In sum, his argument is that the Syrian war will either be like Lebanon's civil war, from 1975 to 1990, or Iraq's, from 2003 up until who knows when. Neither choice is anywhere near a good one, he says, but the latter model is preferable for the United States. "The idea that we could prevent all these terrible things from happening in Syria is belied by the fact we intervened in Iraq, and all those things happened anyway," he says. "Why did they happen? Because it's a bloody civil war, competition is fierce, the losers in these civil wars know that they're going to get massacred so they fight to the end."
Zakaria begins with colonialism, which divided the Middle East along ahistorical lines, establishing Syria and other Middle Eastern countries as we know them today. Those somewhat artificial national borders, along with their dictatorial regimes, left the countries precariously balanced between competing religious and/or ethnic groups. In some cases – he cites Lebanon, Syria and Iraq – that left minorities ruling over everyone else. When those countries collapse into war, the conflict becomes a very bloody process by which that society rebalances itself toward majority rule.
He compares Syria's war to the 15-year civil war in Lebanon and the war that erupted in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. In both cases, the wars were as much about vicious competition between sectarian groups as they were about the decisions of military and political leaders. In both cases, power ended up shifting from minority to majority sects. In both cases, civilians were massacred, and minorities suffered terribly. The difference, perhaps, is that the United States took heavy losses in Iraq but stayed out of Lebanon.
His case, then, is that Syria's war is not something that the United Stated can stop or alter. Zakaria has no illusions about the pain and terror of Lebanon's civil war but says that the United States was right not to involve itself. (He also points out that Reagan's decision to bow out in 1984 did not exactly destroy American credibility in the region.) He points to the war in Iraq; even though the United States toppled Iraq's minority dictator and quickly moved power over to a government that represented the broader population, that did not prevent hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, the formation of many civilian militias that did terrible things and the infiltration by al-Qaeda and affiliated groups. In this thinking, intervening in Syria will not stop the war's violence, which is after all more about competing sects than it is about the decisions of one leader.
Wars are difficult to predict, though, and one might reasonably disagree with Zakaria. The world of 2013 is very different from that of 1984, when the Reagan administration withdrew from Lebanon; international Islamist terrorist groups did not have the strength or reach they have today, thanks to technology and other factors. An Islamist extremist victory in Syria might well be more likely than it was in Lebanon 30 years ago; the potential ramifications for the United States might also be more severe.
Also, Zakaria's argument makes the most sense if he limits his comparisons to other sectarian conflicts in the post-colonial Middle East. Those are for sure the most apt comparisons, but there aren't very many of them; such a limited data set makes it tough to argue with total certainty how the war will turn out. Why not compare it to, for example, the war in Kosovo, where a U.S.-led intervention helped to halt much of the sectarian bloodshed before it reached Lebanese extremes and gave the now-independent country space to establish what appears to be a much stabler society. There's also Cyprus; with peace-keepers dividing Turkish and Greek communities for now 30 years, it's hardly a success story, but the United Nations intervention did halt what could otherwise have been a horrific sectarian civil war and allowed for relative peace.
Whether you agree with Zakaria's position or not, it's good to at least bring some history into the discussion.