U.S. Policy on Syria Changes For the Better, Sort Of

It took 2.5 years, months of massive revolutionary upheaval, and a violent attack on the embassy in Damascus, but U.S. policy toward Syria is finally changing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked:"President [Bashar al-] Assad is not indispensable and we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power....Our goal is to see that the will of the Syrian people for a democratic transformation occurs."

Hooray! Hooray! Oops! For despite this major step forward, the Obama administration can't stop itself from setting up a new potential disaster. For how are they going about this regime transition effort? Why, with Syria's neighbor, Turkey! The Islamist regime there thinks it can create a sphere of influence for itself in Syria. In other words, Turkish interests (as defined by the regime) and American interests in Syria are diametrically opposed! Obama is relying on a mediator who will support an Islamist state in Syria or at least one dominated by Islamist forces.

Obama's colleagues and supporters rightly say that they worry about Syria's future yet are now following a strategy most likely to lead to a bad result.

Turkey? Why not the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia directly, and also Jordan? Remember these (ex-?) U.S. allies? Like Syria, these are Arab states. Ah, but for the Obama administration, Arabism isn't important. Only Islam is. And if you undermine Arab identity--as Obama has been doing since his Cairo speech--in favor of Islam, then you'll get Islamists, not nationalists.

In Iraq, the State Department advocated, as it always does, a Sunni Arab approach. This was a big problem since there Sunni Arabs only comprise a 20 percent minority. But in Syria, Sunni Arabs are 60 percent of the population. In Iraq, where Shia Muslims are the largest group, Saudi and Jordanian intervention was a problem; in Syria, though, going through the countries that have long been U.S. allies makes far more sense.

The U.S. military loves Turkey and many officers have served there. But these same officers know from the bitter complaints of their Turkish colleages--who hate the current regime--just how bad things are with that regime.

Of the many mistakes made by the Obama administration, the preference of Muslim over Arab identity is one of the more neglected but very dangerous ones. Nationalism in the Arab world has many sins and catastrophes to its name, but what other bulwark will there be to Islamism, as an alternative identity? (Democracy is not an identity.) This bad idea was probably dreamed up in the CIA as a brilliant innovation: the United States will promote an Islamic identity to combat the radical Islamist doctrine of al-Qaida and Iran.