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Belmont Club

The New Middle East

July 23rd, 2012 - 12:00 pm

Washington has finally convinced itself that the Syrian regime is doomed and that its plan to shape the post-Assad outcome through the UN is, and perhaps always was, a fantasy. However, the administration is still trying to limit its involvement to diplomacy, including efforts to close airspace to reinforcements bound for Damascus and working with a wide spectrum of Syrians through NGOs.

For his own part, Assad is fighting for time to create an Allawite rump state on the Mediterranean coast; a bastion to which he, the Russians and the Iranians can cling and from which he can continue to support Hezbollah. That brood is now in disarray, like a colony of ants with a dead queen. Reports from Lebanon suggest that the Shi’ites who supported Hezbollah despite loathing its politics now fear they will be left adrift in a Middle East once again riven with sectarian conflict.

The New York Times describes the administration’s rude awakening. “The Obama administration has for now abandoned efforts for a diplomatic settlement to the conflict in Syria, and instead it is increasing aid to the rebels and redoubling efforts to rally a coalition of like-minded countries to forcibly bring down the government of President Bashar al-Assad, American officials say.”

The White House is now holding daily high-level meetings to discuss a broad range of contingency plans — including safeguarding Syria’s vast chemical weapons arsenal and sending explicit warnings to both warring sides to avert mass atrocities — in a sign of the escalating seriousness of the Syrian crisis following a week of intensified fighting in Damascus, the capital, and the killing of Mr. Assad’s key security aides in a bombing attack …

Administration officials insist they will not provide arms to the rebel forces. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already financing those efforts. But American officials said that the United States would provide more communications training and equipment to help improve the combat effectiveness of disparate opposition forces in their widening, sustained fight against Syrian Army troops. It’s also possible the rebels would receive some intelligence support, the officials said.

The Wall Street Journal has additional details. “The U.S. has been mounting a secret but limited effort to speed the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad without using force, scrambling spies and diplomats to block arms and oil shipments from Iran and passing intelligence to front-line allies.”

A centerpiece of the effort this year focused on getting Iraq to close its airspace to Iran-to-Syria flights that U.S. intelligence concluded were carrying arms for Assad loyalists—contrary to flight manifests saying they held cut flowers. The U.S. has also tried to keep ships believed to carry arms and fuel for Syria from traversing the Suez Canal, with mixed results …

Skeptics within the Obama administration and on Capitol Hill, however, say U.S. pressure is hit-or-miss and comes too late to ensure U.S. influence over any post-Assad future. Many Syrian opposition leaders complain the U.S. hasn’t done enough and say the efforts of regional allies such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, in some cases to ship arms, are more significant.

And of course, the administration is continuing to work through the moderates by inviting them to seminars to talk about the post-Assad successor state(s). “For the last six months, 40 senior representatives of various Syrian opposition groups have been meeting quietly in Germany under the tutelage of the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) to plan for how to set up a post-Assad Syrian government. The project, which has not directly involved U.S. government officials but was partially funded by the State Department, is gaining increased relevance this month as the violence in Syria spirals out of control and hopes for a peaceful transition of power fade away.”

The project has also tried to identify regime personnel who might be able to play an effective role in the immediate phase after Assad falls.

“There’s a very clear understanding of the Syrians in this project that a transition is not sweeping away of the entire political and judicial framework of Syria,” Heydemann said. “We have learned an enormous amount about the participants so that we can actually begin a very crude vetting process.”

There is always the danger that any Syrian opposition leader with the time to attend seminars in Germany is by definition a nobody in the Syrian opposition on the ground. Just who the State Department winds up influencing remains to be seen. Events in Syria are now being managed through the latest version of our old policy friend, “leading from behind”.

The administration is understandably reluctant to get involved in leading from the front in Syria. “In the past, White House and State Department officials have said they are reluctant to send weapons to the rebel fighters because the weapons could end up in the hands of extremist groups or even terrorist organizations. In an interview Friday, Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said 25 percent of the opposition has ‘extremist ties.’”

But that doesn’t mean that Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar will be similarly restrained. Those countries may not be as shy handing out weapons to those with extremist ties, and in fact may be giving the goodies to precisely those sorts of people.

Lee Smith
writes that what those who opposed the US involvement in Iraq ultimately proved is that sectarian loyalties trump any loyalties to the central government. Assad wanted to make a special point of it by supporting the Sunni insurgency against Baghdad. And in one of ironies of history, the very same Sunni sectarians are marching on Damascus.

