With Syria, U.S. faces 3 choices, none very good

If you look at it from 30,000 feet, what we’re actually dealing with in the Middle East today are the long-delayed consequences of the end of the Ottoman Empire. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed as a result of its defeat in World War I, the colonial powers Britain and France were right there, for their own interests, to impose their own order on the diverse tribes, sects and religions that make up the Arab East. When the British and French left after World War II, they handed power, in many cases, to monarchs who, in many cases, gave way to generals who, in all cases, kept their diverse populations in line with iron fists.

But now, the Ottomans are gone, the colonial powers are gone and even the iron-fisted generals are gone. In Tunisia, Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Libya, all that’s left is a single question: Can the people in these countries who for so long have been governed vertically — from the top down — now govern themselves horizontally by writing their own social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens with regular rotations in power and without iron fists from above.

When President Barack Obama says he plans to arm the anti-Bashar Assad rebels in Syria, this is the vortex into which he is inserting America. It is still unclear to me where the president is going with Syria, but I see only three possible strategies: the realist, the idealist and the God-I-hope-we-are-lucky approaches.

The realist says: I really don’t see any hope for building a unified, multisectarian, democratic Syria — not after two years of civil war and more than 90,000 dead. The U.S. goal should simply be to arm the rebels enough so they can hurt and enmesh in a quagmire two of America’s main regional foes — Hezbollah and Iran — and deny them an easy victory with Assad in Syria. In the long run, though, this strategy most likely would lead to the partition of Syria into an Alawite zone along the coast, a Kurdish zone in the northeast and a Sunni zone in the rest.

The idealist approach argues that if our goal is a unified, multisectarian, democratic Syria, then simply arming the “good rebels” would not be sufficient to get there. We (or NATO) would have to have boots on the ground to help them topple Assad and then stay for years to keep the warring parties from murdering each other, to suppress the violent extremists in each community and to help the moderates write and implement a new social contract for how to live together. Those who want a unified, multisectarian and democratic Syrianeed to be honest about what it would take to achieve that: another Iraq-scale intervention — something we did not do well, and which very few Americans would vote to repeat.

Some would say that we don’t need boots on the ground, as proved by the Libyan intervention. Really? Libya is an example of the let’s-send-them-some-arms-and-hope-we-get-lucky approach. Let’s remove the Gadhafi regime from the air, arm the rebels on the ground and then hope they come together and produce a decent, pluralistic democracy. So far, we’ve not been very lucky.

Our debate about Libya has been focused entirely on the sacking of our facility in Benghazi, but the proper debate should be about why there was — and remains — such a security vacuum in eastern Libya in the first place. The transition government has not been strong enough to bring order to Libya, and the instability there has metastasized. As Reuters reported from Benghazi on Wednesday, “Libya remains anarchic and awash with weapons nearly two years after” Moammar Gadhafi was toppled.

In Syria, we would be hoping that, with just small arms, the rebels could at least fight Assad & Friends to a stalemate so the regime would agree to negotiate Assad’s departure. Even if by some miracle that were to happen, so much more blood would be spilled along the way that we would still need an international peacekeeping force to referee any post-Assad power-sharing deal. All volunteers, please raise your hand.

Those are the options as I see it. None feel very good because those in Syria who are truly fighting for a democratic outcome are incredibly brave, but weak and divided. Fighting for democratic values — rather than for family, sect, tribe or Shariah — is still a new thing for these societies. Those who are fighting for a sectarian or Islamist outcome, though, are full of energy and well financed. That’s why staying out guarantees that only more bad things will happen, but going in, big or small, would not guarantee success. And that’s why I’d like to hear which option Obama is pursing and why he thinks it would succeed.