By Barry Rubin
The Syrian civil war has crossed a red line. Some people may think this happened a few weeks or months ago but at any rate it is clearly true now. The prospects for an Islamist (Muslim Brotherhood, Salafist, and Jihadist) takeover have risen high enough that it is better to freeze Western intervention. In other words, the West should not do more to aid the rebellion and should consider stopping its current efforts in that direction.
Here is a fact so shocking that it should be the centerpiece of any discussion over Syria. It is so important I’m going to put it in bold:
The Obama Administration is backing (Islamist) Turkey as the distributor of weapons supplied by (opportunistically pro-Islamist) Qatar. Turkey and Qatar want to give the Muslim Brotherhood a monopoly over receiving weapons even though most of the rebels are non- and even anti-Islamist. As this happens, the Obama Administration is thus working directly to install a revolutionary Islamist regime in Syria that will disrupt the region, help shred, U.S. interests, and battle with Israel for decades to come. A number of Republican senators see no problem with this strategy.
Actually, it’s even worse. Due to historical developments, the Syrian Brotherhood is more radical than its Egyptian counterpart. To maintain illegality under President Husni Mubarak, for decades the Egyptian Brotherhood had to restrain itself. Those who wanted violent revolution and faster action left to form separate Salafist groups. The Egyptian Brotherhood today sometimes cooperates with these groups–whose party finished second in the parliamentary elections–but they are also rivals.
In Syria, however, the underground Brotherhood had no incentive to hold back. Consequently, while there are certainly a lot of non-Brotherhood Salafists, there are also a large proportion of really violent, impatient, open extremists in the Syrian Brotherhood. To do a simple analogy, the Syrian Brotherhood is more like Hamas than those slick Brotherhood leaders in Cairo who care to fool the West with their honeyed words. A Brotherhood-run Syria, with Salafists egging on the regime, would be an instant nightmare.
And so Western and especially American policy is doing tremendous harm: not by helping the “rebels” but by working with Turkey and Qatar to help the most anti-Western, anti-American, antisemitic, extremist rebels, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jihadists from smaller groups all the way up to al-Qaida. If you are interested in the details read this remarkable report by Ammar Abuhamid, the best-informed and very honest Syrian analyst on what’s going on.
In brief, there is a massive battle on the opposition side to see who emerges as the greater power–the Islamists or the anti-Islamists ( defected army officers who are nationalists; moderate Sunni Muslims from the urban middle class; conservative, traditionalist Sunni Muslims who hate the Brotherhood; Kurdish nationalists; and even local, non-ideological warlords. And the West is supporting the wrong side.
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By the way, the Saudis have a slightly different perspective. On one hand, they want a Sunni-dominated regime in Syria that will be anti-Iran and friendly to Saudi Arabia. They wouldn’t mind if it was heavily Islamic and since the main priority is destroying Iran’s number-one Arab ally, the Saudis will help the Muslim Brotherhood and various smaller Jihadist groups. But they prefer a regime that isn’t going to subvert them and create regional instability. In Iraq the Saudis supported Sunni groups that were affiliated with al-Qaida to beat the hated Shia. In Lebanon, the Saudis support moderate Sunni forces against pro-Iran Hizballah. If there was U.S. leadership, a U.S.-Saudi partnership could promote a combination of Syrian moderate Sunnis and defected officers plus some sleazy–but non-Islamist–warlords. The American president would tell the Saudis–as well as Qatar and Turkey–that it regarded arming small Jihadist groups and the Brotherhood as an unfriendly act. That is not happening.
What is happening is that the Turkish regime and Qatar want a radical Islamist Syria and are getting the Obama Administration’s help in bringing it about, an outcome supplemented by Saudi aid to America’s enemies.
Another issue that is being mishandled is that of Syria’s Kurds. The easiest thing the West could do would be to help Syria’s Kurds who just want autonomy, not to be subject to the current directorship, radical Arab nationalists, or Islamists. This would make the Kurds of Iraq, American allies, very happy. But Obama won’t do that because it would make Islamist-ruled Turkey, an enemy of America that President Barack Obama loves more than any other country in the region, very unhappy and so probably won’t happen.
