History is not such a great mystery that its equations are beyond human reach. With regime change, what matters are the mathematics of pain and the mathematics of bullets. Pain is alleviated by cash, hope, and desperation. Bullets only come with cash. With that model in place, reading the future is not all that hard.
The Syrian people have already demonstrated that they can take pain—more so than any of the recent regime changers, far more than the Iranians of the 2009 green movement, who caved in after a week of repression. The reason for Syrian fortitude may be, indeed, hope fed by the Arab Spring.
The desperate who fear to be on the losing end of regime change include not just the clique holding on to power in Damascus, but the Christian, Kurd, Druze and Alawi minorities that clique has for decades pretended to protect from the Sunni-Arab masses. The unknown is whether minorities so dread regime change they will fight the counter-revolution, or whether they are simply hedging their bets.
That leaves bullets, mercenaries, and the cash to pay for them. In the midst of the Libyan war, the question was never whether Gadhafi could be defeated by the NATO-backed riffraff rebellion, but who would first run out of financial firepower or resolve. It was said of Gadhafi, as it was said of Saddam Hussein in 2003, that he was formidably rich, had stockpiles of currency and ammunitions to wait things out. Certainly, moving around “technicals” with machine guns to intimidate your own people is cheaper than the sorties of missile-laden NATO jet fighters. The tyrants put up a good fight, but soon both Saddam and Gadhafi ran out of cash and out of luck.
2012 is unique because Western powers are broke and deep in elections. Sarkozy, the one leader with enough whimsy to embrace military-backed regime change in Libya after the Iraqi trauma, will most likely be sent packing in May. Obama, hoping for reelection, is not moving troops out of the region fast enough. Other powers will stay away from Syria. China, which reflexively opposes regime change, will never get involved beyond the UN Security Council. Russia will probably not put money where its mouth is (with the status quo)—neither will Turkey for that matter, all bluster but with no power to project.
The West is broke but Syria is not a rich country, and civil strife has been going on long enough for the regime to lose its financial advantage. Money for this war, if it does come to a war, will have to come from the region. For the status quo there are the Iranians, who like to live on the brink, but whose pockets are not those of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the champions of regime change. This makes for an exquisite tragedy: a new proxy war between Sunni Arabs and Shia Persians. After the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and Arab support of the Taliban in the 1990s, the bitter cold war over the “Shia Crescent” that formed in Mesopotamia would now blow up in Syria.
There is enough memory of Afghanistan to feel trepidations were religiously conservative regimes from the Arabian Gulf to arm the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. This is the Bosnian dilemma all over again: are the freedom fighters covert religious fanatics, as the Serbs claimed of the Bosniaks? The West cannot pay to free Syria, but if Saudis and Qataris pick up the tab, it should ensure that defectors receive the weapons to take down the regime’s armored vehicles. It is difficult to guarantee that a liberated Homs will turn liberal the way of Sarajevo and not fundamentalist like Kandahar, but the Mediterranean world of 2012 is not the Hindu Kush in 1992. If Western involvement could reassure Syrian minorities the new order will never revisit the old sectarian game, that could quickly pull the rug under the predatory regime’s crumbling feet.
Camille Pecastaing is a Senior Associate Professor of Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies
This post is part of The Caravan, a periodic discussion on the contemporary dilemmas of the Greater Middle East. Other commentary in this symposium on Syria is provided by Charles Hill, Itamar Rabinovich, Habib Malik, Russell Berman, Nibras Kazimi, Abbas Milani, Joel Rayburn, Josh Teitelbaum, Reuel Gerecht, Asli Aydintasbas, Camille Pecastaing, and Fouad Ajami.