Suppose, however, that the Obama administration does decide to arm the rebels directly or with even more supplies: who will get the weapons? Only certified non-Islamists? Will any weapons go to Kurdish nationalists? No. That would anger Turkey. How about to anti-American, anti-Semitic, ruthless Salafist groups who aren’t al-Qaeda but view the al-Qaeda forces as a respected ally?
Would recipients have to sign a pledge that they would not pass weapons to their al-Qaeda allies? What happens when it is proven that American weapons are in the hands of Syrian al-Qaeda? What happens when it is shown that American-provided weapons are used to massacre Christians or Alawites?
So the Obama administration is forced to choose between the following two options:
– Get involved in a civil war in order to place a radical anti-American government in power. Surely it remembers how things didn’t work out so well for its predecessor regarding Iraq, not to mention that the United States is running out of money and the public doesn’t want another new war.
– Stand by and watch the Iranian-led bloc chalk up a victory, at least for a while. U.S. international credibility would take another blow as everyone in the region watched and judged. Hundreds of thousands of people will be killed.
On top of all this, there has been a major riot among Syrian refugees in southern Turkey. Both Turkey and Jordan have been overwhelmed by refugees. A Jordanian recently joked that there are so many such people that the majority of the population in Jordan might soon be Syrian.
There is no good alternative. The Christians, Druze, Alawites, and even some of the urban Sunni middle and upper classes want Assad to win because they are afraid of the Islamists. Yet in strategic terms, the weakening of Tehran and Hizballah by Assad’s fall is by a small margin better for U.S. interests. The official Free Syrian Army and the handpicked exile leadership are of no real importance on the ground, though their doings fill the Western news.
This is the mess faced by the Obama administration. It could have been avoided if the president had understood from the start that he should have supported moderate, not Islamist forces, using covert operations and even helping local warlords and pious Syrian traditionalist forces. Instead, before the civil war broke out he first backed the radical regime in Syria — America’s enemy and Iran’s client state — and then only when the revolt made that stance impossible did he switch to the rebels, empowering the opposition Islamists every step of the way.
But then he didn’t want to do what his predecessors would have done. Curiously, Obama believed that Islamist rule is good because it would moderate the radicals, deter terrorists from attacking America, and make enemies into friends.
In Syria today there is no good choice. No matter which side wins — the Syrian regime as part of the Iranian bloc of Shia Islamists or the rebels as part of the Muslim Brotherhood bloc of Sunni Islamists — the winners will be radical Islamists. In fact, if Assad creates a fortress in the Alawite region of the northwest stretching down to Damascus, it will be both varieties of Islamists simultaneously.
It is a tragedy. I remember when I met a Syrian democratic dissident about three years ago, and as he was leaving to return home he asked me: “Do you think there will ever be real democracy in Syria?” I choked up because I didn’t want to lie to him. He saw my expression and said sadly: “Well, perhaps in my children’s time.”
For a while, hope sprung up that the country might undergo a transformation. The conservative periphery rose up against the centers of power that had so long oppressed it. These people were pious Sunni Muslims angry at decades of a regime that was a combination of secularist dictatorship and Alawite (supposedly Shia Muslim) ethnic domination. They might have found a relatively moderate leadership, as happened in Iraq.