Reuters. United States to press Russia on Syria’s Assad, as in, “Can we please get rid of him?”
This blog tries to preserve the distinction between modes of action, such as diplomacy and military interventions, and intelligence, which, in the purest form, is understanding things as they are. Since no one at one of these poles is immune to the pull of the other, it helps to recuse one’s self from the other pole. In lieu of that, you have to make a conscious effort to separate the two. This post, and more so the next, will tread the verge. Complicating this, the two poles are connected by something that might be called understanding the situation as a whole. The 60’s word, grock, is a perfect fit.
The two negotiators, Kerry and Putin, carry mental frameworks shaped by different academics and different environments. Kerry is a lawyer who studied and practiced law in a country where the law is not dependent upon any particular individual. In the U.S., the law is a living thing, but its growth is framed by strong institutions that moderate and contain the biases of individuals and the age. Since in western countries, it is widely held that law was the greatest invention of man, it is natural for Kerry’s mental framework to put it in the forefront of the problem. The solution to this interpretation of the Syria problem calls for creation of a government with western style institutions. If the institutions are strong enough, or become so by appropriate nurturing, then, the theory goes, the problem is solved.
This worked in India. The emergence of democracy has been largely spontaneous and unpredictable. India, and a few smaller remnants of British colonialism, may be the only successful impositions.
The background of Vladimir Putin is different. Putin’s U.S.S.R., and now, Russia, has never been a state of impersonal law. The Russia of today is seriously threatened, both from within and without. Putin has never explained why he dismantled Russia’s democracy. Perhaps he feared it could not withstand future cataclysms. Admittedly, it didn’t work very well. But it could have been braced and splinted, rather than replaced by the fake of that perfect Russian phrase, “Potemkin village.”
But this is what he did, and the reasons are probably more correct than the solutions applied. All of the nondemocratic regimes fear disorder. Putin’s claim that U.S. foreign policy has resulted in the destruction of functioning, if despotic states, with no apparent benefit to the inhabitants, is not without merit. So it’s legitimate to ask if the western recipe for Syria, if it actually existed, would result in more of the same.
Kerry and Putin embed Syria in different “thought containers”, a term coined to mean an individual’s personal “box.” A popular phrase for creative thinking is “thinking outside the box.” But the attempt usually results in merely touching the walls. Their communications are hampered by differing domains of discourse. Sharing a limited set of formal definitions, every implied meaning is different.
So it is no surprise that continuance of Bashar al-Assad as president of Syria is a point of contention. Assad is a very evil man. Beneath the surface of evil, many distinctions exist. He could be the author, executor, pliant tool of his clan, or Faustian bargainer. Regardless, drag him to the Hague court, and his guilt is certain. But the question has been curiously misstated.
The real question is not whether Assad should remain president. It is whether the president should be an Alawite or Sunni. The history of Alawite Syria has been characterized by almost complete opacity of the ruling Alawite clans. Signs of dissension are so questionable that the ruling clans might be distinguished by the most hermetic information barrier in the world, save for North Korea. An example of the quality, or lack, of information is the death of Assef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law. It’s dissected by EA Worldview, with focus on the paucity of information.
The hermetic information barrier of the Alawite clans is reinforced by a custom of the religion. The Alawites constitute not only a set of closely related clans, but also a syncretistic religious sect, meaning that the beliefs, tenets, etc. are inherently contradictory. The laws of the sect are secret, closely held by clan elders. With secret laws as the norm, it’s that much easier to impose the information barrier as an extension. But this means that to the Sunni opposition, all members of the Alawite political class are indistinguishable. In the absence of a public record of dissent, there is no reason for the Sunni opposition to accept another Alawite in Assad’s place.
Next: Could Assad be useful in a solution?