In White House Years, Henry Kissinger writes, “If history teaches us anything, it is that there can be no peace without equilibrium and no justice without restraint.” The second clause was abided by the surrender terms offered by Ulyesses S. Grant to Robert E. Lee at Appomatox, when the surrendered were permitted to keep their horses: and their liberty:
“…The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged, and each company or regimental commander sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.”
No positive reference of the second clause, justice without restraint, is possible in connection with Syria. For although the Confederacy was fighting for an ignoble cause, the times allowed this civility. Total war had disappeared sometime after the expulsion of the Moors from Europe, to be replaced by the incredibly polite Cabinet Wars, The first reappearance of total war may have been the Paris Commune.
The West has evolved to a state that cannot countenance total war, but intervenes in the Middle East, where most of the belligerents do. Decades of control-by-massacre make the reconstitution of Syria, in which the minority Alawites have held power for 47 years, impossible. So we are left in search of the first clause, equilibrium.
The physical sciences and social phenomena have been borrowing words from each other for a long time. In science, “stable” means a physical situation that doesn’t change for a long time. The etymological root is the place where a horse is kept, where it can’t run away. The desire inspired Plato’s Republic, a method to freeze a society in an optimal state.
Equilibrium is also such a term. It refers to a system where changes occur, with other changes occurring at just the right rate to undo them. For example, water evaporates from lakes, rivers, and oceans, and glaciers melt, but it should rain or snow at just the rate so that they are exactly replenished. To the extent that this is not true, Earth risks ruin from climate change. The EU and the U.S. are social analogs, attempts to preserve structure in the long term by allowing and encouraging change in the short term.
So stability and equilibrium are different. Stability is sought by diplomats and dictators, because it is simple to describe. If achieved, a hypothetical occurrence, nothing changes. Equilibrium is much more complicated, occurring spontaneously, each instance perhaps sui generis. But with the collapse of the colonial era, the Third World came into being mostly as inherently unstable states. Chemical explosives are the physical analogy. An explosive contains both the substance that burns, and the oxidizer that burns it, in intimate combination. In an artificially constituted polity of elements that hate each other, all it takes is the “spark”, for social conflagration, expressions borrowed from physics and chemistry. Arab Spring provides some recent examples.
The Middle East is now dotted with states created by diplomats out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire. All of them have failed, except for Jordan which has squeaked by, and Egypt, which benefits from a prior existence. Saudi Arabia is an indigenous creation, although it incorporates the former Ottoman possession of Hejaz. Iran, never an Ottoman possession, has been an indigenous creation for almost a millennium. To jump centuries of social evolution and solve the Syria conundrum, it is popular to promote “elections”, which, if held, would be interpreted by the winner to mean, “winner takes all.” Elections are the novel feature of equilibrium states.
So we need a new form of stability or equilibrium, whichever is possible, something not tried before by diplomacy. Perhaps we should allow the same thought that struck Kissinger. On page 54 of White House Years, he wrote, “I had written a book and several articles on the diplomacy of the 19th century. My motive was to understand the processes by which Europe after the Napoleonic wars established a peace that lasted a century;…”. He goes on to write that he never thought such knowledge could be literally useful in the present. And in fact, balance of power has not been part of the modern diplomat’s toolbox of statecraft. Simpler means with utopian gloss are more popular. On page 55, Kissinger writes, “He [my note: the statesman] rarely can reach his goal except in stages; any partial step is inherently morally imperfect and yet morality cannot be approximated without it.”
Assad’s Sunni opponents, whose lineage traces back to the Baathist secularism of the 60’s, various recondite quasi-western ideas, and various degrees of Islam, have been in conflict since the monarchy was deposed in 1958. If Assad’s Alawites had never seized power, there is a more than decent chance that conflict of similar intensity would now exist, with different names and different actors. The current trajectory may lead to something similar, with peripheral regions ruled by warlords, permeable to the same radical influences that gave birth to ISIL.
There is an urgent need to unify the opposition. A unified opposition has the potential of evolution towards a pluralistic society. Paradoxically, nothing works for this as well as a good enemy. External enemies have been the grist of every nation-building event, and remain a popular political staple. A reduced Alawite Syria, encompassing Latakia and perhaps Damascus, fits the role.
This is a balance-of-power solution to the statecraft problem. In isolation, it has an immoral sense about it. But in implementation, it would be just a piece of a solution. It corresponds to a geographic partition constrained by economic and defensive viability. There might be little to distinguish from more conventional solutions that partition, except for one thing. Each of the new states must be a client to one of the traditional patrons, the U.S. and Russia. And contrary to the former middle east rivalry, those patrons must work for the mutual benefit of the clients, rather than use them as proxies for their own conflict.
A major part of the problem, Assad now becomes a major part of the solution. Questions to mull are:
- Does a balance-of-power solution to the Syria crisis offer a way to reduce the combustibility of the region?
- Does it support the goal of having every square inch occupied by states that would exclude non-state actors, ie., terrorism?
- Can it be implemented in the face of the condemnation that would heap on such a complex and apparently ambiguous strategy?
- Does it offer the possibility of pacific evolution?
- Is it sufficiently moral?
- Would the Russians buy in to an Alawite Syria comprised of somewhat less than the Alawites have tenuously gained, but cannot hold without Russian airpower?
Think about this. I will too.