The West’s abandonment of moderates, helped to boost extremists
* Reuters: As the Syrian civil war got under way, Omar, a former electrician, built up a brigade of rebel fighters. In two years of struggle against President Assad, they came to number 2,000 men, in the northern city of Aleppo. Then, virtually overnight, they collapsed.
Omar’s group wasn’t defeated by the government. It was dismantled by a rival band of revolutionaries - hardline Islamists. The Islamists moved against them at the beginning of May. After three days of sporadic clashes Omar’s more moderate fighters caved in and dispersed, according to local residents. Omar said the end came swiftly… It’s a pattern repeated elsewhere in the country.
* Michael Totten: “We Arabs,” the late Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi once said, “are not a warring people. We are a feuding people.” That’s generally true. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict looks far more like a Northern Ireland–style feud than a real war of the sort that tore apart the former Yugoslavia. The same goes for the chronic yet sporadic clashes in parts of Yemen, Libya, and Lebanon.
The civil war in Syria, though, is different. It is an existential fight to the death. It’s a real war with a real body count that already exceeds the butcher’s bill from the Bosnian war. What could have been a bloody but short Libyan-style revolution to oust the tyrant Bashar al-Assad has instead metastasized into a grotesque sectarian war.
Jabhat al-Nusra, which the United States recently designated a terrorist organization, didn’t exist a year ago. Then, the fight was between the Free Syrian Army and what was left of the regular Syrian army. The West’s lack of action has created it.
* Charles Krauthammer: The war in Syria, started by locals, is now a regional conflict, the meeting ground of two warring blocs. On one side, the radical Shiite bloc led by Iran… And on the other side are the Sunni Gulf states terrified of Iranian hegemony (territorial and soon nuclear)… And behind them? No one. It’s the Spanish Civil War except that only one side – the fascists – showed up. The natural ally of what began as a spontaneous, secular, liberationist uprising in Syria was the United States. For two years, it did nothing.
* Iran and Russia, hardly believing their luck, reached for regional dominance – the ayatollahs solidifying their “Shiite crescent,” Vladimir Putin seizing the opportunity to dislodge America as regional hegemon, a position the United States achieved four decades ago under Henry Kissinger.
* Serious policymaking would dictate that we either do something that will alter the course of the war, or do nothing. Instead, Obama has chosen to do just enough to give the appearance of having done something… Obama is learning very late that, for a superpower, inaction is a form of action.
This is another in a series of dispatches on the Syrian war.
I attach three pieces below, and a video. Charles Krauthammer and Michael Totten are subscribers to this list.
You can comment on this dispatch here: www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia. Please also press “Like” on that page.
-- Tom Gross
1. “America sidelined, barely relevant” (By Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, June 20, 2013)
2. “Special Report: Syria’s Islamists seize control as moderates dither” (Reuters, June 19, 2013)
3. “Syria’s Endgame: Prospects Dim, Options Narrow” (By Michael Totten, World Affairs Journal, July 2013)
Tom Gross adds:
The rebels do appear to be getting hold of more arms from elsewhere. For example, this video from Friday (June 21) appears to show a Chinese-made HJ-8 2nd generation anti-tank guided missile system being used by Syrian rebels.
OBAMA IS LEARNING VERY LATE THAT, FOR A SUPERPOWER, INACTION IS A FORM OF ACTION
America sidelined, barely relevant
By Charles Krauthammer
June 20, 2013
The war in Syria, started by locals, is now a regional conflict, the meeting ground of two warring blocs. On one side, the radical Shiite bloc led by Iran, which overflies Iraq to supply Bashar al-Assad and sends Hezbollah to fight for him. Behind them lies Russia, which has stationed ships offshore, provided the regime with tons of weaponry and essentially claimed Syria as a Russian protectorate.
And on the other side are the Sunni Gulf states terrified of Iranian hegemony (territorial and soon nuclear); non-Arab Turkey, now convulsed by an internal uprising; and fragile Jordan, dragged in by geography.
