Friday, July 5, 2013

A Plan for Post-Assad Syria

Investigating Our Ideas of the Likely and the Possible

Imagine that you are standing by the water cooler with someone from your work place.  Making casual conversation to extend the break from the job, he asks you "How do you think the conflict in Syria will turn out in a year or two?"

The content of conversations like this one are important in a representative democracy -- that content still remains important even in the shambles of one. Further, as a functioning member of an "informed electorate" such as the one our nation's founders mentioned, you should probably have a few ideas as to an answer for his question.  Given the very material approach of this unfolding series of events, how could it reasonable for a citizen not to hold ideas, plans, hopes and cautions?

In fact, could such a lack of interest and participation be considered responsible at all?  Patriotic -- at all?

The President's decision is a heavy one.  It reaches to the heart of our citizens.  During its execution our fellow citizens who serve in our military will be posted to risk.  Our nation's tarnished reputation will emerge either rehabilitated or even more deeply questioned.  Finally, money from our future taxes will pay for it -- with an outcome either good or bad.

Please consider this hypothetical conversation very seriously for a moment.

Almost immediately you realize that you may have no real expectation that the outcome in Syria will be much more constructive or decisive than the other military outcomes in recent history. Perhaps a majority of Americans, having a similar, less than promising expectation, would agree with your view. We have become pessimistic experts at expecting muddled, indeterminate, brutally clumsy, overly costly wars with years of mismanagement which finally deliver us to a dull, moribund "peace by exhaustion and attrition."  

It is the purpose of this post to see if there can be an alternative to that dismal pattern.

Post Assad Syria

At the moment it looks very likely that the civil war torn country will be entering the next phase of the misery -- war by proxy.  For the United States this will be an echo of the decades long disaster in Vietnam.  For the Russian Federation, it may well begin to look sickeningly familiar to Afghanistan.  If these two industrialized military powers slide mindlessly into this choice, it will be evidence of a monumental lack of imagination -- for both of them.

Let's replace the phrase "war by proxy" with "peace by proxy."

Just how can this be possible?  What exactly could the United States do to create such a change?

Naturally, the "heavy lifting" would fall to our President and his State Department.  Right away, though, remember that he is most effective when he can act in unison with other nations and the UN.  One need look no further than the liberation of Libya.

As surprising as it may seem, the first step in MeanMesa's plan involves the full, robust execution of the President's decision to arm the opposition.  So long as there remains even a remote possibility of dictator Assad retaining power and continuing his genocidal subjugation of Syria, no party will feel compelled to depart from the current course.  The opposition forces must threaten not only the dictator's grip on power, but probably also his physical safety before the international players will start to listen.

With the right arms supplied to the Syrian opposition forces this military outcome will become essentially inevitable, but there will be plenty of serious work to be done during the time it is developing.

In its current fractured state, Syria is incapable of peace.  If the dictator fell tomorrow, a highly inflamed, violent sectarian civil war would ensue immediately.  The "outside players" would not only be pumping incendiary propaganda into the region, they would also be supplying men and weapons in hopes of finishing the fray -- if it ever actually ended -- on top.  We are speaking of the Iranians and the Hezbollah here.

This prospect for civil war is not entirely the coincidental result of Syria's sectarian fragmentation.  It has also served as a justifying probability for the dictator's continually harsher suppression.  In some ways, Assad has been the great benefactor of the cultural and religious animosity between various sections of the Syrian population.  By constantly referring to the threat of social mayhem as the only alternative to his brutal practices, Assad has maintained some fleeting credibility with Syrians who "just want the violence to stop."

When the successful outcome of the opposition's efforts becomes more likely, it will be the moment for the President to present his "Grand Bargain" to all the countries now maneuvering themselves into position for "proxy war."  Having said this, let's break for a visit to the old British Empire and an interesting conversation from the Vietnam War era.

Colonialism's "Bad Rap"

With respect to the "bad rap," the English colonial Empire is a good choice as an example.  The imperial psychology driving the world wide efforts to create that Empire, while quite exploitative, were at the time, tenuously validated by the consideration of "how things would have been otherwise."  However, problems arose from the "compensation" the Empire felt entitled to after its military adventures had succeeded.  The 1800's were a time when "extraction" was still fairly acceptable so long as "you were the extractor."

