SANLIURFA, Turkey — I’ve been traveling to Yemen, Syria and Turkey to film a documentary on how environmental stresses contributed to the Arab awakening. As I looked back on the trip, it occurred to me that three of our main characters — the leaders of the two Yemeni villages that have been fighting over a single water well and the leader of the Free Syrian Army in Raqqa province, whose cotton farm was wiped out by drought — have 36 children among them: 10, 10 and 16.
It is why you can’t come away from a journey like this without wondering not just who will rule in these countries but how will anyone rule in these countries?
Of course, we should hope for those with sincere democratic aspirations to prevail, but clearly theirs is not the only vision being put on the table. These aspiring democrats are having to compete with Islamist, sectarian and tribal opposition groups, which also have deep roots in these societies. No matter which trend triumphs, though, the real issue here is whether 50 years of population explosion, environmental mismanagement and educational stagnation have made some of these countries ungovernable by any group or ideology.
In Egypt, Yemen or Syria, it is common to see primary school classes of 60-70 kids with one undertrained teacher, no computers and no science instruction. How are the 36 kids whose three fathers I met going to have a chance in a world where not only are robots replacing manual blue-collar workers but software is increasingly replacing routine white-collar jobs — and where some of them can’t go back to the family farm because the water and topsoil have been depleted?
Then I go across the Turkish border to Tel Abyad, in northeastern Syria, and I see broken buildings, electricity lines on the ground, half-finished homes and a gaping hole in a grain storage tower, and I think: Not only are they behind, but this war is still destroying what little they have left. They are in a hole and still digging.
The only way for these countries to catch up is by people uniting to mobilize all their strength. It is for Sunnis, Christians and Alawites in Syria to work together; for the tribes in Yemen and Libya to work together; for the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and liberals in Egypt to do so as well, particularly in implementing the proposed International Monetary Fund economic reforms. In today’s globalized world, you fall behind faster than ever if you are not building the education, infrastructure and economic foundation to take advantage of this world — but you catch up faster if you do.
But to pull together requires trust — that intangible thing that says you can rule over me even though you come from a different tribe, sect or political party — and that is what is missing here. In the absence of any Nelson Mandela-like leaders able and eager to build trust, I don’t see how any of these awakenings succeed. I keep thinking about the Free Syrian Army commander introducing me to his leadership team: “My nephew, my cousin, my brother, my cousin, my nephew, my son, my cousin ...” What does that tell you?
We can only properly answer the question — should we be arming the Syrian rebels? — if we first answer what kind of Syria do we want to see emerge and what will it take, beyond arms, to get there?
If we want Bashar Assad’s regime to be toppled and pluralistic democracy to emerge in Syria, then we not only need to arm the rebels but we need to organize an international peacekeeping force to enter Syria as soon as the regime falls to help manage the transition. Otherwise, when Assad is toppled, there will be at least two more wars in Syria. First will be a war between Sunnis and Alawites, the sect that Assad represents. The Alawites will fight to defend their perks and turf. After that, there will be a war within the opposition — between the Islamists and more secular fighting forces that have very different visions of a future Syria. Only an outside peacekeeping force could make up for the lack of trust and shared vision and try to forge a new Syria. And it would be a very, very long haul.
If our goal is to arm the rebels just to serve our strategic interests — which are to topple the Assad regime and end the influence of Iran and Hezbollah in Damascus and not care what comes next — then we need to be ready for the likely fragmentation of Syria into three zones: one Sunni, one Alawite and one Kurdish.
That might eventually solve the trust and civil war problems, as everyone would be living “with their own,” but I am not sure it would better enable Syrians to address their development challenges.
A third option would be to arm the rebels just to ensure a stalemate — in the hope that the parties might eventually get exhausted enough to strike a deal on their own. But, again, I find it hard to see how any deal that might set Syria on the long path to a decent, inclusive political system could be implemented without outside help on the ground to referee.
So let’s do something new: think two steps ahead. Before we start sending guns to more people, let’s ask ourselves for what exact ends we want those guns used and what else would be required of them and us to realize those ends.