Containing the Fire in Syria

By Ryan Crocker

The awful conflict in Syria grinds on, with more than 100,000 dead and no end in sight. The calls to "do something" - anything - become louder: arm the rebels, enforce a no-fly zone, send in the Marines. Before the United States acts, Americans should reflect on the realities in Syria in a historical context. Here are some relevant dates and events.

Syria, February 1982: The Assad regime corners the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, the country's fourth largest city. For the minority Alawite government, an offshoot of Shia Islam, the fundamentalist Sunni Brothers are an existential threat. Assad rings the city with armor and artillery, and methodically destroys its center. The Brotherhood is largely eliminated, along with more than 10,000 Sunni civilians. The regime knew that the day of revenge might come and spent years developing the security, intelligence and military apparatus to deal with it.

Lebanon, summer 1982: The Israelis invade Lebanon with twin targets - the Palestine Liberation Organization who control the south and the Syrian Army in Beirut and the Biqa' Valley. Both are forced to evacuate Beirut, the former by sea under the eyes of US Marines, whose presence was a Palestinian condition against any action by the Israeli military during withdrawal. Days after the Marines' withdrawal, the Israelis and the Lebanese Force - a Christian militia - enter west Beirut. The latter perpetrate a massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Shatila refugee camp. The cry to "do something" goes up in Washington, and the Marines are returned on an undefined "mission of presence." Meanwhile, Syria and the new Islamic Republic of Iran forge a strategic alliance and create Hezbollah, an alliance and a militia that figure prominently in the conflict today in Syria. For the US, the consequences were catastrophic. April 1983 saw the bombing of the American Embassy and the greatest loss of embassy officials in the history of US diplomacy. Six months later, the Marine barracks were bombed with the largest loss of Marine lives in a single attack in the history of the corps. I was there for both.

Lebanon/Syria, June 2000: Israeli forces withdraw from Lebanon under intense pressure from Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran. Hafiz al-Assad dies and is succeeded by his son Bashar. There was a naïve expectation in the West that because he did postdoctoral studies in the UK and knew how to use a computer he would move to westernize Syria. As ambassador to Syria then, I knew him and knew he would not. He was more rigid and doctrinaire than his father.

Iraq, March 2007: I arrive as ambassador and find a situation eerily similar to the one I survived in Lebanon a quarter of a century before. Iran was supporting radical Shia militias that resembled and, in some cases, were trained by Hezbollah to fight the US-led coalition in the east while Syria facilitated the transit of Al Qaeda operators who joined with Iraqi Sunni militants to fight in the west. Iran and Syria used these tactics to drive us out of Lebanon; it nearly worked in Iraq as well.

There are many other examples of Syrian-Iranian coordination and the utter ruthlessness of both states in pursuing their objectives, such as the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. During my time in Lebanon, we had a dark joke about "Hama rules," meaning there were no rules governing Syrian conduct.

So this current fight didn't start in the southern Syrian city of Dara'a in 2011. Nor is it part of the so-called Arab Spring. It began decades before. Lebanese, Palestinians, Iranians, Jordanians, Iraqis and Syrians - Sunnis, Alawis, Christians and Druze - all remember. Americans may not have ever really understood it in the first place. The history helps explain the ferocity of the fight on the part of both the regime and its opponents, and it illustrates why this regime is not like those in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya. It was ready for this war.

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Ryan Crocker is currently the first Kissinger Senior Fellow at Yale University 2012-2013. He also holds an appointment as the James Schlesinger Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Virginia. He retired from the Foreign Service in April 2009 after a career of over 37 years but was recalled to active duty by President Obama to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan. He has served as U.S. Ambassador six times: Afghanistan (2011-2012), Iraq (2007-2009), Pakistan (2004-2007), Syria (1998-2001), Kuwait (1994-1997), and Lebanon (1990-1993).

Originally published at Yale Global© 2013 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale.

(AP Photo)

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