By facilitating the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, Bashar hoped to show Syrians what lay in store for them should they embrace the Americans’ freedom agenda—not democracy but civil war. Instead, what Assad’s policy illuminated for Sunni Arabs was the sectarian nature of the region. No matter how much the Assad regime waved the banner of Arab nationalism and cursed Israel, the Sunnis’ most pressing hostility was with the minority clique that they decided, on reflection, had no right to rule them. By the time Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans had moved to topple their regimes in the spring of 2011, the Iraq war had already primed Syria’s Sunni population for a much bloodier conflict than any of the other Arab Spring countries experienced.

It’s hard to grasp the concept that you might have to flee from your best friends simply because they belonged to another religion or sect and seek sanctuary with strangers who are at least your co-religionists. During my trip to Lebanon a friend advised me to “head for the Maronite Christian heartland” if trouble breaks out, even if you don’t know anybody there. You will be protected, because you are Christian. I thought the idea was ridiculous. But I see now that it might be true.

As Hanin Gaddar points out from Lebanon, many Shi’a who sought refuge with friends in Syria during the 2006 war with Israel now find they cannot reciprocally shelter their Sunni friends simply because they are not safe in the Shi’a areas of Lebanon.  What changed was that back in 2006 the sectarian dynamic was not in ascendancy. Today sect is becoming the main thing.

“When the war started in 2006, I left with my family to Damascus, where we stayed with another family whom we did not know,” says Imad from Bint Jbeil. “We had common friends who took us in. They were so welcoming and shared their food and house with us. We stayed in touch, and today they contacted me to see if they can come over for a few days until the clashes in Damascus subside. They are Sunnis, and I am not sure if they are going to be safe here in the South, so I told them the truth and put them in touch with my friends in Beirut. I don’t know if they will go, but I feel so bad and ungrateful. Why does it have to be that way?”

“Why does it have to be that way?” It has to be that way because the failure to bring Western democratic concepts to the Middle East meant that when authoritarianism fell it could not default to democratic forms. With the door to that model closed, it fell back instead on an earlier, more primitive and bloodier format: tribal warfare.

Now the only safety is the safety of the tribe. The consequences of this paradigm shift are immediate. Lee Smith explains that Assad has now realized that as President of Syria, he is president of a fiction. As the leader of the Allawites, however, he has a sporting chance of leading a very real tribe.

As Tony Badran, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has documented, the regime seems to be waging a campaign of sectarian cleansing in order to carve out a rump state along the Mediterranean coast, reflecting the geographical contours of the traditional Alawite heartland, with its capital in Latakia. The regime has lost the -hinterland and may be on the verge of losing Damascus, but it is still counting on survival. If Assad can’t have all of Syria, then he and his Russian and Iranian backers will console themselves with an Alawite state on the Mediterranean. The Obama administration should ensure that this doesn’t come to pass.

Under the Assad regime, after all, Syria has been a state sponsor of terror, one that has directed its energies against the United States and American allies. The regime’s survival even in reduced form would serve Iranian interests as well, since Assad is a key link in the chain connecting Tehran to its terrorist asset in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

If Assad does not succeed in marching the Allawites to a sanctuary on the coast, they may be doomed to suffer reprisal. But not only them, the Shi’a in Lebanon, who have of late been ascendant through Hezbollah, will find themselves vulnerable to reprisal to those whom they have lately oppressed.

Are the Shia ready to pay the price of another war? Are they ready to remain the human shield behind which Hezbollah hides? In his last speech, Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah called slain Syrian Defense Chief Assef Shawkat “a comrade in arms and resistance.” No Lebanese can deny his crimes in Lebanon or how many Lebanese suffered because of him and his regime. Are the Shia willing to suffer the consequences of the war Hezbollah declared against the Syrian people?

Probably not. But the Shi’a in Lebanon will be only one among many targets of pent-up resentment. They’ll have plenty of company in misery. In the new Middle East it may be Sunnis vs the Shi’a vs the Sunni vs the Kurd vs the Turks vs Kurds vs the Allawites vs the Sunni vs … you can keep going. Into that barroom brawl you could insert the Druze and the Copts and Maronites in the corners somewhere. Maybe they could play the piano while people break chairs over each others heads. Come one, come all.

To a certain the degree the current crisis ironically validates the centrality of Israel in the Middle East process. But their importance was always misunderstood. They were not, as the Left never tired of saying, the bringers of the Apple of Discord into the Middle Eastern paradise. In fact they were the opposite. The real function of the Jew was to provide an object of hatred strong enough to keep other minorities from killing each other.

Now that the different sects have rediscovered how much they really loathe one other Israel is for the first time in sixty plus years nothing but a bystander. If it were not for the threat of missiles, they might well break out the popcorn and watch it all play out. Unfortunately the countries in the Middle East are all too close together for this to be a realistic option. Still the resolution of the Israel problem — via its marginalization — may prove the only foreign policy achievement of the administration, though not in the way they had intended.


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