With the world roiled up about last week’s chemical attack, looking at the Syrian conflict from a completely strategic viewpoint has become even more difficult than ever. Leave it to Edward Luttwak, author of The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook, and other intervening works, to write something provocative that diagnoses the American position with unlikely clinical distance. Over the weekend, he wrote of potential American action in Syria as something that should happen, only if it keeps the playing field between the Assad regime and the rebels even. In other words, as the battle for Syria’s future continues its churn, Americans should want no winner to emerge.
The war is now being waged by petty warlords and dangerous extremists of every sort: Taliban-style Salafist fanatics who beat and kill even devout Sunnis because they fail to ape their alien ways; Sunni extremists who have been murdering innocent Alawites and Christians merely because of their religion; and jihadis from Iraq and all over the world who have advertised their intention to turn Syria into a base for global jihad aimed at Europe and the United States.
Given this depressing state of affairs, a decisive outcome for either side would be unacceptable for the United States. An Iranian-backed restoration of the Assad regime would increase Iran’s power and status across the entire Middle East, while a victory by the extremist-dominated rebels would inaugurate another wave of Al Qaeda terrorism.
There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw.
This bucks many of the pundits’ proclamations about the moral imperative to intervene and see Assad overthrown. But such analysis is how Luttwak made his name over decades of service. Earlier this year, Tablet featured Luttwak in a symposium about the future of the fracturing Middle East, where he offered this outlook on the potential rise of mini-states as the artificial boundaries once created by colonial powers in the region fall away:
The world that we will see as state power devolves to real communities is not as unstable as it looks. There are tacit understandings, accepted rules, and red lines; conflict is not precluded but channeled. Inter-state relations are mostly stable, while with non-state powers there are long cease-fires and short fights.
Back in 2011, Tablet literary editor David Samuels interviewed Luttwak about his long career and the events taking hold in the early days of the Arab Spring. Here was one exchange.
There are two differing interpretations of the events of the Arab Spring. The dominant one is: “Here is this marvelous wave of popular revolutions where everyone uses Facebook and Twitter to spread democratic ideas.” The other is that “Rickety state structures held together by repressive police and state apparatus are now collapsing into tribal bloodshed.”
Well, any dictatorship creates an unnatural environment, analogous to that of taking peasants from the field and putting them in an army, where they get uniforms and are drilled and disciplined. Dictatorships attempt to turn entire populations into well-drilled regiments. The North Korean regime takes it to the logical extreme of actually having the entire population drilled in regiments. The Ben Ali and Mubarak dictatorships were attempting to regiment their populations by having state structures imposed on them. Both of them, for example, were able to create loyal police forces.
Once the regiment dissolves, then the people are released and they revert to their natural order. They stop wearing uniforms, they put on the clothes they want, and they manifest the proclivities that they have. A few Egyptians are Westernized, hence they have exited Islam whatever their personal beliefs may be. But otherwise, there is no room for civilization in Egypt other than Islam, and the number of extremists that you need to make life impossible for the average Westernized or slightly Westernized Egyptian who wants to have a beer, for example, is very small. The number you need to close all the bars in Egypt is maybe 15 percent of the population.
Enjoy the rest.