Originally published at Rubin Reports.
“I know what the world thinks of us, we are Communists, and of course I have said very clearly that we are not Communists; very clearly.” –Fidel Castro, 1959
U.S. policy toward Syria has changed but it is too late. A senior State Department official said at the meeting just concluded of opposition groups: “We have to help the moderates, people like [Chief of Staff of the Free Syrian Army] Salim Idris….”
This is what I proposed two years ago but I have to admit that I almost never saw anyone else who suggested that the strategy should be to help the non-Islamists with money, weapons and diplomatic support.
Unlike Castro, the Islamists in Syria never lied about their goals and ideologies. Now the Islamists are far more powerful and well-armed than anyone else, courtesy of U.S. policy. Oh and there’s one more problem. Many or most of the Free Syrian Army’s troops, that is the supposed non- or anti-Islamist alternative, are also Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
So what’s there to do with revolutionary Islamists controlling Syria and sooner or later, though it might take a couple of years, taking over the whole country or at least gaining recognition as the legitimate government of Syria while the regime holds out in the northwest of the country?
That’s okay, says the main line of U.S. policy. We don’t care if they are America-hating fanatics who want to impose Sharia, suppress or even massacre Christians, and commit genocide against Jews. Just as long as they aren’t affiliated with al Qaeda.
Beyond this, there’s mostly wishful thinking. Compare these statements by a Turkish diplomat and a Saudi newspaper:
“Once Assad is gone, al Qaeda won’t stay long in Syria.”
“We know that there are radical forces like [al Qaeda] but do not overestimate them.”
But it seems impossible to get the mainstream debate to recognize the fact that the problem is not merely al Qaeda but other radical Salafists and another Muslim Brotherhood government.
What kind of situation would another Egypt bring about in the Middle East?
What will happen within Syria which historically is a far more radical entity (for historical, political culture, and geopolitical reasons) than Egypt? What will be the fate of all those modern-oriented women, liberals, Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Kurds?
Going beyond the largely worthless current debate on Syria let’s look ahead into the seemingly inevitable future. We can reasonably assume that the Assad regime might last another year or two but it will either retreat to the Alawite areas by then or have fallen totally. There is by the way another possibility. Rebels make advances in Damascus, then use the opportunity to announce the establishment of a provisional government there. The United States and other countries then recognize it–despite Assad’s continuing hold on much of the country–as the legitimate government of Syria.
Whatever happens, there will be a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Syria and Obama will support it. The Salafis will not rule but they will kill people, intimidate non- or anti-Islamist forces, and probably be the main force in various local areas of the country.
Many conservatives and Republicans favor more intervention which means in practice working even harder to install an Islamist regime in Syria. That’s a terrible idea. With few exceptions they never seem to grasp the point about supporting the non-Islamist forces and not just the Syrian rebels in general as if they were glorious freedom fighters.
A few other people favor supporting the Assad dictatorship to keep the Islamists out of power. (Note: These were suggested prior to reports about the regime’s use of chemical weapons). This is another terrible idea. Aside for morality and the impossibility of saving Assad, no Western country is going to adopt such a policy. Whatever its past, the Assad regime had in effect become an Islamist regime, a Shia Islamist regime, and its fall will weaken Iran and Hizballah.
The problem, of course, is that its fall will also strengthen the Sunni Islamists. According to estimates by my colleague, Dr. Jonathan Spyer:
Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al Qaeda, has about 6,000 fighters. The Syrian Islamic Front (dominated by Ahrar al-Sham) has about 13,000 fighters. And, the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, which seems close to the Muslim Brotherhood, (including the Farouq Brigade of Homs; Suqour al-Sham of Idleb, and Tawhid Brigade of Aleppo) has about 40,000 fighters.