The slaughter of innocent women and children at Houla has elicited calls for American intervention in the ongoing Sunni uprising in Syria. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has urged that the U.S. arm the rebels, while Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman have advocated direct airstrikes against the Syrian regime. And while a Pew Research poll released Thursday indicated that only a quarter of all Americans believe that Washington should intervene in the Syrian conflict, a front page article in Thursday’s New York Times suggested that if a Srebrenica-type massacre occurs, even the reluctant Obama Administration may find itself forced to intervene.
But there are two elements of the Syrian standoff, one historical and one strategic, that are rarely discussed in the public debate about Syria. It is the potentially lethal mix of those two elements - the centuries old blood feud between the Alawite minority and the Sunni majority and the Syrian regime’s arsenal of surface to surface missiles and weapons of mass destruction - that should give pause to anyone advocating military intervention, especially if it’s just for the sake of “doing something”. Because that “something” could set off a chain reaction that might have far worse consequences than another round of massacres, as harsh as that may sound - especially, though not exclusively, for Israel.
The Syrian conflict may have been sparked by the Arab Spring, but by now it has very little to do with it. The standoff between the Alawi-dominated regime and the exclusively Sunni opposition is not a part of some Facebook revolt or Twitter rebellion and is no longer, if it ever was, an insurrection of democracy-seeking civilians against an oppressive autocratic regime. This is now a sectarian blood feud, an age-old vendetta, another bloody chapter in an ongoing conflict between a pilloried, outcast and persecuted sect that 40 years ago, after a millennium of persecution and degradation, ingeniously succeeded in seizing power and turning the tables on its historical oppressors.
Under the ruthless and cunning leadership of Hafez el Assad, aided and abetted by Ba’athist and middle-class Sunnis, the Alawite regime used subjugation, torture and tyranny to consolidate its hold on power. In 1982, Assad’s forces massacred 20,000 members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood in the town of Hama in what Thomas Friedman called “Hama Rules.” These same rules are still in force for Assad’s son and his Damascus partners in crime.
But now it is no longer just the regime but the entire two million strong Alawite community and its Sunni collaborators, as the opposition will view them, who are fighting for their very survival. And every day that the fighting continues, with each atrocity that is committed by the Syrian army and its militias, the Alawites are cutting off their own means of retreat, pushing their own backs up against the wall, running up a tab of blood and cruelty that will be repaid in kind ten times over, approaching a point of no return in which desperate measures may be the only option left on the table. When the stakes are so high, the unthinkable suddenly becomes conceivable, the abominable begins to look like a practical plan of action and even the suicidal may seem like a risk worth taking.
Which brings us to Assad’s “doomsday option.” Unlike Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who voluntarily disarmed and relinquished his own ballistic missiles stockpile of chemical weapons - and whose fate may have been completely different, let’s admit it, had he not done so - Assad, in addition to a standing army, also controls one of the Middle East’s biggest arsenals of surface to surface missiles and the Arab world’s largest stockpile of chemical and possibly biological weapons.
Faced with his own political demise and convinced that his people may face murderous retribution, it is not too outlandish to imagine a scenario in which Assad comes to believe that a conflict with Israel or an all-out regional war is his best remaining option. He is, one should never forget, capable of wreaking havoc and destruction not only on most Israeli cities but also on Turkey, Cyprus, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia - and this before one factors in Hezbollah, with its 50,000+ stockpile of rockets and short range missiles, and Iran, which views the Assad regime as an irreplaceable strategic asset and which may also come around to viewing a regional conflagration as a way of overcoming crippling sanctions and growing isolation.
Syria is now the “sick man of the Middle East” to paraphrase Tsar Nicholas’ portrayal of the Ottoman Empire, or, to use a similar metaphor, the Assad regime is like a wounded and cornered animal whose reactions are growing increasingly erratic and dangerous for the region as a whole. Israeli Northern Command IDF General Yair Golan said this week that Syria is quickly turning into a “failed state” and that its vast arsenal of unconventional weapons could fall into the hands of renegade Islamist groups - some of which are part of the very same opposition groups that the Obama Administration is being urged to arm.
In order to deal with such a complex and threatening situation, the international community could either unite in a resolute diplomatic gesture, backed by a willingness to put thousands of troops on the ground as keepers of the peace and guarantors of the safety of both sides - or it might launch a concerted military operation of such magnitude that it might “shock and awe” the Assad regime into quick submission. But both of these scenarios are completely unrealistic, as is the possibility that the Alawite regime will suddenly lay down its arms and turn itself over to its historic tormentors.
If one may use yet another World War I analogy, Syria is to the Middle East as the Balkans were to Europe a hundred years ago - a powder keg that needs just one superfluous match to ignite the entire region. Although the desire to take action against the murderous Assad regime is understandable, the “shot heard around the world,” in this case, could be a half-baked intervention that sounds the alarm and lights up the panic buttons in the Presidential Palace in Damascus. Even in a go-for-broke presidential campaign, that nightmare possibility should give pause to headline-seeking politicians, especially those who claim to have Israel’s best interests at heart.
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