An Arab friend remarked to me that watching the US debate how much to get involved in Syria reminded him of an Arab proverb: “If you burn your tongue once eating soup, for the rest of your life you’ll blow on your yogurt.”
After burning its tongue in Iraq and Afghanistan, and watching with increasing distress the aftermath of the revolutions in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, US President Barack Obama is right to be cautious about the US getting burned in Damascus. We have now seen enough of these Arab transitions from autocracy to draw some crucial lessons about what it takes to sustain positive change in these countries. We ignore the lessons at our peril — especially the lesson of Iraq, which everyone just wants to forget, but is hugely relevant.
Syria is Iraq’s twin: an artificial state that was also born after World War I inside lines drawn by imperial powers. Like Iraq, Syria’s constituent communities — Sunnis, Alawite/Shiites, Kurds, Druze, Christians — never volunteered to live together under agreed rules. So, like Iraq, Syria has been ruled for much of its modern history by either a colonial power or an iron-fisted autocrat.
In Iraq, the hope was that once the iron-fisted dictator was removed by the US it would steadily transition to a multisectarian, multiparty democracy. Ditto for Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen.
However, we now see the huge difference between Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Arab world now. In most of Eastern Europe, the heavy lid of communist authoritarian rule was suppressing broad and deeply rooted aspirations for democracy. So when that lid was removed, most of these countries relatively quickly moved to freely elected governments — helped and inspired by the EU.
By contrast, in the Arab world, the heavy lid of authoritarianism was suppressing sectarian, tribal, Islamist and democratic aspirations. So, when the lids were removed, all four surfaced at once. However, the Islamist trend has been the most energetic — helped and inspired not by the EU, but by Islamist mosques and charities in the Persian Gulf — and the democratic one has proved to be the least organized, least funded and most frail. In short, most of Eastern Europe turned out to be like Poland after communism ended and most of the Arab countries turned out to be like Yugoslavia after communism ended.
As I said, our hope and the hope of the courageous Arab democrats who started these revolutions was that these Arab countries would make the transition from former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein to former US president Thomas Jefferson without getting stuck in former Iranian supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini or Thomas Hobbes — to go from autocracy to democracy without getting stuck in Islamism or anarchism.
Although to do that they need either an external midwife to act as a referee between all their constituent communities, who never developed trust in one another, as they try to replace sectarianism, Islamism and tribalism with a spirit of democratic citizenship, or they need their own Nelson Mandela. That is, a homegrown figure who can lead, inspire and navigate a democratic transition that is inclusive of all communities.
We all know the US played that external referee role in Iraq — hugely ineptly at first. However, the US and moderate Iraqis eventually found a way back from the brink, beat back Sunni and Shiite violent extremists, wrote a constitution and held multiple free elections, hoping to give birth to an Iraqi Mandela. Alas, they got Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who, instead of building trust with other communities, is re-sowing sectarian division. Decades of zero-sum politics — “I’m weak, how can I compromise/I’m strong, why should I compromise” — are hard to extinguish.
I believe that if you want to end the Syrian civil war and tilt Syria onto a democratic path, you need an international force to occupy the entire country, secure the borders, disarm all the militias and midwife a transition to democracy. It would be staggeringly costly and take a long time, with the outcome still not guaranteed. However, without a homegrown Syrian leader who can be a healer, not a divider, for all its communities, my view is that anything short of an external force that rebuilds Syria from the bottom up will fail. Since there are no countries volunteering for that role (and I am certainly not nominating the US), my guess is that the fighting in Syria will continue until the parties get exhausted.
Meanwhile, wherever we can identify truly “good” rebels, we should strengthen them, but we should also be redoubling our diplomatic efforts to foster a more credible opposition leadership of reconciliation-minded Syrians who can reassure all of Syria’s communities that they will have an equitable place at a new Cabinet table — never underestimate how many Syrians are clinging to the tyrannical Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of fear that after him comes only Hobbes or Khomeini.
That way, when the combatants get exhausted and realize that there can be no victor and no vanquished — a realization that took Lebanon 14 years of civil to come to — a fair power-sharing plan will be in place. Even then, Syrians will almost certainly need outside help during the transition, but we can cross that bridge when we come to it.
Here is the one alternative that will not happen: one side decisively defeating the other and ushering in peace that way — that is a fantasy.