Sunday, December 30, 2012

Post-Syria Assad

Russia hasn't quite abandoned Assad and the only way to avoid a fight to the death in Syria that continues long after Assad is ejected from the presidential palace is for us to start thinking about a post-Syria Assad rather than a post-Assad Syria. Joe Biden's old desire to split Iraq in three may have a place here. It would be far better than trying to make a too clever deal with Iran that links Assad's survival to the ending of Iran's nuclear programs.

The Assad regime and the rebels seem to have mutually exclusive goals that will require many more dead Syrians to resolve:

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said Saturday that there was “no possibility” of persuading President Bashar al-Assad to leave Syria, leaving little hope for a breakthrough in the standoff. He also said that the opposition leaders’ insistence on Mr. Assad’s departure as a precondition for peace talks would come at the cost of “more and more lives of Syrian citizens” in a conflict that has already killed tens of thousands.

But the impasse is solvable, I think, if we stop thinking of Syria as a unified objective. If we move beyond that, perhaps both sides can get what they want--if the light is just right.

Remember that Biden wanted to split Iraq into three parts to give the Kurds, Shias, and Sunni Arabs their own home and end the fighting. I opposed that because I didn't want to give Iran an opportunity to really control the Shia part without Kurds and Sunni Arabs to balance the pro-Iranian Sadrists in the Shia part. Nor did I want the Kurds--the most effective government fighters--out of the fight. Further, I did not want the Sunni Arabs to have their own wasteland of an Anbar homeland where they could get all bitter about their poverty and defeat, and which would become a jihadi safe haven in the heart of the Middle East. A fine idea in theory was bad for Iraq at that moment. In time, when passions cool, perhaps an amicable split can be negotiated. The Czechs and Slovaks managed that. But we aren't there yet in Iraq.

But Syria is so much more bloody than Iraq that it may be the only way to match the objectives of both sides.

We'd need to give the Alawites and their Christian allies a province they demographically dominate on the coast and mountains of western Syria; the Kurds would get a province in the northeast; and the Sunni Arabs would get the rest.

Damascus would be a federal enclave.

Power would be devolved to the provinces, including foreign affairs excepting some symbolic aspects reserved to the mostly nominal federal government. Assad could become president of the Alawite province and carry on as he has.

The Kurds and Sunni Arabs would get their own provinces. Perhaps the Sunni Arabs get multiple provinces based on existing provinces or groupings of them. The various rebel factions could be bought off with control of these provinces.

At the federal level, the rebels would dominate, with a rebel in the position of prime minister representing legal "Syria" at the UN. Powers might be restricted to the federal zone and certain legislative areas not reserved to the provinces, such as allocating oil revenue and tariff revenue to the various provinces.

So we and the rebels get rid of Assad as the ruler of a relatively strong Syria (he will be demoted to just another despot who can't do too much harm to us with his resources); the rebels eject Assad from the presidency of Syria and take charge of the national government as the dominant groups, and control their own people's lives in the provinces; WMD assets outside of the Alawite area are secured (I assume Assad will want to quietly keep some), perhaps with an international force to do the job; Lebanon gets to edge away from resuming the civil war; Israel gets a weakened threat to their north (although the Golan border could get hotter with terror threats, the conventional threat will be much lower for a long time); Turkey and Jordan get to send the refugees back to Syria; Iran and Russia retain a pocket of influence in a rump Assad realm to retain access to Hezbollah or naval and intelligence bases, respectively; the Kurds get the hope of an independent state in fact if not legally; tens of thousands of further deaths might be prevented; and the UN gets to feel that it achieved something through diplomacy.

Unless the deaths are merely delayed as all sides--or even just one side--prepares for round two for control of all of Syria.

Sure, it isn't as elegant as some pretend trade off where Iran pretends to abandon pursuit of nuclear weapons in exchange for saving Assad. But it has more hope of success and doesn't require a futile sacrifice of Syria's Sunni Arabs (who won't go along with the plan anyway) for a futile goal of getting Iran to agree to end their nuclear ambitions:

Iran has responded to the toughening of sanctions by speeding up its work on a bomb, not slowing it down,” says Jean-David Levitte, former French ambassador to Washington and, until May, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy’s diplomatic adviser. “We now have only a relatively few months to act before Iran’s nuclear effort becomes irreversible.”

Levitte believes that the six powers conducting nuclear negotiations with Iran have to make a final comprehensive offer. Failing Tehran’s quick agreement to such a proposal, the only courses left open will be acceptance of an Iranian bomb or military action to prevent it, he argues.

This is where Syria comes in. It is stomach-churning for me to suggest that Americans should work to salvage any part of Assad’s regime, which has slaughtered tens of thousands of Syrians. But the least bad option available may be for all powers to pursue two overriding, interlocking goals: Syria’s descent into a total bloodbath must be stopped. And Iran must agree to live up to its nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations by forswearing atomic weapons.

This is foolish, notwithstanding the impeccable credentials of being suggested by a former French ambassador with a hyphenated name that includes "Jean." Which is the triple crown for the Nuanced American set.

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by ratifying the Assad regime's future dominance of Syria (even without Assad technically in charge) will not let us find the easy way out of the Iran dilemma. In the end, Iran will get nukes and Assad will get Syria. The only question is how long the interval is where we can pretend to have diplomatically solved two vexing problems with one large group of dead Syrians.

And don't foolishly believe that if only we make this offer and Iran refuses or fails to comply, the world will embrace an American military campaign to disarm Iran. We will always lack that support because there will always be another option before that "last resort" arrives.

Fortunately, I doubt if Iran would even pretend to agree to such a bargain, such is their disdain for the West and confidence in their ultimate success.

Sometimes foreign policy realism needs to do a reality check, no?

Nuanced people keep saying that many of the world's borders and states are arbitrary and relics of colonialism. But when it comes time to fix those arbitrary relics, nobody wants to touch them. I think decentralizing Syria could be a way out of this problem.