No easy solution for Syria

The violence is getting worse in Syria: At least 5,000 people dead already including hundreds of children and medical supplies are running out. There’s Thomas Friedman’s wonderful Arab Spring of Democracy for you. All we have to do to end the misery is get President Bashir Assad out of power according to Friedman and company: Easy, right? No – not really.

Nearly a year ago, I predicted in these columns that Muammar Qadhafi in Libya and Bashir Assad would hang on for dear life in the face of the Arab Spring democratic uprisings and that it would take force – a lot of it — to get rid of either of them. I also expressed scathing skepticism at the hallelujahs of joy by all our neo-liberal and neo-con “friends” that a wonderful new era of democracy, western style was about to dawn over the Middle East.

Well, sure enough, Qadhafi is finally dead and gone – and good riddance – but it cost tens of thousands of lives and it required a sustained NATO air campaign in support of the democratic opposition to suppress his well-equipped mercenary forces, even though they were miserably trained and small in number.

Now a lot of crocodile tears are being shed over what the Western media are euphemistically referring to as “the humanitarian crisis” in Syria. There certainly is a humanitarian crisis there all right. But anyone who believes that just forcing President Assad out is going to magically bring a nice bright shiny new perfect democracy with leaders who carefully read the New York Times every day belongs in Cloud Cuckoo Land alongside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

For Syria is a ticking time bomb that could detonate at the very least the ethnic massacre of scores of thousands of people: It could even unleash a Middle East–scale war pulling in Turkey, Israel and Iran.

The Iranians are backing Assad to the hilt and are determined that he should not fall. If Assad were to fall, then Syria’s old ally Hezbollah, the Shi’ite Party of God in Lebanon, would be suddenly isolated and ripe for the plucking by Israel to the south and its many internal enemies in Lebanon. The Iranians are determined not to let that happen.

Russia is ready to cooperate with the West – sort of – to try an end the massacre of democratic protestors in Syria. The Russian government is facing large waves of democratic protests at home in the run up to the presidential elections there and past-and-future President Vladimir Putin doesn’t want his own people to equate the repression of protestors in Syria with their own experience at home.

But President Assad, like his father President Hafez Assad before him, has been a loyal ally of the Kremlin. The Russians have been facing the steady erosion of their position in the Middle East and other parts of the world in the face of ongoing democratic protests and the toppling of old allies.They don’t want to lose Bashir Assad too. And if they do they are determined that he should be replaced by someone who will remain a reliable ally to them.

The Russians, like the Iranians, don’t want Bashir Assad to go at all. They regard him as a primary and dependable ally in a world where they can’t take reliable, dependable allies for granted anymore.

Therefore the more the United States and the European Union push to topple Bashir Assad, the more they risk a potentially unpredictable and dangerous reaction from both Russia and Iran.

And that’s not the half of it. President Assad, like his father before him, is the political leader of the minority Alawite sect or grouping in western Syria. They compose about 10 percent of the whole population and have controlled the government ever since Hafez Assad, then Air Force Commander, seized power in a military coup in 1970. In 1982, Hafez Assad’s government crushed a popular democratic revolution backed by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama. Rifaat Assad, Hafez Assad’s brother and Bashir Assad’s uncle was Syria’s internal security chief at the time. He later admitted in private conversations with American contacts that 37,000 people were killed when the Syrian army leveled Hama.

Today the same Muslim Brotherhood that the Assad family crushed nearly 30 years ago is poised to take over Egypt, already runs Gaza through its offshoot Hamas and is in the forefront of the democratic protests in Syria itself.

Bashir Assad and his Alawite allies therefore know that if they lose power in the upheavals sweeping Syria now, their wives, children, families, friends and entire community could be massacred in reprisal for the destruction of Hama. Any realistic Western efforts to end the violence have to recognize the mortal terror and desperation driving the regime in Damascus and the implacable determination of the governments in Tehran and Moscow to support it to the last breath.

None of this will read well to Secretary Clinton, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman or any of our Instant Democracy Everywhere (just add hot water and stir) friends who want Assad gone and a perfect, peaceful, pro-American democracy to rise up immediately in its place.

The humanitarian crisis is here precisely because hundreds of thousands, probably millions of people, in Syria want the Assad regime gone. But if or when it goes, what is going to replace it? And the “humanitarian crisis” in Syria isn’t going to end if or when Assad falls, it will just enter a new and potentially far more dangerous phase.

Americans have disengaged from the wider world in the more than 20 years since the Soviet Union fell. They have taken comfortable refuge in facile, superficial clichés and slogans.

Americans don’t want to be told the world is still a dangerous and complicated place: That’s why in my new book “That Should Still Be Us: How Thomas Friedman’s Flat World Myths are Keeping Us Flat on Our Back”, I explain how a world of 7 billion human beings is filled with unprecedented threats and dangers – especially for the United States, and what to do about them.

There are a lot of fools out there who are calling for America to jump into the Syrian minefield to magically make everything bright and shiny and new — just as we succeeded in doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. They never dream that the military interventions they love so much in dangerous, complicated foreign conflicts could ever bring destruction back on their own heads – and on ours.

Bashir Assad’s government is no friend of the United States. But we need to move carefully and wisely in trying to end its repression and in helping to resolve the looming civil war in that country.

There is no simple, quick, magic solution to the problems there. When you hear anyone from the secretary of state to revered national columnists claim that there is, recognize them for the reckless, dangerous frauds that they are. Don’t imagine that just toppling President Assad out of power will stop the children dying: Their dying has only begun.