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Wednesday, June 20

Assad's quaint notion of national sovereignty

What year does Assad think this is? 1648? The Westphalian System of sovereign states, to the extent it was honored, is deader than a doornail. Of course it's not dead for me because I'm an American. But for everyone else the idea of a sovereign nation belongs in the dustbin of history. 

Those thoughts occurred to me while I read Derek Davison's conversation with Joshua Landis for Lobe Log ("What happens now in Syria?" - 6/19). There was a completely amoral tone to the discussion. This is nothing against Davison or Landis, who was replying to Davison's very specific questions; it's the situation they're studying that's amoral. But I felt queasy after I finished reading. Landis might as well have been talking about packs of jackals squabbling over a kill.  

As illustration, here are snippets from the interview, which I think is worthwhile reading in its entirety. Emphasis throughout is mine:  


JL: The U.S. has closed off all of the major highways out of Syria to the east. International trade for Syria has been blocked off and sanctions tightened. The U.S. is dead set against international organizations playing any role in Syrian redevelopment so the U.S. can continue to strangle Syria and keep it extremely poor. You might argue that this is bad from a counterterrorism perspective because it will create more instability, but I think the U.S. is willing to pay that price because it won’t hurt the U.S. directly.


The U.S. now holds about 30 percent of Syria through its proxies, the group that is called the Syrian Democratic Forces but is really led by the Kurds, with some Arab assistance. That’s a big mess too, because the region is majority Kurdish but has a large Arab minority, and the Arabs and Kurds do not like each other. They have diametrically opposed political and national ambitions. The Kurds want a state, Rojava, and they’re on their way to becoming like the Kurds in northern Iraq. The Arabs feel like they’re going to be displaced. They’ve been long-time rivals.


The U.S. has gotten itself sunk into a real trouble spot. It’s the most underdeveloped and ignored region of Syria, yet it has great riches—it has oil, it has a good agricultural foundation, and it has water. All of those things give it some potential, but the United States doesn’t know what it wants to do with the region. On the one hand, it says it wants to stay there for the long haul, meaning make a state out of it—and they’re building an army to undergird that. On the other hand, President Trump says he wants to get out of there soon, and he’s refusing to spend money to rebuild the place. So Raqqa lies in ruins, there are many unhappy people because their homes have been destroyed and nobody is going to reconstruct them. There is no legal basis for a separate state, so it can’t bring in foreign investment.  [Pundita note: What legal basis is needed? There's no more international law to the extent it existed; there's the law of the jungle. If the United States says it's okay to invest in a state carved out of Syria, so be it.]


So the Kurds have a place in Syria—in theory. The problem is that nobody trusts the Assad government, and nobody trusts that any deal it hammers out will be respected. Assad is a centralizer. He sees any form of federalism as an externally organized plot against the Syrian nation—and to a certain degree he’s correct, because there are a lot of people in Washington who want to use federalism as the sharp end of a spear that will ultimately dislodge the Assad government.


The big question is whether Turkey can impose its vision on Idlib, which would be to turn much of the province into a satrap and ultimately Turkify it. They’ve done this previously, with Turkey’s Hatay province, which used to be the Syrian province of Alexandretta under the post-World War I French Mandate but was ceded to Turkey in 1938. ...


And some people are arguing, on that basis, that perhaps the best future for Idlib province is to become part of Turkey—though of course that would create a lot of new difficulties, and Assad is determined not to see it happen.

This creates problems for the United States, because the Salafist groups that survive in Idlib will continue to have a life. They’ll be able to plot against the West if that’s what they want to do—there’s plenty of indication that some of them do want to do that—and to continue to preach an extremely anti-Western ideology. HTS and some other groups glorify Osama bin Laden and promote a Salafi-jihadist ideology that is very threatening to the West.

The question is the degree to which Turkey is willing to clamp down on those groups and arrest the leadership. That could be negotiated between Turkey and the United States, though the United States doesn’t trust Turkey very much these days to do that kind of thing. The alternative is to have Assad’s military sweep through the province after bombing the living daylights out of it, as it’s done in other regions, and create a massive refugee flow into Turkey—which the West doesn’t want, because some percentage of those refugees will end up in Europe. So, the Europeans may go along with allowing Turkey to rule this region even though it violates international law.



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