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How to Cut the ‘Syrian Knot’

Why settle for bombing one side when you can bomb both?
syria battlefield

President Obama is asking for Congressional approval of an attack against the government of Syria, in response to that government’s apparent use of nerve gas in eastern Damascus. He believes that something must be done to punish any regime that violates the general ban on chemical weapons. He has an airstrike in mind—interestingly, one that does not actually aim at destroying chemical weapons, because of the possibility that any such strike would have lethal side effects.

The problem is that this strike doesn’t seem likely to help the United States. At least, that’s a problem for me, and it might even be a problem for some of the players in Washington.

First, we could be wrong. It does seem that a nerve agent killed over a thousand people in eastern Damascus—but who did it? The Syrian government certainly has chemical weapons, but it is possible to imagine ways in which some group among the rebels could have obtained some. Sarin isn’t even that difficult to manufacture. A Japanese nut cult, Aum Shinrikyo, managed it by themselves it back in 1995, killing 13 people in the Tokyo subway. The main objection to the official scenario, where Assad’s people used the nerve gas, is that doing so would have been irrational. They would have been asking for American retaliation. While, on the other hand, the opposition would welcome American intervention against Assad and might have staged this. That’s an argument, but not one strong enough to trump decent evidence, because individuals and governments often act irrationally.

What about the evidence? Well, it’s mostly classified. Only a few members of Congress get to see much of it. Most see a 12-page classified summary, stripped of all raw data. Congressmen have to take that summary on faith. Although, to be fair, Representatives and Senators are hardly intelligence analysts, any more than the President or the Secretary of State are. They wouldn’t know what to do with technical data if you gave it to them. John Q. Public hasn’t seen any of it.

So, is there a good case, with strong evidence? There’s no way for an outsider to know—or for a member of Congress, either. If the intelligence community had a long track record of high accuracy—if their mysterious ways almost always produced a correct answer, you might feel fairly comfortable relying on their call. Although several US officials have used the phrase “not a slam dunk”, which is a little worrisome.

But the intelligence community doesn’t have that excellent track record. Remember the last time that they said it was a “slam dunk”? It is impossible to forget the intelligence community’s spectacular failure in Iraq. Maybe I ought to put it more strongly, but it’s surely fair to call them fallible. Highly fallible.

The next problem is that the consequences of an attack could easily be negative for the United States. The Assad regime has hardly been friendly, but it hasn’t supported anti-US terrorism for decades. It never supported Al-Qaeda and had nothing to do with 9-11. A significant fraction of the anti-Assad rebels do have ties to Al-Qaeda and have attracted foreign jihadis. If Assad loses, and groups like the Al-Nusra Front play an important role in the new government, we’d be worse off. It could happen: although jihadist groups don’t make up the majority of the resistance, they account for the most successful and aggressive fighters. We really need to worry about this, not least because John McCain just knows it won’t happen.

If nobody wins—if the Syrian state collapses—we still have to worry about chemical weapons and where they end up. The generals estimate that securing those weapons would require 75,000 American troops—boots on the ground, lots of them.

If the Assad government rides out the strike, there will be pressure to ‘finish the job’, regardless of the fact the Administrations claims to have no such intention. In for a penny, in for a trillion.

This all sounds gloomy enough, but the reality is worse. Syria was born for trouble. Although we all know that ethnic diversity is our strength, better than ice cream or unicorn poop, it appears that Syria (like much of the Middle East) has managed to acquire too much of a good thing. Paradoxical as it may seem, Syria is actually overly diverse.

There are very ancient Christian communities, as well as Kurds (who aim for an independent Kurdish state, an idea that horrifies Turkey), but the real fight is between the Sunni Arabs (about 60 percent of the country) and the Alawites, who run the show and make up about 12 percent of the population. I’m sure that most of my readers are fully conversant with every detail of the history and practices of the various Muslim denominations,—just as our lawmakers are—but let me talk about the Alawites for a moment.

The Alawites have an esoteric religion, one in which their most important beliefs are kept secret from outsiders. Since those beliefs are only revealed through a long process of initiation, even most Alawites don’t know what they are.

We know some things, most of which don’t sound at all like Islam. Alawites drink wine: they celebrate Christmas and Easter. They reject to the call to prayer and the pilgrimage to Mecca. They have no places of worship. Women among the Alawites are not veiled, and enjoy greater freedom than among Sunnis or Shi’ites, but it seems that this is the case because they are believed to be soulless—they are never initiated into the mysteries. Alawites also seem to believe in reincarnation.

Traditionally, Alawites were considered non-Muslim and treated like dirt—worse than Christians or Jews. You can see how the Sunni majority might resent being ruled by them—indeed, it’s hard to imagine how that ever came to pass.

The roots of Alawite dominance go back to the French colonial era. Most Syrian Muslims opposed French rule and refused to serve in the local gendarmerie—but the Alawites did. After independence, the Alawites continued to enter the armed forces in large numbers, partly because they were poor as heretical church mice. At first, the highest ranks in the army were filled by Sunnis, but each coup led to the expulsion of Sunni generals on the wrong side, and there were many coups. The political struggles bred mutual suspicion among the Sunnis, but the Alawites stuck together. The Alawites were also over-represented in the Baath party.

So, while the Baath party took over in 1963, the Alawites took over in 1966—and they haven’t let go yet.

The thing is, when you ride the tiger, you can’t let go. Although they have made efforts to build support outside their sect, through nationalist and redistributionist policies, the Alawite government has always faced violent opposition. They’ve put down full-scale revolts, most notably in Hama, 1982, where they leveled the city with artillery, killing tens of thousands. All that official violence means that they can’t afford to lose. Once the Alawites were despised, but now they’re hated. At this point, Peter W. Galbraith, former ambassador to Croatia, says “The next genocide in the world will likely be against the Alawites in Syria.” President Obama and Susan Rice are surely against genocide as well as nerve gas—what to do?

There is a better way. Sure, the U.S. want to deter use of chemical weapons—but we also want to prevent a jihadist Syria and/or Alawite genocide. Air strikes against Assad fulfill the first requirement, but interfere with the second. In order to achieve our goals, we have to attack both sides in the conflict. We may not be dead certain about who used that nerve gas, but if we attack both regime and rebels, we’re bound to hurt the responsible party. Balanced strikes won’t hand the advantage to the local al-Qaeda franchise. With any luck, bombing both sides will so confuse and alienate everybody that we won’t be able to intervene later even if we want to.

There’s bound to be some sloppiness in the strikes. We don’t have to rain down destruction evenly on the just and the unjust. It could be that a surprisingly high fraction of strikes against the regime will happen to hit or weaken particularly bloody-handed murderers, while our attacks against the rebels just might fall disproportionately on anti-American terrorists. Stuff happens.

And if we just hit hard enough, we’ll be the common enemy, and they’ll ally against us. The Alawites and the Sunnis should be friends, and by God, we can make it happen.

Gregory Cochran is a physicist and evolutionary biologist.