Although international pressure on the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is mounting after the massacre of Houla, former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski cautions against acting on outrage. Foreign intervention, he warns, could have deadly repercussions.
Civil war has raged in Syria for more than a year between forces that are loyal to the Ba’athist regime and opposition insurgents who enjoy the sympathy of neighboring Arab states and the West. After the apparently indiscriminate slaughter of civilians by the regime in the villages of Houla last week, the call for military action by outside powers is heard increasingly louder.
David Ignatius, a columnist for The Washington Post, reported on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Wednesday that the Obama Administration is preparing plans for a post-Assad transition in Syria. An interim government would have to be formed, comprised of all ethnic groups in the country.
The Syrian uprising increasingly seems one of majority Sunnis battling a minority Shia but secular regime. Rebels are mostly active in Sunni cities in the south and the oil rich eastern province of Syria while religious minorities and the coastal urban middle class are wary of regime change. They fear than an Islamist takeover would inhibit their economic and political freedoms.
Western allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia, would like to see a Sunni government take over. It would weaken the Iranian axis in the region and act as a counterweight to Iraq whose Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is moving the country closer to Tehran.
The regional dynamic undermines the case for intervention, said Brzezinski on the same program. “We’re dealing here with a region in which all of these issues are interconnected.”
Proponents of intervention criticize Russia for continuing to support Assad. This, argued Brzezinski, is a mistake if Western powers want to find a solution to the Syrian question.
If we act simply on the basis of emotion and sort of vague threats that the Russians have to be forced to be good boys, we are going to produce a regionwide outbreak in which the issues within Syria will become linked with a conflict between the Saudis and the Shiites, Iraq will become destabilized, Iran will be involved [...], we may have a breakdown of the negotiating process with Iran on top of it and we’re going to have a major international problem in our hands with political and economic consequences that are very serious.
And what I hear is a lot of emotion and sloganeering but I haven’t heard what the secret plans that the White House is conceiving actually are and how they are going to be implemented unless we get international cooperation on it.
In February, Brzezinski also appeared on Morning Joe when he reacted to the hysteria that was prompted by China’s and Russia’s vetoes in the United Nations Security Council to a resolution that would have condemned President Assad. “What motivates China and Russia is self-interest,” he said. Neither country wants to sanction a repetition of Libya where, as they see it, NATO intervened last year on the side of anti-government fighters to topple Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
At the time, Brzezinski also cautioned against military intervention, pointing out that “the situation within the country is much more confused than the sort of black-white notions that we get from sweeping generalizations about what is happening.”
What happened in Houla was horrible but it changed very little about the dynamics of Syria’s revolt and so far, it changed nothing about the strategic landscape in which it takes place.