“My opponent’s reasoning reminds me of the [man] who, being asked on what the world stood, replied, `On a tortoise.’ But on what does the tortoise stand? `On another tortoise. … There are tortoises all the way down.” –Joseph Berg (1854)
Given recent military gains for the Syrian regime, obituaries of dictator Bashar al-Assad have proven to be exaggerated and that gives the Obama administration a big problem. U.S. strategy, and that of the West and international organizations, has been based on two ideas that have proven to be wishful thinking:
— Assad and the opposition would make a deal and so everything could be settled diplomatically. This was absurd.
— The rebels would defeat Assad without direct Western intervention. So far, while the rebels have made gains, the regime is now on the counter-offensive. Up to 5000 Hizballah troops, better organized than the rebels, have entered Syria to fight for the regime. They are acting in self-interest to protect Shia villages and to keep their military supply lines open. (Incidentally, Hizballah is using Syrian- and Iranian-provided weapons that the United States and UN promised Israel they would block them from obtaining back in 2006.) It could take two years or more for a rebel victory, and even then it isn’t assured.
One reason for the regime gains is that it has more reliable allies. What group would you rather have behind you: Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Hizballah; or the United States, EU, UN, and Arab League? Silly question, isn’t it?
But the second civil war — the one within the rebel side — looks just as bad. Who would you rather have behind you: the United States, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey — as the Islamists have had until quite recently, when the Americans started waking up — or … nobody, as the moderate rebels have had? The U.S. government suddenly discovered that it has helped put advanced weapons into the hands of al-Qaeda and other Salafist groups. Obama isn’t bothered by arming the Muslim Brotherhood.
Now comes a dramatic development — the opposition’s claim that the regime used sarin, a deadly nerve gas. Israeli intelligence confirmed that somebody used sarin; the Obama administration at first denied it. A couple of days later, however, the U.S. government changed its view.
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.
But who used the nerve gas? UN investigators are concluding that the rebels might have used it. I am no expert, but I think it is possible that this is true on the following basis: the attack was on a very small scale in a non-critical area of fighting. If the Syrian government was going to use chemical weapons, it would be in a critical battle where victory was imperative and there were lots of enemy soldiers to kill and to terrify. This is what happened in the Iran-Iraq war.
Again, I want to stress that I am not claiming to know which side did it in a conflict where events are often mysterious and it is hard to be certain whether, for example, a claimed massacre did take place. There are no good guys, if we’re speaking of the two sides in general. Instead, there are lots of victims, terrified people, and very brutal guys. If the rebels are staging atrocities too, and the results are likely to be messy, what do you do?
So here’s the situation: Obama has painted himself into a corner regarding a two-year-long civil war in which more than 70,000 people have been killed. He understandably doesn’t want to intervene. And now a new element is added, for finally his government came to a realization that the forces they have been backing were radical Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and even more extreme Salafist groups. The moderates were neglected, even rudely shoved aside. And now it is too late — though official policy pretends otherwise — to boost the moderate rebels.
Of course, the Obama administration can do little things — send more non-lethal aid, urge the Qataris and Saudis to supply more weapons, and train the moderates it can find in the hope that they can stand up to the Islamists. But military intervention or even a no-fly zone, anything that will change the situation decisively? Nope.
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.
Yet that just didn’t happen. The West failed to get behind potential leaders; the Islamists were better organized and more willing to sacrifice their lives. It could well be argued that if anyone has to win it should be the rebels, since that would be a devastating defeat for Iran and Hizballah, because also the Sunni Islamist bloc lacks a patron to finance an aggressive anti-Western, anti-Israel program and to supply arms for it. But can one be enthusiastic about those who want to impose a new dictatorship, carry out ethnic massacres, include al-Qaeda, and might even use nerve gas to make propaganda?
Sadly, the truth is that in Syria there are Islamists all the way down.