NORMAN — As attractive as the prospect of regime change in Syria may be, the U.S. and its allies would risk losing themselves in a swamp on par with Iraq and Afghanistan if they chose to intervene, a Middle East expert said.
Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, gave a lecture at OU Wednesday evening. Landis, the author of the political blog “Syria Comment,” said the civil war raging in Syria likely spells the end for Bashar al-Assad.
But the fight to overthrow him likely will be long and bloody, Landis said, and it's unclear what would replace the regime once it's gone.
The problem with intervening in the conflict is that the United States and its allies have had limited success with nation building. After a decade of fighting and trillions of dollars spent, the country hasn't been able to produce stable, Western-style democracy in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Democracy is equally unlikely to take hold in Syria, Landis said, because the population is too young. Generally, he said, a median age of 30 or older is necessary for democracy to succeed. Syria's median age is about 21.
Another factor that has hindered the Obama administration's ability to intervene has been the lack of a cohesive opposition, he said.
One of the successes of the Assad regime has been its ability to keep its opponents fragmented, Landis said. Today, the Syrian opposition doesn't exist as a cohesive force, but as thousands of small armed groups who declare themselves as militias on the Internet.
Without any kind of central command, Landis said, U.S. officials have no one to contact within the opposition. When a cohesive movement doesn't exist, he said, it's difficult to offer aid or training.
The fact that no cohesive opposition exists means it's difficult for any group to become powerful enough to topple the regime quickly. But it also makes it difficult for the Assad regime to quash the revolution entirely, Landis said.
If the regime were faced with a unified opposition, officials would likely arrest or kill the opposition's leaders. But that becomes more difficult when no central command exists, he said, so the situation develops into something of a stalemate.
“The regime is strong, ironically, for the same reason that it's weak,” he said. “He can't win, but it's hard for him to lose.”
Despite that position, Landis said he thinks Assad's days are numbered. With the fall of dictators in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, Syria is the only country in the region in which a dictator from a minority sect rules a nation with a religious majority.
Assad, an Alawite, presides over a population that, according to the CIA World Factbook, is roughly three-quarters Sunni Muslim.
Long fight ahead
Although minority rulers have been overthrown across the region since the beginning of the Arab Spring in January 2011, certain factors exist in Syria that will make the fight a long, bloody one, Landis said.
In Egypt, the army turned against former President Hosni Mubarak with assurances that the leaders would keep their positions after the revolution.
But in Syria, two generations of the Assad regime have made a policy of filling the officer corps with Alawites who would be loyal to them. Members of the Assad family make up the military leadership, Landis said.
That arrangement ensures the military will remain loyal to the regime, Landis said. But it also means that if the rebels overthrow the government, the military will likely be disbanded and its leaders will lose their jobs. The upper echelon of leaders will likely be hunted down and possibly executed, he said.
“They live in deep fear of the success of this revolution,” he said.