And behind them? No one. It’s the Spanish Civil War except that only one side – the fascists – showed up. The natural ally of what began as a spontaneous, secular, liberationist uprising in Syria was the United States. For two years, it did nothing.
President Obama’s dodge was his chemical-weapons “red line.” In a conflict requiring serious statecraft, Obama chose to practice forensics instead, earnestly agonizing over whether reported poison gas attacks reached the evidentiary standards of “CSI: Miami.”
Obama talked “chain of custody,” while Iran and Russia, hardly believing their luck, reached for regional dominance – the ayatollahs solidifying their “Shiite crescent,” Vladimir Putin seizing the opportunity to dislodge America as regional hegemon, a position the United States achieved four decades ago under Henry Kissinger.
And when finally forced to admit that his red line had been crossed – a “game changer,” Obama had gravely warned – what did he do? Promise the rebels small arms and ammunition.
That’s it? It’s meaningless: The rebels are already receiving small arms from the Gulf states.
Compounding the halfheartedness, Obama transmitted his new “calculus” through his deputy national security adviser. Deputy, mind you. Obama gave 39 (or was it 42?) speeches on health-care reform. How many on the regional war in Syria, in which he has now involved the United States, however uselessly? Zero.
Serious policymaking would dictate that we either do something that will alter the course of the war, or do nothing. Instead, Obama has chosen to do just enough to give the appearance of having done something.
But it gets worse. Despite his commitment to steadfast inaction, Obama has been forced by events to send F-16s, Patriot missiles and a headquarters unit of the 1st Armored Division (indicating preparation for a possible “larger force,” explains The Washington Post) – to Jordan.
America’s most reliable Arab ally needs protection. It is threatened not just by a flood of refugees but also by the rise of Iran’s radical Shiite bloc with ambitions far beyond Syria, beyond even Jordan and Lebanon to Yemen, where, it was reported just Wednesday, Iran is arming and training separatists.
Obama has thus been forced back into the very vacuum he created – but at a distinct disadvantage. We are now scrambling to put together some kind of presence in Jordan as a defensive counterweight to the Iran-Hezbollah-Russia bloc.
The tragedy is that we once had a counterweight and Obama threw it away. Obama still thinks the total evacuation of Iraq is a foreign policy triumph. In fact, his inability – unwillingness? – to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement that would have left behind a small but powerful residual force in Iraq is precisely what compels him today to re-create in Jordan a pale facsimile of that regional presence.
Whatever the wisdom of the Iraq war in the first place, when Obama came to office in January 2009 the war was won. Al-Qaeda in Iraq had been routed. Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite government had taken down the Sadr Shiite extremists from Basra all the way north to Baghdad. Casualties were at a wartime low; the civil war essentially over.
We had a golden opportunity to reap the rewards of this too-bloody war by establishing a strategic relationship with an Iraq that was still under American sway. Iraqi airspace, for example, was under U.S. control as we prepared to advise and rebuild Iraq’s nonexistent air force.
With our evacuation, however, Iraqi airspace today effectively belongs to Iran – over which it is flying weapons, troops and advisers to turn the tide in Syria. The U.S. air bases, the vast military equipment, the intelligence sources available in Iraq were all abandoned. Gratis. Now we’re trying to hold the line in Jordan.
Obama is learning very late that, for a superpower, inaction is a form of action. You can abdicate, but you really can’t hide. History will find you. It has now found Obama.
SYRIA’S ISLAMISTS SEIZE CONTROL AS MODERATES DITHER
Special Report: Syria’s Islamists seize control as moderates dither
By Oliver Holmes and Alexander Dziadosz
June 19, 2013
ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) - As the Syrian civil war got under way, a former electrician who calls himself Sheikh Omar built up a brigade of rebel fighters. In two years of struggle against President Bashar al-Assad, they came to number 2,000 men, he said, here in the northern city of Aleppo. Then, virtually overnight, they collapsed.
Omar’s group, Ghurabaa al-Sham, wasn’t defeated by the government. It was dismantled by a rival band of revolutionaries - hardline Islamists.
