate. There is a remarkable similarity between the behavior of nations and infants. Only in the West have nations matured to adult social responsibility.
In United States to press Russia on Syria’s Assad, the argument is made that the real question is not whether Assad should remain president, but whether the president should be an Alawite or Sunni, which is equivalent to, “Should the Alawites give up control?”
The position of the Alawites is similar to that of the bank robber. The ruling Alawite political class is collectively responsible for genocide against the Sunni majority. With 250,000 deaths in the current conflict, mass murder on a smaller scale has a continuity back to the regime of Assad’s father, Hafez, as with the 1982 Hama massacre, this handy massacre list, and any time a possibly subversive Sunni landed in the clutches of the Alawite Mukhabarat.
It takes a peculiar kind of thinking to excuse any of this with the thought that in this region, the maxim “Do unto others before they do unto you” has real survival value. Perhaps if the Alawites had never ventured out of their homeland of Latakia to claim a whole nation with different demographics, all this could be avoided. But most readers would not consciously author a Syria settlement that reverses the arrow of genocide.
Analogous to the plight of the robber, the Alawites are surrounded by a demographic sea of Sunnis. Only the disorganization of the Syrian Sunnis, favored by the lack of hierarchy of Sunni Islam, permits the projections of Russia and Iran to achieve significance. The Alawite preoccupation with control is analogous to the robber’s fears of capture. If the robber surrenders, he faces a prison sentence. The Alawites face dispossession, degradation, and death.
The Alawites know that the international response to genocide has always been weak. Before World War II, there was nothing to speak of. The U.N. has been ineffective. Genocides that could have been halted by modest yet timely military interventions include Rwanda and Bosnia. The current example is Syria itself. Control in the present, the essential barrier against genocide in the future, is equivalent in the Alawite mind to continuance of Assad’s regime.
Some points start out as nonnegotiable, but become negotiable. Others lack the possibility. Suppose the Alawite mind were like a see-saw, in which two alternatives balanced exactly in desirability:
- Russian force protection
- International guarantees in return for relinquishment of control.
If it were possible to balance this mental see-saw, the Alawite presidency would become negotiable. In balance, the two items become equivalent, and therefore exchangeable. If the Russians were willing, they could try to use their military to achieve detailed balance. But unlike physical problems of weights and measures, equivalency is rarely possible. It is a nonlinear problem. There is no point of balance. To wit:
A child insults a parent, and tries to avoid a spanking. They run around the house. The child is caught, and the spanking administered. The child is released, and then…? The child insults the parent again, the chase repeats…ad infinitum. Eventually, both tire. Perhaps upon reflection, the child learns something.
But learning, and evolution of the behavior of the individual or society, is not the equivalent of a point of balance. The strategy of micro-managing military intervention to balance the see-saw, motivating the Alawites to cede power, would likely result in the robber’s miscalculation, suicide by military means. The Alawites would not be sufficiently self-aware of their imminent collapse to exercise the political option before collapse became fait accompli.
So in the context of a unified Syria, the removal of Bashar-al-Assad is in the category of the nonnegotiable. It cannot be transformed to the negotiable. It can be externally imposed, or it could simply happen. For example, it could happen if for reasons of future internal instability, Russia is unable to continue their intervention.
“Could Assad be useful in a solution?” will be covered in the next post.