Too big to fail?

Too big to fail?

The mantra “too big to fail” was an apt warning in 2008, as the world was tipping into financial crisis. It turned out that Lehman Brothers was in fact too important a banking institution to be allowed to go down. When it did, its collapse set off the global recession.

The shaky prospects of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria have evoked similar “too big to fail” cautions. It’s widely feared that the fall of the Baath government would open a Pandora’s box, bringing a violent re-arrangement of the whole Middle East. While few might love al-Assad and his murderous cronies, it’s held that things in the region could easily go from bad to worse in his absence. A sordid but tolerable equilibrium has been obtained. Let it stand. So goes the conventional wisdom.

A little examination shows that wisdom to be a myth. The illusion of the al-Assad regime’s indispensability has been a careful creation of the al-Assads, principally the father Hafez, and it took on a life of its own over the years as a multitude of Western political leaders and pundits bought and perpetuated the Baathist pitch – that Syria was the linchpin for peace in the Middle East, that all roads toward settlement between Israel and the Arabs must pass through Damascus.

And so from the H.W. Bush administration to the Bill Clinton years, Hafez al-Assad received no fewer than 30 visits from American secretaries of state, and one from Clinton himself. A stream of European leaders courted Damascus in their own fashion. The al-Assads, father and son, responded with smoke, mirrors, broken promises and blackmail, making peace hints to Tel Aviv, backing away, suggesting that there could be accidents in the oil fields if Saudi aid didn’t continue, pulling the strings in Beirut to keep Lebanon off balance, harboring the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, Abdullah Öcalan while complaining that Turkey was withholding water from the Euphrates. Nothing of substance has ever come from the hopes laid at the al-Assad doorstep. Mischief has been the only product.

Among those watching what’s happening in Syria today, there may be a good many who still cling to the notion of the al-Assad government as an irreplaceable balance wheel. But that’s not the main reason why the world is currently standing back and not backing the uprising the way it did in Libya, where fewer citizens were being mowed down by the regime. Nor does the reluctance to interfere come from fear of a serious fight – or from a wish not to lock horns with Russia and China at the U.N. Security Council. Compared to Libya, the Baath regime would be a paper tiger militarily. Half a dozen major Syrian cities are already anti-al-Assad strongholds. As to the opposition of Russia and China, both have been ignored during the NATO actions in Libya, and they would be ignored again.

No, the unwillingness to go beyond sanctions and admonitions with Syria has to do with a West set against any more military actions in Muslim countries. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have given the Crusader image an uncomfortably high profile. Therefore, the bloodletting in Syria will grind on with its own momentum, probably unassisted. The al-Assad government will eventually fall because of the hate it has banked with its people. The collateral losers will be Iran, Syria’s chief ally, and Hezbollah, their Lebanese apprentice – as well as Russia and China, who have chosen not to take issue with the Baath government’s murders.

When the books are opened after the regime’s fall, it will become clear that its vital broker role was never much more than a confidence game, a political Ponzi scheme based on lies and manipulation – that in fact Baathist Syria has a third-rate military, a primitive economy leaning more and more on agriculture as its oil dwindles and worse public services than several African countries.

For all of this, a post-al-Assad government will have far more public structures to work with than the new Libya does – yet more worries about violent sectarian score-settling, as the Alawites exit, the majority Sunnis take over and the Christians seek cover. The external relations will be pure guesswork. Yet however awkwardly the future Syria may sort itself out, another Middle East miracle will have occurred – one in which it was a citizen rebellion that did the job of bringing down a regime deemed too big to fail.