The Islamists moved against them at the beginning of May. After three days of sporadic clashes Omar’s more moderate fighters, accused by the Islamists of looting, caved in and dispersed, according to local residents. Omar said the end came swiftly.
The Islamists confiscated the brigade’s weapons, ammunition and cars, Omar said. “They considered this war loot. Maybe they think we are competitors,” he said. “We have no idea about their goals. What we have built in two years disappeared in a single day.”
The group was effectively marginalized in the struggle to overthrow Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Around 100 fighters are all that remain of his force, Omar said.
It’s a pattern repeated elsewhere in the country. During a 10-day journey through rebel-held territory in Syria, Reuters journalists found that radical Islamist units are sidelining more moderate groups that do not share the Islamists’ goal of establishing a supreme religious leadership in the country.
The moderates, often underfunded, fragmented and chaotic, appear no match for Islamist units, which include fighters from organizations designated “terrorist” by the United States.
The Islamist ascendancy has amplified the sectarian nature of the war between Sunni Muslim rebels and the Shi’ite supporters of Assad. It also presents a barrier to the original democratic aims of the revolt and calls into question whether the United States, which announced practical support for the rebels last week, can ensure supplies of weapons go only to groups friendly to the West.
World powers fear weapons could reach hardline Islamist groups that wish to create an Islamic mini-state within a crescent of rebel-held territory from the Mediterranean in the west to the desert border with Iraq.
That prospect is also alarming for many in Syria, from minority Christians, Alawites and Shi’ites to tolerant Sunni Muslims, who are concerned that this alliance would try to impose Taliban-style rule.
REPROBATES AND OUTLAWS
Syria’s war began with peaceful protests against Assad in March 2011 and turned into an armed rebellion a few months later following a deadly crackdown. Most of the rebel groups in Syria were formed locally and have little coordination with others. The country is dotted with bands made up of army defectors, farmers, engineers and even former criminals.
Many pledge allegiance to the notion of a unified Free Syrian Army (FSA). But on the ground there is little evidence to suggest the FSA actually exists as a body at all.
Sheikh Omar told the story of his brigade while sitting in a cramped room at his headquarters, a small one-storey building surrounded by olive tree fields in Aleppo province. Wrapped around his chest he wore a leather bandolier that held two pistols, grips pointing outwards, ready to be drawn by crossing his arms.
He said he was from a poor background in rural Aleppo province. When he and a handful of others had started a rebel group to oppose Assad, fear had made it hard to recruit. The rich and law-abiding were scared. Only outlaws and reprobates would join him at first.
“We were looking for good people. But who was willing to work for me and help me? Those who used to go to bars, to fight with people and steal. Those are the people who allied with me and fought against the regime.” As he spoke some of his remaining fighters tried to interject; he silenced them, saying he wanted to be honest.
Ghurabaa al-Sham started with modest aims, Omar said. They would enter small police stations and negotiate a handover of weapons in return for free passage out of the area for the police.
But their numbers grew to 2,000 men, he said, and they fought battles to take border posts with Turkey and were one of the first rebel brigades to move into Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city with 2.5 million inhabitants.
More than half of the city fell to the rebels, but Assad’s army pushed back, fighting street by street for months. A stalemate ensued. Very little progress has been made from either side for almost a year.
Where the government forces did cede ground, Aleppo’s residents did not welcome the rebels with open arms. Most fighters were poor rural people from the countryside and the residents of Aleppo say they stole. Omar acknowledged this happened.
“Our members in Aleppo were stealing openly. Others stole everything and were taking Syria’s goods to sell outside the country. I was against any bad action committed by Ghurabaa al-Sham. However, things happened and opinion turned against us,” he said as his men squirmed in their seats, uncomfortable with his words.
Ghurabaa al-Sham was not the only group to take the law into its own hands. In Salqin, a town in Idlib province bordering Turkey, fighters from a rebel brigade called the Falcons of Salqin have set up checkpoints at the entrances to the town.
