September 3, 2013

Nine questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask

By Max Fisher / The Washington Post

(Continued from page 2)

4. I hear a lot about how Russia still loves Syria, though. And Iran too. What's their deal?

Yeah, Russia is Syria's most important ally. Moscow blocks the United Nations Security Council from passing anything that might hurt the Assad regime, which is why the U.S. has to go around the U.N. if it wants to do anything. Russia sends lots of weapons to Syria that make it easier for Assad to keep killing civilians and will make it much harder if the outside world ever wants to intervene.

The four big reasons that Russia wants to protect Assad, the importance of which vary depending on who you ask, are: (1) Russia has a naval installation in Syria, which is strategically important and Russia's last foreign military base outside of the former Soviet Union; (2) Russia still has a bit of a Cold War mentality, as well as a touch of national insecurity, which makes it care very much about maintaining one of its last military alliances; (3) Russia also hates the idea of "international intervention" against countries like Syria because it sees this as Cold War-style Western imperialism and ultimately a threat to Russia; (4) Syria buys a lot of Russian military exports and Russia needs the money.

Iran's thinking in supporting Assad is more straightforward. It perceives Israel and the United States as existential threats and uses Syria to protect itself, shipping arms through Syria to the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah and the Gaza-based militant group Hamas. Iran is already feeling isolated and insecure; it worries that if Assad falls it will lose a major ally and be cut off from its militant proxies, leaving it very vulnerable. So far, it looks like Iran is actually coming out ahead: Assad is even more reliant on Tehran than he was before the war started.

5. This is all feeling really bleak and hopeless. Can we take a music break?

Oh man, it gets so much worse. But, yeah, let's listen to some music from Syria. It's really good! [http://wapo.st/1934Lfk]

If you want to go old-school you should listen to the man, the legend, the great Omar Souleyman (playing Brooklyn this Saturday!). Or, if you really want to get your revolutionary on, listen to the infectious 2011 anti-Assad anthem "Come on Bashar leave." The singer, a cement mixer who made Rage Against the Machine look like Enya, was killed for performing it in Hama. But let's listen to something non-war and bit more contemporary, the soulful and foot-tappable George Wassouf.

Hope you enjoyed that, because things are about to go from depressing to despondent.

6. Why hasn't the United States fixed this yet?

Because it can't. There are no viable options. Sorry.

The military options are all bad. Shipping arms to rebels, even if it helps them topple Assad, would ultimately empower jihadists and worsen rebel in-fighting, probably leading to lots of chaos and possibly a second civil war (the United States made this mistake during Afghanistan's 1980s civil war, which helped the Taliban take power in the 1990s). Taking out Assad somehow would probably do the same, opening up a dangerous power vacuum. Launching air strikes or a "no fly zone" could suck us in, possibly for years, and probably wouldn't make much difference on the ground. An Iraq-style ground invasion would, in the very best outcome, accelerate the the killing, cost a lot of U.S. lives, wildly exacerbate anti-Americanism in a boon to jihadists and nationalist dictators alike, and would require the United States to impose order for years across a country full of people trying to kill each other. Nope.

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