British Imperial -- colonial -- rule brought, well, "tranquility" to places such as India, that is, at least the British Imperial version of "tranquility." The combatant parties within the country at the time found themselves facing an overwhelming colonial military force; a force with the primary mission of protecting British colonial interests, but also, almost as an aside, maintaining the peace.

Consolidated into a nation under British colonial rule and experiencing the benefits of decades of a more or less peaceful existence, India became a nation capable of self-government.  That is the point.  There were very many outrageously infuriating aspects to colonial rule, but there were also a few very constructive sides, too.

The prospect for the united country we see today would have vaporized if the British had simply left a century earlier than they did.

The question that President Obama's "Grand Bargain" must answer is daunting.  "Can the benefits of colonial rule be offered without the down side aspects of historical colonialism?"

Now for the conversation MeanMesa promised earlier.

During the domestic mayhem of the Vietnam War's early years, a British friend's mother was visiting him in Alaska.  On one occasion MeanMesa enjoyed a very casual, very pleasant, afternoon cup of tea with this thoughtful woman.  Naturally, the conversation touched on the already tragic US war raging in Southeast Asia.

At this time, the government of "South Vietnam" was suffering a rapid series of corrupt autocrats who were violently replacing each other on a fairly regular basis.  For Americans it had become clear that the country could never be won militarily by propping up one abusive government after another.  This series of governments was populated by characters such as the beautiful and captivating  "Madam Nhu," the "Brothers Diem" and others.

This woman's comments on the topic have remained in MeanMesa's memory since then.  She said, "American are paying a horrible price for their almost blind rejection of the possible positive benefits of colonialism.  Vietnam is a good example.  The US is intent on crushing all opposition so that interest parties within Vietnam can transform themselves, literally over night, into a representative democracy."

She continued.  "The Vietnamese people can't do this.  This is not a criticism of the Vietnamese people, but there is not nearly enough understanding among that population to make this work.  Worse, there is also not nearly enough experience with democracy among that population to make them interested in even trying this.  Even if the military strategy is successful, what will be left is simply not ready -- and cannot get ready quickly enough -- to transform itself in the democratic country the US is dreaming of creating."

"No matter how unpopular it might be in both Vietnam and the United States, the Americans should have formulated a plan to pacify Vietnam under essentially colonial authority, maintain law and order long enough for its society to know and enjoy peace, allow its economy to return and guarantee that it will not fall into the grip of another unqualified, autocratic strongman before trying to establish something like democracy there." 

Now, we're ready to consider President Obama's "Grand Bargain."

Peace by Proxy

There is no way to convince MeanMesa that the United States government, currently broke and in collapse under the onslaught of domestic oligarchs, could rise to the task of managing colonial authority over Syria.  Equally, there is little prospect of the oligarchs in the Russian Federation doing very much which could be considered to be consistent with "high borne" ideals, either.  Both of our respective records are far too heavily soiled -- the US by the atrocities of the Bush W. autocracy and the Russians by Chechnya and a few other horrors.

While the Chinese might be slightly more promising -- they have been modestly constructive socially with some of their African clients -- it would probably be a mistake to assume that they would "change their state-oligarchy stripes" much.  The Iranians are basically insane with rage as are their sponsored Hezbollah death squads from Lebanon.

Further, all these parties are officially "on record" of not trusting each other any farther than two Mafia bosses the night before the start of a city wide gang war.

Is this the best we can do? (image source)

Okay.  Let's change that.

The President could "cordially invite" everyone with a "dog in the fight" in Syria to join a Joint Syria Colonization Authority under the auspices of the Security Council.  The price of admission would be cash and cooperation.  The JSCA could guarantee an end to the fighting -- between everyone and everyone else -- with a joint military presence.

Different participating nations could each sign off on the responsibilities of a specific Syrian district -- hopefully districts which each included representative populations of the warring factions.  Syrians would have some gun fire free breathing time to learn to live together peacefully.

If one tribe of the fractured opposition decided to extract revenge on the Alawites or vice versa, authority military police would be authorized to stop it.  JSCA money could go a long way in the rebuilding of the smouldering wreckage, and perhaps the various members could constructively compete with each other in a wide variety of projects.  Syria needed a lot of work even before the carnage began.