Abu Naim Jamjoom, deputy commander of the brigade, said the rebels take a cut of any produce - food, fuel or other merchandise - that enters Salqin. The goods are distributed to the town’s residents, he said, but some rebel groups steal this “tax” for themselves.
Part of the problem is that the rebel groups are poorly equipped and badly coordinated. Jamjoom said he had 45 men with guns and two homemade mortar launchers but was desperately low on ammunition. “Everything we have has been looted from the regime,” he said, echoing the response of most rebel commanders when asked if they have received any outside support.
Jamjoom, who wore a blue camouflaged outfit and kept a grenade in his left pocket, said he had registered his group with the Supreme Military Council, a body set up by the U.S.-backed Syrian National Coalition of opposition groups to help coordinate rebel units.
“We haven’t received any help from the military council,” Jamjoom said, drinking sweet tea on the balcony of his headquarters, the house of a pro-Assad dignitary who had fled the area. “We have to depend on ourselves. I am my own mother, you could say.”
He tugged at his uniform. “I bought this myself, with my money,” he said. He also said his group buys weapons from other brigades, “from those who have extra.” Weapons trading by rebel groups raises the risk that arms supplied by Western powers may fall into the hands of Islamist groups.
Western officials say military aid will be channeled through the Supreme Military Council. A Western security source told Reuters the council is trying to gain credibility, but as yet it has little or no authority.
Meanwhile, Jamjoom and his men were largely staying around Salqin, low on ammunition and low on energy. Inside the mansion they have commandeered, rebels lazed about on the gaudy fake-gold furniture in a room full of books, including religious texts and a copy of “The Oxford Companion to English Literature.”
The Islamists are more energetic and better organized. The main two hardline groups to emerge in Syria are Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda offshoot that has claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide bombings, including several in Damascus in which civilians were killed.
But Islamist fighters, dressed in black cotton with long Sunni-style beards, have developed a reputation for being principled. Dozens of residents living in areas of rebel-held territory across northern Syria told Reuters the same thing, whether they agreed with the politics of Jabhat al-Nusra or not: the Islamists do not steal.
Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who researches Islamic militants, said the main reason groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham have become popular is because of the social provisions they supply. “They are fair arbiters and not corrupt.”
In Aleppo four Islamist brigades, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, have taken over the role of government and are providing civilians with day-to-day necessities. They have also created a court based on Islamic religious laws, or sharia.
The Aleppans call it “the Authority” and it governs anything from crimes of murder and rape to business disputes and distributing bread and water around the city. The power of such courts is growing, Authority members and rebels said, and is enforced by a body called the “Revolutionary Military Police.”
At the police’s headquarters, a five-storey building surrounded with sandbags, a large placard outside read: “Syrian Islamic Liberation Front.” It referred to a union of several Islamist brigades, forged in October 2012, which seeks to bring together disparate fighting groups. Its Islamist emphasis has already alienated some other fighters.
The head of the Aleppo branch of the Revolutionary Military Police, Abu Ahmed Rahman, comes from Liwa al-Tawhid, the largest rebel force in Aleppo. Ostensibly al-Tawhid has pledged its support for the U.S.-recognized Syrian National Coalition, but its role in the Authority alongside Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra shows an alliance with more radical groups.
As Rahman sat at a large desk on the ground floor, people rushed in and out, asking him to stamp and sign documents. He said that the worst problem the police had encountered so far was with Ghurabaa al-Sham, who had clashed with a sub-division of Liwa al-Tahwid for control of Aleppo’s industrial city, a complex of factories and office blocks sprawling over 4,000 hectares on the north-east outskirts of the city.
“Ghurabaa al-Sham fighters were annoying people, looting,” he said. The industrial area offered plenty of plunder. Residents of Aleppo said rebels found machinery and equipment in the factories that could be sold in Turkey.
Rahman said the Authority summoned Ghurabaa al-Sham to a hearing but they didn’t show up. “Then all the brigades went to get them. Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel units,” he said.
