The problem with removing dictators

Outside aid can help topple Assad, but intervention can prevent neither a humanitarian crisis nor a descent into chaos.

Homs Syria
Syria is experiecing all-out civil war in some parts of the country [Reuters]

Kofi Annan’s resignation at the start of this month as the United Nations’ and Arab League’s special envoy to Syria – combined with his
vivid account of the failures of the international community – have already resulted in renewed calls for outside military intervention in Syria.

However, the speculative humanitarian gains of such an intervention must be weighed against the utter lack of cohesion within the Syrian opposition and the vast potential for disaster that might result from an intervention. The inherent unpredictability of externally imposed regime change in a multi-sectarian country such as Syria necessitates caution, consensus, and a carefully crafted exit strategy.

Instead of interpreting Annan’s departure as a definitive failure of diplomacy, the international community should take seriously his reasons for stepping down and heed his warnings both about Syria’s internal fragmentation and the risks of a divided international community turning Syria’s civil conflict into a multi-state proxy war. As he pointed out, much more important than removing Bashar al-Assad is what happens afterwards. It is for these reasons that a consensus-based regional solution represents the best way forward, rather than one imposed from afar.

Removing the fig leaf

 Rebels fend off Syrian army in Aleppo

Annan’s mission was created by the UN and the Arab League to serve as the international community’s eyes and ears on the ground, as well as to act as a carefully crafted diplomatic fig leaf. By design, while his mission was underway, it created the facade that the international community was “doing something”. Furthermore, he did formulate a six-point plan to resolve the conflict – but predictably it was unable to garner adequate international support to be implemented. Conversely, over the course of Annan’s mission, Syria has descended into full-scale civil war.

With that background, we can understand why Annan carefully chose a ripe moment to rip the fig leaf away and to expose the true horror of the situation in Syria and the abject failure of the international community’s response. In spite of this bleak picture, Western military intervention would definitely be the wrong course and it is not what Annan is advocating. In supporting the creation of a “Syria Action Group”, Annan has used his influence with the international community to push for a consensus-based regional solution that sees Assad depart, while preserving the Syrian state structure. Presumably this solution would entail regional actors arming and training the Syrian opposition in a coordinated and comprehensive way. Furthermore, regional support can help the opposition forge its own institutions and political leadership.

Lessons from Libya and Iraq

Before embarking on a new course that might culminate in military intervention, Western leaders should review their “success rate” at militarily removing dictators. Previous instances of regime decapitation not only removed the dictator but also destroyed the mechanisms that had been holding the state together, which led to greater instability and suffering. The main reason for this is that, since the European empires have been decolonised, the world’s most brutal tyrants have emerged in the most volatile parts of the former colonial empires. These dictators and their supporters forcibly held together states that are not always considered “nations”.

In the absence of a “strongman”, such states require organic processes to formulate new identities and viable, inclusive institutions. Outside intervention short-circuits this. Although direct outside intervention can create space for political transformation, it also runs the risk of short-circuiting that very process by fashioning and supporting power centres willing to collaborate at the expense of home-grown actors.

In Iraq, which was an ill-conceived product of British imperialism, Saddam Hussein’s removal from power by the United States and others resulted in a protracted conflict that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, massive migration, and widespread sectarian violence. Even now, Iraq is hardly a model of stability.

In Libya, a colonial creation comprised of three Ottoman provinces stitched and held together first by Italy and later by Britain, the removal of the Gaddafi regime left behind a political and security vacuum. Despite successful elections on July 7 and the impressive restoration of oil production, Libya is a long way from becoming a coherent nation.

Perversely, the post-Gaddafi Libyan scenario seems to be as good as it gets. In today’s debates on Syria, Libya is held up as a template of successful international military intervention in the service of regime change: Gaddafi was widely hated, the uprisings against him were enormously popular, and external intervention was legitimated by the Arab League and conducted without outside ground troops. Post-Gaddafi, Libyans are undoubtedly more free, but many live in uncertainty and fear. Many do not identify with the political leaders of the newly elected General National Council or the technocrats who control Libya’s ministries. Neither group actually liberated them. And although many Libyans admire the courage of the militiamen who fought valiantly alongside the NATO jets, they fear being ruled by 20-year-olds with beards and guns.

Despite the impressive popular mobilisation in the Arab Spring, indigenous George Washingtons are in short supply.

Clearly, these mixed results do not invalidate the Libyan intervention, which in our view was both morally and strategically justified. However, in states that lack national unity and coherent institutions, what happens after the removal of a dictator by external intervention is highly unpredictable and almost never smooth. This tendency for chaos is further exacerbated when neighbouring regional players and outside great power actors are simultaneously pushing in multiple competing directions.