I’m very sorry to write this article for two reasons:
–The Syrians have suffered so much it is understandable that one should help end this civil war as soon as possible and get rid of the current anti-American and pro-Iran dictatorship.
–It would be easy to have a good policy toward Syria: funneling help to the non- or anti-Islamist rebel forces. Yet the United States has not made this distinction under Obama and neither the mass media nor the politicians even seem to be aware of this issue. Its help often goes to radical anti-American who want to impose another dictatorship on Syria. The Turks want a Muslim Brotherhood government; the Qataris do, too. The Saudis want to get rid of the current regime and replace it with a Sunni, anti-Iran one. With proper U.S. leadership and coordination the Saudis might play a constructive role but given Obama’s policy they will mainly just support Sunni Islamists as they did in Iraq.
As if to outdo America, the French government is actually supporting for Syria’s leader a loudmouth former regime insider of no proven talent who is a radical Arab nationalist and someone who the rebels loathe.
Another problem is the prospect of rebel massacres. Specific instances of deliberate ethnic murder are controversial and some highly publicized ones probably didn’t happen. But some did happen. By helping the rebels without distinction and having no ability to impose restrictions, U.S. policy will be complicit in massacres of Alawites and Christians followed by the killings of Sunni Muslims too secular for the Islamists’ tastes. We also know, for example, that Islamist rebels massacred several dozen regime soldiers from a low-level unit that hadn’t been involved in any atrocities, because they did so right in front of nearby Iraqi border guards. Really nasty murders were committed by NATO-backed forces in Libya but that war—and the atrocities–came to an end fairly quickly and much less attention was paid. In Syria, a lot more attention will be paid, a lot more people killed, and it won’t end until hundreds of thousands of people flee.
Predictions that President Bashar al-Asad would fall quickly were wrong. The regime is surviving and even regaining some ground. It has done so by yielding parts of the country where local rebel governments run by strongmen, Islamist, or defecting officers have taken over. Each little area is different but there is no U.S. strategy to help those who aren’t Islamist and are less radical. So it is a tragedy indeed. But to back the rebels in the wrong way will just help impose on Syria another dictatorship that will link up with other Sunni Islamists (including Egypt and Hamas) to promote regional instability and anti-Americanism.
Does that mean we should want the Asad regime to survive? No. We should want the more moderate rebel forces to win, the Kurds to get autonomy, and Syria to become a really moderate and as democratic as possible state. The likelihood of this happening, however, is plummeting, due partly to bad U.S. policy. And without a lot more Western aid to the rebels Asad is going to be around for a while whatever we want or think.
So the second-best option is that the war continues. This is horrible. People are dying; tens of thousands are becoming refugees. There is immense suffering. Yet if the main alternative is to help create a revolutionary Islamist state in Syria allied to Egypt, Gaza, and other radical Sunni Islamists that is not an attractive outcome. Even in places where the Muslim Brotherhood won by less than a majority, as in Tunisia, or Libya, where the U.S. government managed to get its client into office, the radical Salafists and Jihadists are threatening to get out of control. How much faster that would happen in Syria since the Obama Administration sees no problem in backing Islamists in Syria.
So far I have seen absolutely no indication that any leaders on the Republican side understand this. Some of the latter, like Senator John McCain, are mindless interventionists. One can only hope that the next U.S. president understands the distinctions that must be made in Syria.
But let’s be clear here. The Obama Administration helped install an anti-American, destabilizing radical regime in Egypt. It has a big responsibility. What’s happening in Syria goes beyond that. There’s no rationale of claiming that Obama had limited influence or didn’t know what he was doing. The administration’s Syria policy is a direct crime against U.S. interests. It is also a grave blow against Israel, would condemn the Syrian people to decades of slavery, and would increase the likelihood of war and terrorism in the region.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.