Replacing the inevitable "no holds barred" gun fight we're looking at right now, perhaps even the Syrian people might favor this program to its bloody, inevitable alternative.

The world will be watching.

The JSCA would function under well publicised and transparent regulations -- regulations which would include to the greatest extent possible sensitivity to the prevailing religious and cultural realities of Syrian society.  The program would have a five to seven year "sunset clause" already openly established at its outset.

During the time of the multi-national colonial authority the Syrian political process would be instituted and supported from the very start.   Elections to create a representational Syrian Parliament would commence with campaigns, party formation, policy formalization and candidates.  Once elected, this Parliament would have a gradually increasing voice in the JSCA council.

By the second year of the colonial authority, the fractious Parliament would almost certainly be in a deadlock similar to what was encountered in Iraq, but the open street violence and terrorism would be quelled by the colonial authority's military police.  Rather than the rapacious looting and violence of the raw, suddenly born Parliament of Iraq, Syrians would have time to decide that the idea had potential, they might grow to have an appetite for this and they might begin to expect it to actually work.

Social institutions would also have time to form in a contentious but, more or less, peaceful environment.  In the Iraq example corruption flourished immediately at an incredibly faster rate than justice, services, trust or efficiency.  In Syria, under colonial judicial rule, this inevitable wave of corruption could be largely suppressed.  Societies which have experienced a low level of government corruption have a tendency to place a high value on continuing the policy.

Special concentration on the formation of a palatable, functioning Syrian judicial system would be a priority in the structure of the JSCA.  Under the Assad dictatorship the majority of Syrian people had no expectation of justice and had no confidence in the judicial system.  This skepticism will not subside quickly, but it must ultimately be replaced with a general acceptance of the "rule by law" alternative.

These are a few of the areas requiring a very thoughtful yet pragmatic approach as the skeleton of the JSCA is formulated.  Of course, there are many more.  Of course, unanticipated difficulties will arise.  Of course, this is a bold, daring and, perhaps, dangerous departure from the examples of the past.

We -- and the rest of the world -- have either learned something from Afghanistan and Iraq, from Chechnya, from Vietnam, from the PLA, from Latin America, from, well, from all of the failed attempts littering history, or we haven't. It's time for the "civilized" world to step up to the plate, to try this one more time.  We can do this.

Inviting the World to the "Party"

How could such a colonial coalition possibly be formed?  What incentives might possibly entice the cooperation of so many nations with such staunch records of bad behavior and not cooperating in the past?

The answers to these questions may, indeed, be quite daunting, but those answers are not impossible.  At every juncture the world's most expert opportunists will be waiting to sabotage the project as they inevitably maneuver to exploit its promise for personal wealth or power.  Likewise, every schism of existing distrust and enmity will appear as if from a vapor at every juncture.

It's not JUST the Russians. (image source)

Concessions must be negotiated.  Successful negotiations will almost certainly include a continuing Russian naval presence at Tartus.  The Iranians and the Hezbollah must be excluded -- as well as Israel.  Al Qaeda in Syria must continue to be considered as criminal for US and European participation.  The immense refugee population must be accommodated in a new manner quite novel compared to the festering, decades old hate factories of the Palestinians.

The JSCA will have to find a convincing "middle ground" between the Shi'a and the Sunni which allows regional Arab participation from both sides of the "great division" -- difficult, but not impossible. 

This monumental proposition holds every possible, threatening fiber of failure and disaster, but all of these negatives are not a reason not to try it.  In fact, these are precisely the reasons why the world should try it.

Sure, the GOP's Congressional war mongers will be screaming for "US leadership" all along the way, but we now know better than to listen.  Their codependent side will supply the predictably violent, dependably maudlin, faux passion, but their aim, as usual, will be to dominate Syria's future potential for power and profit -- at this point a well established recipe for another Iraq-Afghanistan disaster.

We in the US and elsewhere in the world have been in a decades long suffocating void of statesmanship.  We have lost the great courage and optimism which is inherent in our species.  We have ceased solving problems.

Our national stoic acceptance of this mediocrity may actually be at an end if we can still muster enough optimism to refuse to settle for more foreign policy oatmeal this time.

Solving problems is the essence of our humanity.  The plan was that we would get better and better at it -- not quit trying.

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