Abu Baraa, an employee at the Authority, said: “We gathered a lot of people with guns and everything. We went to the industrial city and we arrested everyone who was there. Then we did the interrogation. Those who did not steal were set free, and the others were put in prison.
“Before this Sharia Authority, every brigade did whatever it wanted. Now they have to ask for everything. We are in charge now, God willing. We are the supervisors. If you do something wrong, you will be punished.”
A POWER STRUGGLE
Members of Ghurabaa al-Sham gave a different version of events and have a different world view. “Why is the Sharia Authority allowed to control us? We didn’t elect them,” said Abdul-Fatah al-Sakhouri, who works in the media center for Ghurabaa al-Sham, an old taxi station in Aleppo where he and some other fighters upload videos of battles against the Syrian army onto YouTube.
Al-Sakhouri, previously a mathematics teacher, said the head of the Ghurabaa al-Sham unit in the industrial city had gone to the Authority to sort out the dispute. “Commander Hassan Jazera was there for three hours and then left. It shows that they didn’t arrest him and there were no real charges against us,” he said.
The dispute, Ghurabaa al-Sham fighters said, was really about power. They said their brigade, made up of fighters ranging from Islamists to secularists but all in favor of a civilian state, was not part of the Islamist alliance formed between Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and Liwa al-Tawhid.
Another member of Ghurbaa al-Sham, who called himself Omar, said the Islamist alliance wanted to weaken his group because it disagrees with Islamist ideology and seeks democracy.
Illustrating his fear of Islamist cultural restrictions, Omar said he was a fan of the American heavy metal band Metallica and pulled out a mobile phone to show a Metallica music video. The 24-year-old said Syrian businessmen once promised millions of dollars to bring Metallica to Aleppo but, in the end, the government rejected the plan.
“Jabhat al-Nusra wouldn’t want this either,” he said.
So far the Islamist groups have been the ones to attract outside support, mostly from private Sunni Muslim backers in Saudi Arabia, according to fighters in Syria.
With the help of battle-hardened Sunni Iraqis, these groups have been able to gain recruits. “They had military capabilities. They are actually organized and have command and control,” said Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
As moderate rebel groups dithered, so did their backers outside the country. Bickering among the political opposition, a collection of political exiles who have spent many years outside Syria, also presented a problem for the United States about whether there would be a coherent transition to a new government if Assad fell.
But most importantly, Western powers fear that if weapons are delivered to Syrian rebels, there would be few guarantees they would not end up with radical Islamist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, who might one day use them against Western interests.
The moderates are losing ground. In many parts of rebel-held Aleppo, the red, black and green revolutionary flag which represents more moderate elements has been replaced with the black Islamic flag. Small shops selling black headbands, conservative clothing and black balaclavas have popped up around the city and their business is booming.
Reuters met several Islamist fighters who had left more moderate rebel brigades for hardline groups. One member of Ahrar al-Sham, who would only speak on condition of anonymity, said: “I used to be with the Free Syrian Army but they were always thinking about what they wanted to do in future. I wanted to fight oppression now.”
SYRIA’S ENDGAME: PROSPECTS DIM, OPTIONS NARROW
Syria’s Endgame: Prospects Dim, Options Narrow
By Michael J. Totten
World Affairs Journal
“We Arabs,” the late Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi once said to me in Beirut, “are not a warring people. We are a feuding people.” That’s generally true. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict looks far more like a Northern Ireland–style feud than a real war of the sort that tore apart the former Yugoslavia. The same goes for the chronic yet sporadic clashes in parts of Yemen, Libya, and Lebanon.
The civil war in Syria, though, is different. It is an existential fight to the death. It’s a real war with a real body count that already exceeds the butcher’s bill from the Bosnian war. What could have been a bloody but short Libyan-style revolution to oust the tyrant Bashar al-Assad has instead metastasized into a grotesque sectarian war between the Sunni Muslim majority and the ruling Alawite minority. And what could have been a major blow for the West in its cold war against Iran – Syria is Iran’s only state-sized ally in the Middle East – has instead morphed in part into a protracted red-on-red fight between an anti-American state sponsor of terrorism and the anti-American jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, which is fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army against Assad.
