We’re all Syria buffs now. We’re barraged with conflicting reports, atrocity stories, and carefully nurtured narratives. They all seem to goad us to back a major U.S. involvement in that country. (Can you spell “q-u-a-g-m-i-r-e”?) So let’s step back and think for a minute.
How much hope is there for a country where citizens speak three quite different languages? Where they hold starkly opposed religions — each of which damns the members of the other as heretics or infidels? Where religious or ethnic atrocities on each side feed into a history of bitterness?
We are speaking now not of Syria, but of Switzerland.
How Switzerland Solved the Syrian Problem
That’s right, one of the richest, most peaceful countries on earth. The Swiss have low taxes, minimal government, and the most democratic constitution in human history. Citizens’ religious freedom, property rights, gun rights, and freedom of speech are protected even better than in America. Most of a Swiss person’s taxes go to his town, not the federal government. Any citizen can collect signatures to force a national referendum to change the laws.
But Switzerland was once a lot like Syria. Its ethnic factions engaged in vicious attacks and bloody vengeance. Its churches used to whip their members into mutual holy war. Catholics would march with the Eucharist in elaborate processions through Protestant towns. This risked armed attacks by Calvinists. So young Catholics formed shooting clubs. They would march alongside their priests, brandishing rifles. As recently as 1847, the Catholics and Protestants fought a brief civil war that ended with the Jesuits expelled and banned from the country.
Localism über Alles
So what was it that rescued Switzerland from turning out like Syria? What could President Trump learn from the Swiss success story? The answer is simple. Localism and decentralization saved Switzerland. They could save Syria. In fact, a peace plan based on these principles is currently on the table, at the Russian-sponsored Astana talks — which the U.S. so far is boycotting.
True American “federalism” is fine example of localism in action. Let Maine and Mississippi, California and Colorado, make most of their own laws. Suit laws to the values and habits of their citizens. In the teachings of the popes, this idea is called “subsidiarity.” It is designed to keep political power as close as possible to the citizens whom it impacts. You can debate most of your tax burden at your local town meeting.
For more on subsidiarity, see the chapter we wrote about it in The Race to Save Our Century.
Protection for Each Region and Minority Group
Rebuilding after the 1847 civil war, the Swiss did not look to the rigidly centralized government of France. Instead, they modeled themselves on the still quite loosely knit United States. They embedded in their new constitution protections for the rights of every region, and left most of the political power in each region’s hands.
There were some, of course, who wanted a powerful central government that could impose one faction’s wishes on everyone. The Swiss who thought like this had welcomed Napoleon’s invasion. But the country’s deep divisions made such a scheme impossible. At least without a tyrannical government willing to batter the Catholics and Calvinists, French and German speakers, city-folk and farmers, into sullen, begrudged submission.
Reject 20th Century Statism and Centralism
Of course, that is what Bashir Assad’s harsh secular government has done in Syria. He repressed the Sunni majority, while protecting his own embattled (Alawite) minority, along with Christians and other smaller groups. Brutal coercion is likewise the program of Islamist rebels backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Forcibly homogenizing peoples and regions is the model of twentieth century statehood: A powerful central government, dedicated to “national greatness,” crams one ideology down the throat of every hamlet and village.
That’s the model Western powers imposed on the Middle East, along with crackpot borders that took no account of ethnic or religious differences, in the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916.
A Unified Democracy is Not an Option
Up till now, the only alternative to thuggish, centralized nationalism of the sort practiced by Assad (and before him, Saddam Hussein) has been Islamist theocracy. Islamists like the al Qaeda factions now covet power in Syria. They also wish to impose a single creed and way of life on vibrant, diverse regions. The difference is that Islamists look to sharia as the source of all law and order. That’s bad news for religious minorities. That’s why millions of Alawites and Christians now look for protection either to Assad, or to Kurdish militias.
If Assad were to reconquer Syria, he would brutally crush Islamists and make life hell for religious Sunnis.
If the U.S. topples Assad and lets “nature” take its course, murderous theocrats linked to al Qaeda would do the same to Alawites, Shiites, and Christians.
If Turkey has a strong hand in the settlement, the government it sponsors will crush the Kurdish militias, who seek autonomy for their distinct and long-suffering nation.
There is no prospect of a strong, centralized government that would honor human rights and democracy. That’s not an option in a nation this religiously and culturally fractured. Whoever holds the whip hand of a powerful national government will crush and subdue the others. That is why each side fights so brutally. It’s why most of the factions, including Assad but not the Christians and Kurds, have resorted to chemical weapons.
Restart the Russian-Backed Peace Talks
There is a better way. The peace talks at Astana, stalled for now, envisioned a Swiss-style solution for Syria. Each of the regions now controlled by one faction or other would form a kind of “canton,” with most of the powers that normally go to a central state. These cantons would be linked by a loose confederation, designed to keep peace among them. (Some other Alawite, not Assad, should be its figurehead.) People unhappy in the canton where they ended up would likely vote with their feet, and move to a friendlier region.
The Swiss model is already present in Syria. The Federation of Northern Syria, led by Kurds allied with Christians and tolerant Arabs, is composed of self-governed cantons in voluntary association. It’s the one part of Syria where women take part in politics, all religious groups are free, and power stays close to the people. The Stream‘s Johannes de Jong has written in depth on how federalism works now in this part of Syria.
Such a plan isn’t perfect. It will frustrate the ambitions of every group. And that’s the point. Because in Syria today such ambitions often include erasing minority rights, forcing people to change religions, or simply wiping them out.
Or We Could Just do Iraq All Over Again
In Iraq we tried another plan: Seize power from brutal, secular nationalists. Then spend trillions to set up a fragile central democracy, and leave. That’s what gave us ISIS, and left most of Iraq either in ruins and cleansed of Christians, or ruled by intolerant Shiites who obey the Islamic Republic of Iran. There is no constituency for tolerant, democratic central government in the Arab world. That is why such a government does not exist. Anywhere.
We could deny that fact, for ten or twenty years, and have another Afghanistan on our hands. Or we could admit it, and leave behind a howling wasteland like Iraq.
How about this: Instead of trying this brutal, foolish plan yet again with yet another country, why don’t we look to a model that actually works? Maybe Switzerland, instead of the U.S. or Russia, should lead the Syrian peace talks. (For more from the author of “President Trump: Find Peace in Syria by Looking to Switzerland” please click HERE)