President Trump: Find Peace in Syria by Looking to Switzerland

A Syrian federation could end the genocide.

By Jason Jones & John Zmirak Published on April 10, 2017

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.

After the 1847 civil war, the Swiss 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.

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.

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  • SinoBen

    Good article and great points guys. We could do less however with rhetoric regarding alleged use of Sarin by Assad, lets wait for the evidence from trustworthy sources.

    • #EpluribusAwesome

      The NY Times has a piece titled “White House Accuses Russia of Chemical Weapons Cover-Up” which includes a 4-page PDF detailing their confidence that the Syrian regime conducted the chemical weapons attack. There is no point in continuing to doubt this fact or in encouraging others to do so. See also Thomas Wictor’s twitter feed which often posts declassified military photos and videos in support of credible information and debunks nonsense.

      • SinoBen

        I tracked down that “4-page PDF” you mentioned. To the critical reader there should be stuff there that raise red flags.

        1. It confirms Sarin yet when you look at the videos, there are conflicting evidence such as White Helmets using gas masks but bare hands on victims some people were wearing slippers too. Water sprayed indiscriminately, one on a prone child that sprayed water UPWARDS towards the head, that is a no no for Sarin. One WH grabbed a child from the back of a van and ran back down the lane towards some unknown destination, if you were taking someone on emergency do you go PAST the hospital a distance so that you can carry your patient back to the hospital you just past? Anyway there are others I won’t bother.

        2. “Credible Open Source Reporting”. If they were open, who were they? Prove to us they are “credible”. Let me guess, White Helmets. No there are no “credible” sources out there, there are no independent journalists out there. I concede: SO FAR I have not come across any report from an independent journalist.

        3. “Protect sources and methods”. Why? If they are operating in friendly
        territory who are they afraid of? Or more likely – they are operating with anti-Assad people, that info will make the sources biased.

        4. On the “method” part, I guess they mean method confirming Sarin use. I have taken a close look at a picture of this guy in the middle of the road apparently taking samples from a bomb crater there and together with that picture another aerial photo showing where the spot was. I googled map that very spot, located about 50-100 metres from a bakery not hard to find. My conclusions: about 80% sure that the photo (also a short video) do not match the purported spot.

        There are more objections but I’ve run out of time.

        • #EpluribusAwesome

          How would the First Responders know whether or not it was Sarin? In the heat of the emergency, pictures of them mishandling victims don’t seem to me like proof it was not Sarin. It has in fact been reported that autopsies show evidence of Sarin, but you sound like you are trying very hard to prove your own theories.

          • SinoBen

            So we ask: why are they dousing victims with water? On fire? I’m not suggesting that it is not Sarin. My guess is that it is not Sarin Gas but more likely, Sarin liquid. If it’s chlorine gas they can smell it and no one has reported any smells. Sarin is odourless and colourless. But Sarin as a liquid can be used to kill just the same.

            Do they really care about cross contamination and do they care about the victims? From the videos I watched, no to both. They don’t care about cross contamination because they knew it wasn’t in gas form. Those videos looked like a staged performance with real victims. Who would do this and who would gain? Assad certainly did not gain any political nor military advantage. Would he as a dictator do this? What is he like?

            I watched as many youtube as possible to find out what Syria was like under Assad before the Arab spring. I saw well fed people, hustle and bustle of business in nice looking cities. Some say they had stability and peace in Syria in the decades before 2011. Syria was quite westernised, a secular government, and young women not wearing head coverings prior to the rise of Alqaeda. Anyway, research for yourself. The Assads definitely controlled radical forces in the country with a strong hand but this is to the benefit of the general population. Well, the story can change of course if I found testimonies of people from the general populace of Syria that would say otherwise (re: situation prior to 2011).

  • Steven Flanders

    Good articl with great insights. However, one must ask if we in the west, and America in particular, actually want a stable and self determining Syria. There would go our access to cheap resources, and a great route for an oil pipeline. I think the kind of government Switzerland has, and that we are supposed to have, is the best form of government the world has yet formed. With some variations, it would probably work everywhere. Which is why so many powerful forces are intent on preventing that from happening. Just such a course was suggested, by me at least, but was never tried in Iraq. Maybe we should set a good example and try it again here in the U.S. of A.

  • Billy Chickens

    Hmmm. Do you think we could get the Jesuits banned and expelled from the US? And more importantly, the Vatican?

  • Sandra Miljkovic

    How ’bout we let the Syrian’s decide… through democratic voting… novel idea, I know. The only foreign countries legally allowed in Syria are Russia and Iran. All other’s are operating there illegally. Can’t even pretend to imagine how violently the US would react if some foreign operation crossed into American sovereign territory uninvited; no matter what ‘humanitarian’ excuse was dreamed up for the occasion. In America, anti-government forces will be called terrorists — strange how American’s like to call these forces in other countries ‘freedom-fighters’ valiantly rising up against ‘tyrannical dictators’. Weaponize the language and you frame public opinion. It’s so important we become cognizant of all of this for, in truth, ‘Western’ foreign policy has become more ‘totalitarian’ in nature than ‘humanitarian’.

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