It’s not always true that the devil we know beats the devil we don’t. Last summer I wrote in these pages that the United States should back the Free Syrian Army against Assad’s government. What, I asked at the time, were we worried about? “That Syria will become a state sponsor of terrorism? That it will be hostile to the US and to Israel? That it will be a repressive dictatorship that jails and murders thousands of people? That it will be an ally of Iran, our principal enemy in the region? Syria is already all of those things.”
Jabhat al-Nusra, which the United States recently designated a terrorist organization, didn’t exist at the time. Then, the fight was between the Free Syrian Army and what was left of the regular Syrian army. The United States could have armed, funded, and trained the FSA and done its best to ensure that assistance flowed only to the opposition’s moderate and secular factions, thereby drastically increasing the odds that whatever order emerges after regime change would be friendly or at least not actively hostile to the West.
Instead, as we stood back and allowed a vacuum to occur, governments on the Arabian Peninsula got involved in Syria and backed their own proxies. And they’re giving money and guns to bearded jihadists instead of to secular and moderate forces. “In the absence of Western involvement,” says Eli Khoury, co-founder of the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation, “that’s how it works. Washington shouldn’t make the mistake of dropping its support for liberals, moderates, and minorities in the Middle East. Because what you’re going to get instead, if you do, is something you are really going to hate. You’ll have one, two, or even three additional Irans. Where is that going to take everybody?”
It’s not too late to arm politically and religiously moderate Syrians opposed to the government, but it’s getting close. Jabhat al-Nusra is not part of the Free Syrian Army. They’re separate organizations. But as they’ve long said in the Middle East, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The FSA and Jabhat al-Nusra are currently fighting shoulder-to-shoulder, but the alliance is temporary. They’ll fight each other when Assad falls. Think of it like the United States teaming up with the Soviet Union to fight Nazi Germany, only to face each other in a cold war for the next four and a half decades.
But if FSA fighters had been armed, funded, trained, and politically backed by the United States from the very beginning, they would have had no need to work with al-Nusra. The war could have been finished by now. Al-Nusra would have had no time to grow. Syria would not have become a magnet attracting freelance jihadists from all over the region who are always on the lookout for times and places like this to show their stuff.
But that’s not what happened. We failed to clinch with the Free Syrian Army. Now we face a much greater likelihood that the new Syria will be ruled, or at the very least severely destabilized, by Islamist fanatics with guns. The Obama administration recently announced that it will increase aid to Syrian rebels, but it’s still not clear if weapons and ammunition will be part of the package. At least for now, the US appears to remain more or less on the sidelines while prospects continue to dim.
Assad is doing everything he can to turn the revolution into a sectarian war between Sunnis and Alawites. He needs this war to be an existential fight to the death to keep his allies on his side. His family, his clan, and nearly all his loyalists in the army, the intelligence agencies, and on the streets are at least nominal Alawites, a heterodox religious minority that makes up only twelve or so percent of Syria’s population, who for a thousand years have been considered infidels by Sunnis.
The Sunnis, by contrast – along with the substantial Syrian Christian, Kurdish, and Druze minorities – have been ruled by the Assad family’s totalitarian Soviet-style regime for decades. There isn’t room enough in the country for everyone anymore. Members and supporters of the Free Syrian Army will be jailed, murdered, and tortured to death if they lose. And the Alawites – even the powerless innocents who have nothing to do with the government – fear being driven from the country or at least persecuted should the Sunnis seize power and go on a bloody revenge binge.
Transforming a revolution into a sectarian war is Assad’s internal strategy. His external strategy from the very beginning was to make the rest of the world think he’s fighting an anti-terrorist war.