Waiting for an Arab George Washington

Despite the impressive popular mobilisation in the Arab Spring, indigenous George Washingtons are in short supply. Tunisia is much more likely to produce one than Libya or Syria. Not only is Tunisia more homogenous and endowed with stronger institutions, but Tunisians also overthrew their dictator “all by themselves”, which facilitated the consolidation of their national identity and institutions.

One of the surest ways to become a unifying national hero, à la George Washington, is to victoriously lead men in battle. Atatürk, Ibn Saud, and Ben-Gurion all consolidated their personal authority and cemented emerging national identities by personally vanquishing their internal and external enemies on the battlefield. They may have received external assistance in terms of arms and cash, but they all personally led the fight and consolidated their political institutions and legitimacy. Fouad Ajami is correct that the “foreigner’s gift” can provide freedom from tyranny on a silver platter. Yet the silver is tarnished with an original sin – that the people did not win victory for themselves and produce a hero. Nationhood and leadership cannot be imported.

Forging nationhood in Syria

Even if external military intervention could decisively turn the tables against Assad, Western leaders should think twice. The oath sworn by physicians enjoins those in the healing profession to “first, do no harm”. Although Hippocrates formulated this principle 25 centuries ago, there is still no equivalent oath in international affairs, where the principle is arguably even more valid. Nonetheless, in his June 1 Washington Post op-ed, Henry Kissinger applied Hippocrates to the sphere of diplomacy rather well: “In reacting to one human tragedy, we must be careful not to facilitate another.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter, both in her response to Kissinger and in her recent piece in the Financial Times, made strong points about the importance of US leadership and protecting civilians in a time of great calamity. But she was too dismissive of Kissinger’s arguments about the dangers and unknowns generated by greater Western involvement. In particular, Kissinger reminds us that externally imposed regime change is one thing and the forging of a national consensus is something else entirely.

Even the most perfectly constructed intervention will not help the Syrians achieve what they need most: home-grown leadership and national unity. At present in Syria, there is no cohesive internal opposition grouping anywhere close to being in a position to legitimately take power if Assad were removed. The Syrian opposition is a long way away from matching even the charade of unity that was essential for the Libyan National Transitional Council to elicit foreign support and gain diplomatic recognition.

“The protest movements have done nothing to erase Syria’s deep communal divisions. Rather, ongoing violence has exacerbated these tensions, threatening to make them permanent.

The Syrians’ disunity is largely a consequence of the country’s sectarian makeup and the legacy of French colonialism, which privileged Syria’s minorities at the expense of the majority Sunni population. As a result, the Alawites were favoured by the French and were funnelled into the elite colonial army, the troupes spéciales. Today, they comprise approximately 11 per cent of the population, and while not all Alawites actually benefit from Assad’s regime, nearly all the top posts in government and the security services are held by Alawites.

The Assad family has ruled for 40 years over a Syrian state that is still not really a unified “nation”. Without simultaneously forging a new Syrian national identity – ideally under the stewardship of a homemade, unifying Syrian leader – the elimination of the regime would leave behind dysfunctional sectarian and regional blocs. These blocs might remain together as a state out of historical inertia or because potential sub-regions would lack the economical viability or religious homogeneity required to form coherent microstates. But a post-Assad Syria must do more than simply remain together as one state. It must unite Syrians behind a common purpose and a shared identity.

As Annan made clear, the protest movements have done nothing to erase Syria’s deep communal divisions. Rather, ongoing violence has exacerbated these tensions, threatening to make them permanent. Recent events only confirm this sad reality. Clashes have escalated in major cities, Palestinian refugee camps have been targeted, and Christians have come under attack. Neutrality is becoming an increasingly untenable position for those communities caught in the middle of the conflict.

The real question after June’s Houla Massacre, July’s withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping mission, and Annan’s resignation in early August is not how to get Russia and China to support a Western-led UN Security Council Resolution on international intervention in Syria.

Instead, it is how the Syrian people might construct their own national institutions, national identity, and sufficient unity to tackle the trials they will face after Assad. Getting the regional powers that are funding and arming the Syrian opposition – reportedly primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey – to coordinate their efforts and achieve some degree of unanimity with more hesitant regional players such as Lebanon and Iraq would help not only resolve the crisis but could help build unity inside the Syrian opposition. Such a development would have the makings of the regional solution that we advocated for months ago in the Christian Science Monitor.

Outsiders can offer something in the way of support – in terms of arms and aid – but we must not fool ourselves into thinking that great power intervention holds the key to preventing humanitarian crisis or post-Assad chaos. We live in a multipolar post-Cold War world where regional players such as Qatar, Turkey, and Iran can be far more important to the final outcome in Syria than either Russia or the United States.

Jason Pack was a Fulbright Fellow in Syria (2004-5). He is currently a researcher of contemporary Middle Eastern historyat Cambridge University and President of

Nathan Hodson is a PhD Candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.