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Rubin Reports

Syria’s Civil War: The Empire Strikes Back

May 6th, 2013 - 3:04 pm

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.

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All Comments   (32)
All Comments   (32)
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By "moderate rebels" do you mean not fully radicalized Islamist's? Dormant Jihadi's? It's an oxymoron: like saying "communist allies" or "Chechen freedom fighters". Freedom from what?
I don't think going from a Syrian despot to a sharia based theocracy is much of a choice.
But I agree with your assessment of Obama's missteps.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
You Americans should "pull a Russian" and supply the weaker of the two forces with weaponry and other supplies to keep them fighting. This means that you will end up supplying both sides over time.

Muslims are only so happy to kill each other--you might encourage that to keep them from attacking USA. The only thing that seems to make them happier than killing each other is killing Americans.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Did you, somewhere in there, call Assad Islamist (regarding two Islamist entities)? In what way did you mean that, or did I misunderstand?
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
We supported a moderate in Iran for a while -- the Shah.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Syria is the next act of the tragedy that started when George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq, or maybe it started when Saddam invaded Kuwait I don't know. But once American troops occupied Iraq they shattered the social fabric of that country and set off a bomb that could not help but shatter the old order of the Middle East. All of the combat experience that the radical Islamists gained fighting the best army in the world every day for several years is now spread into Syria. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps also gained a lot of covert experience in Iraq and are deploying that in Syria today. A very big conflagration will take place some day because of this that will probably end up endangering millions of lives. Thank you George W. Bush.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Sir, I think you mean, "Thank you Bill Clinton for not taking out Osama Bin Laden when you could have. No Osama, no 9/11; no 9/11 no Iraq.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
I find it hard to accept mass graves and terrorist training camps as "the fabric of a society".
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
I find I want to take sides which is only human. Thanks for a penetrating article pointing out why this situation is bad however it comes out. All I would add is that based on what you have said in general about moderate democratic forces in the middle east it would have been a stretch to have effectively supported them in either Egypt or Syria. I think Obama is dead wrong supporting the MB in the hopes that it will moderate in power. [He has perhaps;-)] I agree that Iraq for all its problems has emerged with a reasonably moderate and democratic government by Middle East standards - so it is possible. I don't think the Democrats in the US can see the positive lessons learned in Iraq - they don't think there are any - and are about to preside over a disaster because of it.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Professor Rubin,

Why hasn't America been able to identify an assembly of Syrian (and for that matter Egyptian or Iranian) moderates, and provided them with economic and security support to host a free and democratic election for a Constitutional Convention in their defined borders?

During the American Revolution, France was a Super Power that helped America in that way to gain independence from the tyranny of England, and France was first to recognize the independence of the American Colonies (of course, the British Empire was breathing down their own neck).

Are true moderates such a miniscule minority in Syria, Iran, and Egypt, that nobody there is actually worthy of democratic support (like Sodom and Gomorrah, which lacked even ten righteous citizens)?
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Couldn't agree more with FeralCat on this one. Don't make Bashir Al-Assad into some kind of folk hero. He may be more rich playboy than dedicated Muslim, but he was a brutal, Jew hating, dictator whose hands were strung to the puppeteer's wires. Iran lets him play moderate so long as he helps push the anti-Israel message in the UN. Stay out of it unless they directly attack Israel directly.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Sorry, Mr. Rubin, but you are not winning me over to the "moderate rebel" faction in the current Syrian civil war, because I see no convincing evidence of the existence of any such faction. There is nobody to safely hand arms to over there. And if B. Hussein chooses to do so, I want him to explain to the American people whom he is arming and what does he reasonably expect us to gain from it. ... But of course that will never happen, because Obama, well into his second and final term, has NO intention of governing from the top.

Thus, final analysis, I do not back sending anything more powerful than a pea-shooter to Syria. Rather: arm Israel, because a big fight is surely coming.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
---- "Obama previously stated that the government’s use of nerve gas was a “red line” that would trigger escalated American intervention. Once the U.S. government admitted that nerve gas had been used, however, he said that the international community would have to reach the same conclusion before he would do anything."

Yeah, he's just quite the Abe Lincoln, ain't he?
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
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