Ever since former US President George W. Bush pulled the trigger on Iraq, Assad has feared that he’s next. (That’s why he did his worst to destabilize post–Saddam Hussein Iraq by sending al-Qaeda terrorists over the border to blow up Americans and murder Iraqis.) And since current US President Barack Obama helped topple Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, Assad had every reason to believe that he’sstill next once the uprising against him began. So he tried to frame the Syrian revolution as a war between a secular reformist government and al-Qaeda before the Free Syrian Army – let alone Jabhat al-Nusra – even existed, before the opposition had fired even one single shot, when Assad’s own armed forces massacred peaceful protesters who asked for nothing more than reform. He even staged scenes on television to look like terrorist attacks because that’s what he needed.
“It’s exactly the same thing the Syrian regime did in Lebanon,” says Chatham House scholar Nadim Shehadi. “It’s a mind game. If you want to beat Assad, you have to disassociate yourself from his make-believe reality just as he has disassociated himself from everyone else’s. Listen to his speeches. They have no bearing on the real world. None at all. But people believe him. That’s the mind game. TheWashington Post wrote that he’s strong because they listened to his speech and he sounded strong. There are idiot journalists in the West who will go to Aleppo, meet a guy with a beard who says he’s going to start an emirate, and they’ll put it in a headline.”
The trouble, of course, is that jihadists really are active in Syria now. This conflict has gone on for so long that Assad’s mind game about making a stand against terror groups has actually become part of reality. It’s not the whole story, but it’s part of it.
I spent much of February and March in Beirut. Almost every single person I interviewed thinks Assad won the mind game and that the White House is allied with Damascus. “The United States has more soft power in the region than before,” Shehadi says, “but you’re going to lose it in Syria because Barack Obama is seen as a supporter of Bashar al-Assad.”
Mosbah Ahdab, a former member of Parliament from Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli, put it to me this way when I met him for lunch: “Assad is receiving arms from Iran and Russia and the Nusra extremists are receiving arms from the Gulf. Why shouldn’t the Free Syrian Army receive weapons? Everybody here is wondering what’s going on.”
The truth is that Washington is just cautious. The Obama administration is horrified by the prospect of another war such as the one in Iraq and only joined the war in Libya because Europe led from in front and Qaddafi didn’t have any friends. Assad has powerful friends in Lebanon and Iran. Widening the war could set the whole region ablaze, especially if Iran and Hezbollah decide to drag in the Israelis, which could be accomplished in all of ten minutes. The US is also afraid of the Syrian aftermath and seems to have no idea what it should do.
Samy Gemayel, son of Lebanon’s former President Amine Gemayel and a current member of Parliament, senses Washington’s confusion. “Before you can know what to do,” he told me in his office in Lebanon’s mountains above Beirut, “you have to know what you want.”
The way he sees it, the US has three strategic options in the region.
First, support the status quo regimes.
Second, support change. “Put your money on the democratic process that could evolve after a period of instability,” he says. “It’s risky. After decades of dictatorship, things can’t evolve rapidly into stable democracy after just one or two years. It takes time to build a real democratic system that puts moderate people in charge. Extremists always take the lead after dictators fall. So this is a long-term option.”
The third strategy, he says, “is to look at the social tissue of these countries and determine if they’re even viable. And if they are not, you partition the region.”
The first option isn’t really an option, at least not in Syria. The US can’t back Assad. He’s a sworn enemy of Americans and a state sponsor of terrorism.
The third option isn’t realistic either. The United States is not going to redraw the map of the Middle East the way the British and French did in the early twentieth century.
Doing nothing likewise isn’t an option. Superpowers can’t do nothing at all when their interests are at stake, not even superpowers with instinctive non-interventionists as president.
“Americans need to decide which strategy they want,” Gemayel says. “Maybe Washington wants a different strategy in each country. But in order to know what you should do, you need to know what you want. If you don’t know what you want, you won’t know what to do. But if you have a strategy and you know where you want to be in twenty years, you’ll know exactly how to deal with someone like Assad.”
The only logical option for the US of those Gemayel lays out is the second – support change. Figuring out how to proceed isn’t rocket science.
