The Blog

Syria: No End in Sight

If you think Syria is a ghastly mess now, just wait till the rebels finally topple Bashar al-Assad. If I wanted to be vulgar (hell, why not?), I'd say: "You ain't seen nothing yet."

If you think Syria is a ghastly mess now, just wait till the rebels finally topple Bashar al-Assad. If I wanted to be vulgar (hell, why not?), I'd say: "You ain't seen nothing yet."

It's a mistake to assume that the experience of one country will be exactly replicated in another. But it is equally a mistake to ignore what we can see in front of eyes.

In Iraq, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein (a bloody and brutal tyrant if ever there was one) led to years of vicious sectarian blood-letting. In Libya, the defeat of Muammar Gaddafi (who was every bit as bloody and brutal) has ushered in a chronically unstable form of militia-led anarchy in which no authority really holds sway.

To point this out is not to say that Saddam and Gaddafi should have been allowed to rule for ever. Still less do I believe that Assad is anything other than a worthy equal in the bloody and brutal stakes. It is simply to remind you -- again -- that the defeat of dictators does not often herald the immediate dawning of a bright and peaceful new day.

I visited Iraq under Saddam, and Libya under Gaddafi, and Syria under Assad, and I hated them all. Much more important, so did most of the people who lived there.

It's no longer as fashionable as it once was to quote the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung if you prefer), but he surely got it right when he wrote that "a revolution is not a tea party." Back in December 2011, I quoted Professor Stephen Walt, of Harvard university: "If the history of revolutions tells us anything, it is that rebuilding new political orders is a protracted, difficult, and unpredictable process."

So why should the Syrian revolution be any different from the French, Russian, or Iranian revolutions? All took many years before anything resembling stability was restored, and not before many thousands of people had lost their lives.

That's why Western and Arab governments are so deeply worried about the appallingly fractious state of the Syrian anti-Assad opposition. If the different factions can't work together now, there's next to no chance that they'll be able to once they get their hands on the levers of power.

In Iraq, the Sunni minority, who had ruled and prospered under Saddam, suddenly found themselves stripped of power and guns as soon as he was gone. In Syria, however, where the Alawite minority have prospered under Assad, it may well be very different -- because even after he's defeated, his army is likely to be in a far better state than Saddam's was, after the US disbanded it.

In Iraq, Sunni jihadis turned to terrorism. To this day, car bombs and suicide bombers are still killing hundreds of people in an attempt to ensure that Shia hegemony under prime minister Nouri al-Maliki does not have things all its own way. (At least 240 people have been killed this month alone.)

And in Libya, dozens of militia groups have carved out their little bits of territory (sometimes not so little, in fact) where they and their guns rule, and where the notional government based in Tripoli has little influence.

Perhaps Syria won't turn out to be like either Iraq or Libya. Perhaps -- and this is the really frightening prospect -- it'll turn out to be like Somalia, where the toppling of the dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991 heralded more than 20 years of total anarchy. In Syria's neighbours, Israel, Jordan and, especially, Lebanon, it's the stuff of nightmares.

Which is why there is still such deep reluctance in London, Paris and Washington, at least in public, to go all out and back the Syrian rebels with arms and ammunition. (They're already getting quite a bit of help, of course, much of it, it seems, from Croatia, but at the behest of -- and almost certainly paid for by -- governments in Doha and Riyadh, and, who knows, beneath the radar, from some Western governments as well.)

Let me be clear: the continuing conflict in Syria has brought immense suffering to millions of its people. It is absolutely right that foreign governments should try to do whatever they can to bring that suffering to an end.

But the tragedy, of which they are only to painfully aware, is that, even when Assad has gone, the suffering is unlikely to end.