(Updated: A case can be made that the Syrian rebels must not be defeated, because this would represent an Iranian victory. But, and disturbingly, even if one could argue that the rebels must be helped, this would be a policy conducted dishonestly.
Most are not aware that almost all the weapons provided by the United States will end up in the hands of pro-Muslim Brotherhood units. How would the American people feel if they knew that truth? At this point, almost 100 percent of the fighters on the front lines are radical Islamists. The exiled political leadership is overwhelmingly Muslim Brotherhood.
This is a choice of Sunni anti-Christians, anti-Americans, and anti-Semites vs. Shia anti-Christians, anti-Americans, and anti-Semites. The United States — after Egypt and Tunisia — is now promoting the Muslim Brotherhood as regional hegemon. This is not a good idea.)
A new, important development has taken place in the Syrian civil war: Western panic that the rebels are losing has replaced optimism, and this has spurred a desire to do something about the war. But how can the West do enough to prevent the feared rebel defeat? It isn’t going to intervene directly, nor with a large enough effort to stave off a loss. Anyway, is a defeat imminent?
This has been a war during which each week brings a proclamation of a different victor. I don’t believe that the Syrian regime is poised for a victory; a lot of people in Washington and other world capitals do. This round has, however, been different in that significant alarms have been raised in both the West and the Sunni Muslim world that the Shia Muslim side is in fact winning — meaning that Iran is emerging triumphant over the United States.
What are the implications?
Iran is not going to take over the Middle East, nor is it about to win a lot of Sunni followers. Iran’s limit of influence is mainly in Lebanon and Syria (where its ally only controls half the country) and to a lesser extent Iraq. Tehran can fool around in Yemen, Bahrain, and southwest Afghanistan a bit too, but that’s about it. There are real limits.
Why, though, does the Iran bloc seem to be winning? The reasons:
– Iran’s proxies are better organized than the Syrian rebels.
They are unified, with Hizballah and the Syrian government being coherent forces, and a new people’s army being a single militia. In contrast, the rebels are divided into a dozen groups which may cooperate, but which also battle among themselves and don’t coordinate very well.
– The Iran bloc gives more support to its proxies than do the Sunni bloc or the West.
Among the Sunnis, they are also divided into Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists, and al-Qaeda) and what might be called non- or anti-Islamists. The United States will not intervene in a big way. Remember that in Libya, NATO had to hand the rebels victory by destroying their regime enemies. Nothing like this will happen in Syria. The Obama administration will face a defeat rather than do so.
– This means that the United States has worse and weaker proxies than does the other side.
In part, this is because the Obama administration accepted their destruction, as in the dismantlement of the Turkish army’s power, the overthrow of the Egyptian regime, the subverting of Israel’s leverage, and the failure to support moderates or non-Islamist conservatives all over the region. Iraq has also been turned into a Shia power.
In short, Obama helped dismantle the old strategic order and replaced it with one where enemies of America rejoiced.
So what happens if U.S. policy exaggerates a Sunni defeat, intensified by Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan — those who backed the Syrian rebels — begging it to do more?
Let me point out that once again this shows that the Arab-Israeli conflict is unimportant in the contemporary Middle East. This idea simply doesn’t seem to penetrate the brains of Western leaders. Perhaps Secretary of State John Kerry has turned into a full-time “peacemaker” because he thinks that defusing the conflict will shore up the Sunni Muslim side, which is ridiculous. There’s not going to be any progress on peace, if for no other reason than the Palestinian Authority is terrified of either Islamist or Shia Islamist conquest of the region. Even if they wanted to make a deal — and they don’t — they’d be scared off by thinking peacemaking is suicidal.
But the wider issue could convince policymakers to enter an open alliance with Sunnis, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to counter the Shias. The Saudis and others would be pressured to get along with the Muslim Brotherhood; Israel would be pushed not to do anything to disrupt the grand alliance. Again, this could happen, but it won’t work if it does.
There is an alternative: the United States will understand that Israel is just about the only reliable ally in the Middle East. It might take another president to do that.
Other implications of a Syrian government victory:
– It again reminds us that we are in an era characterized by two phenomena: the battle in each country between Islamists and non-Islamists, and the battle between Sunni and Shias. The old Arab nationalist era, extending from 1952 to 2011, is over.
– The United States should recognize that the increasingly repressive Erdogan regime has led it into a mess in Syria. The White House won’t do this, though there are many in the State Department who understand.
– Both Sunni and Shia Islamists are against U.S. interests. U.S. policymakers don’t quite get this.Even if they did, what would they do about it?
– U.S. policy will probably become more favorable to the Muslim Brothers ruling Egypt (lots more military aid) and those wanting to rule Syria: they are becoming increasingly designated as “good guys” by the United States, even though they are becoming more repressive and unpopular.
– The violence is growing in Iraq, where Sunnis are looking at Syria and saying: “We thought we couldn’t win, but maybe we were wrong.” That country might also be destabilized. Ironically, the United States and Iran are both on the same side there, supporting a Shia regime against al-Qaeda.
– The (Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese) Christians, (Iraqi and Syrian) Kurds, and Syrian Druze are increasingly going to look for a protector. The United States will probably ignore them.
– Internal violence is also growing in Lebanon along Sunni-Shia lines. Perhaps the United States should reconsider a strategy which has indirectly supported Hizballah. Indeed, maybe it should consider covert operations to work with the Christians and mainly moderate Sunni Muslims to subvert Hizballah. But it won’t do this, either.
To my knowledge, despite massive coverage of Syria, there has not been one article or even quote in a mass media outlet questioning whether the United States should arm Syrian rebels who are 95 percent Muslim Brotherhood, Salafist Islamists, or al-Qaeda.
There was never any coverage of the idea that the United States should, before the civil war began, try to punish Syria, and — after the civil war began — try to support non-Islamist moderates and Kurds rather than the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the way foreign policy debates are conducted in the United States today. If one raises such questions — like whether there really is a live Israel-Palestinian peace process, or whether U.S. policy should support the overthrow of the Egyptian government, or whether the Turkish regime’s policy is bad for the United States, or about the astonishing number of pro-terrorist American Muslims being consulted and courted by the U.S. government, etc. — you will be blacklisted, and never appear in mass media.
Incredible, but essentially true. We are not talking about outrageous, crackpot positions, but about well-documented arguments and about the most basic policy choices that must be made. These are not even innately partisan issues — for instance, Senator John McCain is a leader in calling for arming the rebels.
Can one say that there is a real foreign policy debate in America anymore, at least concerning the Middle East?