Here are two ways:
The first is to go all in and back the moderate elements of the Free Syrian Army right now. Give them guns, training, air support, or some combination. It’s risky, of course, and there are trade-offs. Hezbollah and Iran might escalate. Some American aid would almost certainly end up in the hands of bad actors who will later use it against us and our friends no matter how careful we are. It’s not obvious who’s who in the field right now. But the advantage of such a forthright move is that the anti-Assad phase of the war will wrap up more quickly. Syria will spend less time functioning as a terrorist magnet, and Jabhat al-Nusra will have less time to gain traction and become a formidable post-Assad force.
The second option is to wait for Assad to fall and then back the Free Syrian Army. Everyone in Syria knows the moderate elements of the anti-Assad opposition will clash with the Islamists when the government falls. At that time it will be easy to separate the Islamists from everyone else because the Islamists will be fighting everyone else.
If we go with the second option, Jabhat al-Nusra is not at all likely to take over Syria. The entire country – the Alawites, the Christians, the Druze, the Kurds, the liberal Sunnis, the moderate Sunnis, the nationalist Sunnis, the mainstream conservative Sunnis, and the tribes in the hinterlands – will be against them. And if the West backs all of those factions, that’s it. It’s all over for Jabhat al-Nusra. They’ll be able to blow things up and wreak havoc, for sure, but they will not rule.
And the United States can gain back some of the soft power and moral authority we’re losing right now in the region. Those angry with us for our de facto support of Assad and for our de facto support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will see the United States on their side for a change.
“Assad will fall,” says Jean-Pierre Katrib, a Beirut-based university lecturer and human rights activist. “This is the course of history. Even the Soviet Union, with all its robust organization and rigid infrastructure, only lasted for seven decades. No oppressive regime can forever resist the tide of history which has been moving toward greater freedom and representation. That may sound too philosophical or naïve, but that’s how I see it. Post-Assad Syria won’t be democratic, however. That will take time. It’s going to be messy.”
He’s right, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves. Post-Assad Syria will be a disaster. There is no getting around it. Just look at the last Arab country the West intervened in. Libya has a serious problem with Islamists and terrorists, but at least they aren’t ruling the country as they were in northern Mali before the French intervened. What would we rather see? A post-Assad Syria that looks like a messier version of Libya? Or a post-Assad Syria that looks like Mali did last year?
“A lot depends on the ability of the international community to shape the next Syrian government,” says Edward Gabriel, the former US ambassador to Morocco and co-founder of the American Task Force for Lebanon. “The US has warned the opposition that the sanctions imposed on the Assad government will remain in place if the opposition assumes power and behaves vindictively toward minorities. The opposition is not happy with the US because of perceived lack of support, but if the US and its allies can more proactively support the opposition and help shape the new Syria, a moderate, religiously tolerant Syria could result.”
“You have to remember,” the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation’s Eli Khoury says, “that liberals are the largest minority. They’re a solid minority and it would be dumb to leave them by themselves, especially when, if allied to the other minorities, they make up a sizable proportion of people.”
It might not work out. Anything can happen in the Middle East, and good initiatives fail on a regular basis, but we should be careful not to learn the wrong lessons from history. Post-Assad Syria may fall apart like post-Hussein Iraq, but it is not destined to do so.
“Iraq was not a defeat,” Chatham House scholar Shehadi says. “It was a victory for the US. Saddam Hussein crumbled like that. The United States was not only fighting Iraq in Iraq. Every regime in the region, including American allies, fought the United States in Iraq. When Assad is gone, the key difference between post-Assad Syria and post-Saddam Iraq is that the whole region was against the fall of Saddam and the whole region favors the fall of Assad. The whole region contributed to the mess in Iraq, while the whole region will collaborate to stabilize Syria.”
Or almost the whole region: Iran will always play a spoiler’s role. But Shehadi’s point is still valid. We don’t have to choose the devil we know or the devil we don’t in Syria. We might get stuck with one or the other, but if we cross our fingers and do everything right, we may well end up with neither.