Syria would be better off had West intervened directly in war
Messy democracy would have been better than dictatorship with no change likely
A man carries his belongings through a street destroyed in recent bombings by the Syrian government forces in the town of Sarmin, in Idblib province, Syria. Photograph: Ghaith Alsayed/AP
The ninth anniversary of Syria’s first anti-government protests approach later this month, and never has it been more evident that the West should have moved to oust president Bashar al-Assad years ago.
Syria in 2012 was on the verge of historic change. Its political opposition commanded recognition from a constellation of international governments. The Free Syrian Army had taken control of dozens of regime-held areas and towns, and had established independent government structures. A democracy movement had taken root in many parts of the country, inspiring millions of young Syrians.
Had Assad been toppled back then, many of the more than half a million people who have since perished in the conflict would be alive today. There would have been no migrant crisis to fuel the rise of the far right that has reshaped the political landscape of Europe, probably no Brexit. Millions of Syrians would have remained in their own country instead of being banished from home, perhaps forever.
But what kind of intervention? A coalition of international actors enforcing a no-fly zone (NFZ) throughout Syria from 2012 would have given rebel groups a huge lift. Protection from Assad’s air strikes and barrel bombs would have given vital air cover and boosted morale among an admittedly disparate array of rebel groups before the savagery of the conflict drove them into the arms of Islamic State.
No-fly zones work. They saved countless lives in Bosnia in the 1990s. In Iraqi Kurdistan, a NFZ not only protected Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s bombs during the 1990s, but facilitated the kind of on-the-ground peace and development that later saw the region cast as the ‘Switzerland of the Middle East.’
Could a NFZ alone have simultaneously brought down Assad and laid the foundations of a flourishing democracy in Syria? Of course not, but it would have weakened his position to the extent that his regime underlings might have tossed him out, or sought to negotiate a political solution as rebels advanced on Damascus.
Those who point to the failure of pro-democracy uprisings in Yemen, Egypt and Libya as evidence of what to expect once dictators are removed underestimate the enormous sociopolitical complexities at play in those countries. In the aftermath of a dethroned dictatorship the only expectation there should be is that chaos will follow.
That’s because life in a dictatorship warps the body and mind. The kind of social engineering that goes into a successful autocracy carves deep psychological scars into those forced to endure it.
Muammar Gadafy ruled Libya with an iron fist for 42 years. The Assad family has, in one way or another, dictated everyday life in Syria for half a century. Egypt’s failed (and admittedly deeply flawed) democratic experiment from 2011 to 2013 saw many vote back in military rule under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Why? Because in a time of crisis Egyptians embraced what they knew best – a strongman dictator – despite the obvious failings. The point is, expecting post-dictatorship countries to immediately transform into bastions of pluralistic democracies is shortsighted and sure to disappoint. Building a democracy takes time and enormous effort and will. (Tunisia’s path since overthrowing president Ben Ali in 2011 has been nothing short of extraordinary.)
To be sure, in a post-Assad Syria internecine violence and political squabbling between competing parties would likely have continued for years, much the way it has in Libya. In the short term, Syria would have struggled to remain a single entity as Alawites and Christians in the west and Kurds in the east sought to carve out their own cantons.
But a Syria without Assad at the helm today would still have been a much better place: In a post-Assad Syria, elections would be fraught and probably not entirely fair, but would have represented initial, critical acts of democratic activity. International aid agencies would have poured in to help with postwar humanitarian work, saving countless lives. Foreign companies and businesses would have moved to Syria and established a new economy and jobs for thousands.
Sure, gulf monarchs would have sought to control political leaders to wield influence. Unquestionably, regular Syrians would have seen their own interests trumped by profit-grabbing multinationals looking to line their pockets. But as bad as all that sounds, it still beats the reality of life in the country today. The reality in 2020 is that the West, via a staunch, US-led sanctions regime, still refuses to deal with Assad and the Syrian economy finds itself in the throes of a slow-motion death.
A messy democracy would have been more favourable for the country and its people than a peaceful dictatorship with no prospect for change, as is the reality today. In 2020, more than 70 per cent of Syrians live in extreme poverty – living on less than $1.90 a day. The lira has risen above 1,000 to the US dollar (a decade ago it was 47). Talk of the kind of futures Syrians might like to envisage for themselves has long since evaporated in the teahouses of Damascus and Aleppo. Everyday life and conversations are dominated by searches for bread, gas canisters and medicines. Military conscription remains a devastating threat for those not directly affected by the conflict. A PTSD crisis means many cannot hold down jobs, where they exist.
Just this week, images and stories have emerged from Idlib of babies dying of hyperthermia and whole families perishing from the fumes of gas canisters used to warm their tents; the same people had recently fled Russian air strikes in the south of the province. In Afrin, Aleppo, a man reportedly walked with his daughter in his arms for several kilometres to bring her to a doctor. When they arrived, unbeknownst to him, she was already dead.
Had the world acted to remove Assad would these children still be alive? We’ll never know, but surely they’d have stood a better chance.
Stephen Starr is a regular contributor to The Irish Times. He lived in Syria for five years until 2012 and is author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising