An Arab friend remarked to me that watching the United States debate how much to get involved in Syria reminded him of an Arab proverb: “If you burn your tongue once eating soup, for the rest of your life you’ll blow on your yogurt.”
After burning our tongues in Iraq and Afghanistan, and watching with increasing distress the aftermath of the revolutions in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, President Barack Obama is right to be cautious about getting burned in Damascus. We’ve now seen enough of these Arab transitions from autocracy to draw some crucial lessons about what it takes to sustain positive change in these countries. We ignore the lessons at our peril — especially the lesson of Iraq, which everyone just wants to forget but is hugely relevant.
Syria is Iraq’s twin: an artificial state that was also born after World War I inside lines drawn by imperial powers. Like Iraq, Syria’s constituent communities — Sunnis, Alawite/Shiites, Kurds, Druze, Christians— never volunteered to live together under agreed rules. So, like Iraq, Syria has been ruled for much of its modern history by either a colonial power or an iron-fisted autocrat. In Iraq, the hope was that once the iron-fisted dictator was removed by us it would steadily transition to a multisectarian, multiparty democracy. Ditto for Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen.
But we now see the huge difference between Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Arab world in 2013. In most of Eastern Europe, the heavy lid of communist authoritarian rule was suppressing broad and deeply rooted aspirations for democracy. So when that lid was removed, most of these countries relatively quickly moved to freely elected governments — helped and inspired by the European Union.
In the Arab world, in contrast, the heavy lid of authoritarianism was suppressing sectarian, tribal, Islamist and democratic aspirations. So, when the lids were removed, all four surfaced at once. But the Islamist trend has been the most energetic — helped and inspired not by the EU but by Islamist mosques and charities in the Persian Gulf — and the democratic one has proved to be the least organized, least funded and most frail. In short, most of Eastern Europe turned out to be like Poland after communism ended and most of the Arab countries turned out to be like Yugoslavia after communism ended.
As I said, our hope and the hope of the courageous Arab democrats who started all these revolutions, was that these Arab countries would make the transition from Saddam to Jefferson without getting stuck in Khomeini or Hobbes — to go from autocracy to democracy without getting stuck in Islamism or anarchism.
To do that, though, they need either an external midwife to act as a referee between all their constituent communities (who never developed trust in one another) as they try to replace sectarianism, Islamism and tribalism with a spirit of democratic citizenship, or they need their own Nelson Mandela. That is, a homegrown figure who can lead, inspire and navigate a democratic transition that is inclusive of all communities.
America, we all know, played that external referee role in Iraq — hugely ineptly at first. Eventually, though, the U.S. and moderate Iraqis found a way back from the brink, beat back both Sunni and Shiite violent extremists, wrote a constitution and held multiple free elections, hoping to give birth to that Iraqi Mandela. Alas, they got Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who, instead of building trust with other communities, is re-sowing sectarian division. Decades of zero-sum politics — “I’m-weak-how-can-I-compromise/I’m-strong-why-should-I-compromise” — are hard to extinguish.
I believe that if you want to end the Syrian civil war and tilt Syria onto a democratic path, you need an international force to occupy the entire country, secure the borders, disarm all the militias and midwife a transition to democracy. It would be staggeringly costly and take a long time, with the outcome still not guaranteed. But without a homegrown Syrian leader who can be a healer, not a divider, for all its communities, my view is that anything short of an external force that rebuilds Syria from the bottom up will fail. Since there are no countries volunteering for that role (and I am certainly not nominating the U.S.), my guess is that the fighting in Syria will continue until the parties get exhausted.
Meanwhile, wherever we can identify truly “good” rebels, we should strengthen them, but we should also be redoubling our diplomatic efforts to foster a more credible opposition leadership of reconciliation-minded Syrians who can reassure all of Syria’s communities that they will have an equitable place at a new cabinet table. (Never underestimate how many Syrians are clinging to the tyrannical Bashar Assad out of fear that after him comes only Hobbes or Khomeini.) That way, when the combatants get exhausted and realize that there can be no victor and no vanquished — a realization that took 14 years in Lebanon’s civil war next door — a fair power-sharing plan will be in place. Even then, Syrians will almost certainly need outside help to reassure everyone during the transition, but we can cross that bridge when we come to it.
Here’s the one alternative that won’t happen: one side decisively defeating the other and ushering in peace that way. That is a fantasy.
Thomas L. Friedman is a three-time Pulitzer Prize winning columnist with the New York Times. His work is syndicated internationally.