Secular Syria?

I had to smile during yesterday’s hearing on Syria when John Kerry talked about Syria’s secular tradition. Kerry did so in arguing that, if Assad falls, a takeover by Islamist extremists is unlikely.

I smiled because advocates of the invasion of Iraq made the same kind of argument in the run-up to that war. I didn’t check the Power Line archives, but wouldn’t be surprised if I talked about Iraq’s secular tradition.

The argument isn’t entirely without merit. There is a secular tradition in both countries and they are similar (and, in part, Baathist). Moreover, the secular tradition in Iraq probably held some sway. There were secularist forces with whom we could work. And al Qaeda certainly proved to be repugnant to most Iraqis, including those whom it purported to defend.

But Iraq’s secular tradition didn’t prevent horrific sectarian religious violence. And it required plenty of U.S. boots on the ground to beat back al Qaeda in Iraq. It seems fanciful to suppose that, in the short run, we can rely on Syria’s secularist tradition to carry the day without becoming much more heavily involved in Syria than anybody seems to want.

Times have changed in the Middle East. Religious fervor seems to have supplanted, or at least significantly supplemented, old-time nationalism as the force driving events. The pendulum will probably swing back. But we shouldn’t count on this occurring soon.

Kerry thus seemed largely to be grasping at straws when he invoked Syrian secularism. It’s only one of the many ironies of the current debate that he grasped at the same straw Bush supporters did ten years ago, and with less plausibility given what has happened in the ten years since.