Bashar al-Assad’s wretched presence in the presidential palace of Damascus may, contrary to Western assumptions, do more good than harm. His murderous, terroristic, and pro-Tehran regime is also non-ideological and relatively secular; it staves off anarchy, Islamist rule, genocide, and rogue control of Syria’s chemical weapons.
As Syria’s civil war intensifies, Western states are increasingly helping the rebels overthrow Assad and his henchmen. In doing so, the West hopes to save lives and facilitate a democratic transition. Many Western voices call for more than the non-lethal aid now being offered, wanting to arm the rebels, set up safe zones, and even join their war against the government.
Helping the rebels, however, neglects a fundamental question: does intervention in Syria against Assad promote our own interests? This obvious question gets missed because many Westerners feel so confident about their own well-being that they forget their security and instead focus on the concerns of those they perceive as weak and exploited, whether human (e.g., indigenous peoples or the poor) or animals (whales and snail darters). Westerners have developed sophisticated mechanisms to act on these concerns (e.g., responsibility to protect, animal rights activism).
For those of us not so confident, however, fending off threats to our security and our civilization remains a top priority. In this light, helping the rebels entails multiple drawbacks for the West.
First, the rebels are Islamist and intent to build an ideological government even more hostile to the West than Assad’s. Their breaking relations with Tehran will be balanced by their helping to forward the barbaric force of Islamism’s Sunni forces.
Second, the argument that Western intervention would reduce the Islamist thrust of the rebellion by replacing materiel pouring in from Sunni countries is risible. Syria’s rebels do not need Western help to bring down the regime (and wouldn’t be grateful for it if they did receive it, if Iraq is any guide). The Syrian conflict at base pits the country’s disenfranchised Sunni Arab 70-percent majority against Assad’s privileged Alawi 12-percent minority. Add the assistance of foreign Islamist volunteers as well as several Sunni states (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar) and the Assad regime is doomed. Assad cannot subdue the ever-widening rebellion against his rule; indeed, the more his troops butcher and maim, the more defections occur and his support shrinks to its Alawi core.
Third, hastening the Assad regime’s collapse will not save lives. It will mark not the end of the conflict, but merely the close of its opening chapter with yet worse violence likely to follow. As Sunnis finally avenge their nearly fifty years of subjugation by Alawis, a victory by the rebels portends potential genocide. The Syrian conflict will likely get so extreme and violent that Westerners will be glad to have kept a distance from both sides.
Fourth, the continuing Syrian conflict offers benefits to the West. Several Sunni governments have noted the Obama administration’s reticence to act and have taken responsibility to wrest Syria from the Iranian orbit; this comes as a welcome development after their decades of accommodating the Shiite Islamic Republic. Also, as Sunni Islamists fight Shiite Islamists, both sides are weakened and their lethal rivalry lessens their capabilities to trouble the outside world. By inspiring restive minorities (Sunnis in Iran, Kurds and Shiites in Turkey), continued fighting in Syria could also weaken Islamist governments.
When the regime falls, the Alawi leadership, with or without Assad, might retreat to ancestral redoubts in Latakia province in northwestern Syria; the Iranians could well supply it by sea with money and arms, permitting it to hold out for years, further exacerbating the confrontation between Sunni and Shiite Islamists, further distracting them from assaulting others.
The one exception to the policy of non-intervention would be to secure Syria’s vast chemical weapon arsenal, both to prevent terrorist groups seizing it and Assad from deploying it in a Götterdämmerung scenario as he goes down, although this difficult mission could require as many as 60,000 foreign ground troops deployed to Syria.
Nothing in the constitutions of Western states requires them to get involved in every foreign conflict; sitting this one out will prove to be a smart move. In addition to the moral benefit of not being accountable for horrors yet to come, staying away permits the West eventually to help its only true friends in Syria, the country’s liberals.
Mr. Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. © 2012 All rights reserved by Daniel Pipes.