In Syria, Less is More

History shows that when it comes to internal conflict in the Middle East, Western intervention only causes further problems.

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Sarwar Kashmeri is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

To really understand the brutal nature of the actions taken by the government to suppress the revolt in Syria, it helps to focus on what happened on October 25 in the ancient Damascus quarter of Sidi Hamouda. The old neighborhood lies between al-Hamidiyah Souq and Medhat Pasha Souq, two Ottoman-era markets used and loved by generations of Syrians. In order to send a signal to the protesters, on that October day Sidi Hamouda was bombed by the government,  set on fire, and destroyed.

The destruction was so thorough and its impact on the citizens so heartbreaking that local residents changed the neighborhood's name to Al-Hariqa—The Conflagration. Barbarity it seems knows no bounds when revolt threatens established power. If this callous episode does not justify immediate intervention in the Syrian civil war, what does? Unless of course one knows Syrian history and recognizes that the destruction of Sidi Hamouda took place 87 years ago, on Oct. 25, 1925—not 2012.

The established power was France—the very symbol of civilizations and culture. France was determined to put down what has come to be known as "The Great Syrian Revolt" against its colonial mandate, no matter how long it took or the level of destruction.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

As is the case with today's revolt against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, the 1925 revolt was carried out by uncoordinated ethnic and sectarian groups that included Sunnis and Christians. It went on for two years before being suppressed by the superior industrial weaponry of the French rulers. Ironically, Syria was created by the French (with British acquiescence) out of lands seized from the Ottomans as the spoils of World War I. What remained of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East became Turkey—now balanced on a knife's edge as Syria's future hangs in the balance.

Similarly, the British spoils from World War I included the Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. Provinces that the British put together to create modern Iraq. Now, Sunni and Shia fighters from Iraq are headed to Syria to help both the protesters and the Assad regime.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

The Kurds, meanwhile, had little influence over their destiny and lost their chance to lobby for a country of their own after World War I. They now live dispersed lives in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, and are eyeing the deconstruction of the Middle East with great interest and anticipation.

Look at a map of the Middle East at the beginning of the 20th century and one stark fact leaps out of the atlases: None of the countries that are in the headlines today existed. No Iraq, no Syria, no Lebanon, no Iran, and no Israel. These are all creations of the West, reflecting Western economic and geostrategic interests. Local inhabitants were rarely consulted to seek their views on the borders of the countries being hammered out. Or even whether they believed those countries made sense. A probably apocryphal story from the most recent American war in Iraq says it all: U.S. Army captain to Iraqi shepherd, "How many times must I warn you to not graze your flock of sheep over this border with Jordan? Shepherd to captain, "Who gave you the right to put the border between my flock?

Western interests have created today's Middle East and its seemingly intractable problems. The attempt to "civilize" and channel the people who have lived there for thousands of years is futile, as the experience of the past century has demonstrated. There is no way for the West to assimilate the relationships, enmities, centuries old beliefs, and vendettas that drive these lands at the crossroads of history.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Has Obama Properly Handled the Arab Spring?]

It is time to let local forces shape their own destiny. That is why U.S. military intervention in Syria makes little sense. It will only prolong the inevitable, whatever the inevitable might be. Yes civil wars can be bloody and cruel, as the American Civil War so vividly showed. But that Civil War also bequeathed a nation that is the envy of the world.

America has vital national interests in the Middle East and must remain engaged—helping its allies weather the storms now buffeting the region. But beyond that ignore the siren call to send in the troops.

Sometimes it helps to place today's events in perspective before acting to change the course of history. Sometimes doing nothing is the wisest action of all.

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