By Barry Rubin
Focus is everything, knowing what the central problem is and dealing with it. Here I want to discuss three articles that I basically agree with to point out how they miss the key issue and thus are somewhat misleading. I’m glad to see these three articles being published but it’s a case of, to quote Lenin, two steps forward, one step back.
First, the Washington Post published an editorial entitled, “The time for patience in Syria is over.” It criticizes “America’s long paralysis in responding to the conflict in Syria,” pointing out that the war and horrific bloodshed is escalating. And it concludes:
“President Obama called on [President Bashar al-] Assad to leave office, a proper reaction to the brutality. But Mr. Obama has not backed his words with actions that might help them come true.”
It isn’t every day that a mass media organ criticizes Obama. Yet there are two problems. One is that the measures the newspaper proposes are very much out of date:
“No one is arguing for a Libyan-style intervention into Syria at this point. But the United States and its NATO allies could begin contingency planning for a no-fly zone, now that Mr. Assad is deploying aircraft against the opposition. Instead of providing only non-lethal support, such as medical supplies and communications gear, America could help supply weapons to the outgunned opposition fighters. It could work with Turkey and other allies to set up havens for them.”
Since the opposition has been asking for a “no-fly zone” for about six months, arguing that the NATO allies “could begin contingency planning” for one isn’t exactly a bold measure. Moreover, while the United States is only directly “providing only non-lethal support,” it is facilitating the supply of lethal weapons by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. And third, there are already safe havens for the opposition fighters in Turkey.
So none of those three ideas are decisive or even highly relevant. The key point is mentioned in passing in another passage, calling on the United States, “…To get a better read on opposition forces and to encourage those less inclined toward sectarianism.”
Yet this is the central issue! There is no point in supporting an opposition that’s going to procue a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists! That’s the issue: The United States should do everything possible to help moderates—both defected officers and liberal politicians–gain the upper hand. It should work closely with the Kurds and press hard to make sure that Christians are protected and that the opposition (or at least parts of the opposition responsible) will be punished if it commits massacres.
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Is that so hard to see?
But guess what? Senator Mario Rubio also never mentions the Islamism issue in his article on how the United States should intervene in Syria. He better get an advisor who knows something about the Middle East fast or he may end up as another John McCain on the Middle East.
Second, Vali Nasr has some good points in a New York Times op-ed. But I perceive two very big flaws. One of them is a warning:
“If the Syrian conflict explodes outward, everyone will lose: it will spill into neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. Lebanon and Iraq in particular are vulnerable; they, too, have sectarian and communal rivalries tied to the Sunni-Alawite struggle for power next door.”
Really? The issue is not that the conflict is going to spill over but that it is part of a Sunni-Shia battle that will be a major feature of the region in the coming decades. Lebanon and Iraq are merely other fronts in this battle and whatever happens in Syria isn’t going to start some new problem in those countries.
The question is merely who wins in Syria. A Sunni victory in Syria would empower a moderate-led Sunni community in Lebanon against Hizballah. As for Iraq, another Sunni power will make that government unhappy but isn’t going to intensify already existing sectarian tensions there. And Kurdish autonomy in Syria isn’t going to set off a Kurdish-Turkish war in Turkey either.
But it is dangerous to pretend that a solution in Syria will make the Sunni-Shia battle go away. The most likely change is a post-Assad regime that would strengthen the Sunni side in the regional picture. That’s good if you feel Iran is the main threat but bad if you worry about growing Sunni Islamism.
The other point is even more serious. Nasr advocates bringing Russia and Iran into some kind of joint solution in Syria:
“But the single most important participant would be Iran. It alone has the influence on Mr. Assad and the trust of various parts of his government to get them to buy in to a transition.” This kind of talk makes for an op-ed likely to be published and appreciated in the United States, but such arguments have no connection to the reality on the ground.
The interests of the outside and inside parties are too much at odds. Anyone who imagines that the current regime and the opposition can form some kind of coalition arrangement under international pressure is imagining things. And when analysts promote fantasies they are not doing anyone a favor. Even if such a thing would be cobbled together it would collapse in weeks.
Let’s face reality. Either Assad will survive and unleash a bloodbath or he will be replaced by the opposition, which might unleash a bloodbath. Again, that’s why the main priority must be to support moderates, including Kurdish nationalists seeking autonomy, in the opposition. Moreover, why should the United States possibly want to please Tehran, whose regime is the world’s leading source of international terrorism, anti-Americanism, subversion in the Middle East, and antisemitism that is doing everything possible to obtain nuclear weapons and using them for aggressive purposes? Of course, at times one can overreach and compromise can be useful. Yet the dominant idea in the current era seems to be that helping your friends and weakening your enemies is some kind of bizarre belief. In Syria it makes no sense at all.
My third case study is a Los Angeles Times article about growing Islamism and radical Islamic intolerance in Egypt. It is welcome that the newspaper is actually covering this story. But there’s something very curious in the article. Every example of extremism is portrayed as being Salafists. The Muslim Brotherhood are the moderates:
“President Mohamed Morsi, a religious conservative, has called for tolerance, but many Islamic fundamentalists see a historic moment to impose sharia, or Islamic law, on a country left off balance by political unrest and economic turmoil.”
In other words, there are these bad extremists who want to impose Sharia but fortunately the Muslim Brotherhood and the president it elected are against it!
The article continues:
“The struggle between ultraconservative and moderate Islamists has reverberated through generations. It is as critical a balancing test for Morsi as his battle to pressure the Egyptian military to relinquish control over the nation. Morsi courted Salafis during his campaign and is now confronted with their agenda and insistence that he not appoint a woman or a Christian as a vice president.”
I don’t think the Brotherhood was eager to appoint a woman or a Christian as vice-president, since its position on the issue has been identical to that of the Salafists. To portray Morsi as a man who might want to restrain the Salafists somewhat makes sense but only in the context of having the same goals but more patient tactics. If the Muslim Brotherhood is now the protector of democracy, moderation, and tolerance in Egypt, those three virtues don’t have much of a future there.
The article is on somewhat better grounds by calling the al-Azhar university establishment as “moderate thinkers,” though they are also capable of very radical stances. Yet there’s another problem here: eventually the government will remove the al-Azhar leaders and replace them with reliable Brotherhood members.
And the article seems wrong when it says, “Moderates call for a document based on the “principles” of sharia, which would be less strict and offer broader civil liberties to women as well as Christians and other non-Muslims.” According to reports in the Egyptian media the Salafists have accepted the “principles” approach because of another provision that the meaning of that term will be determined by clerics and not judges. And, anyway, isn’t Morsi and a parliament dominated by Brotherhood and Salafist legislatures going to be choosing judges in future? And there are plenty of radical Islamists who can and will become court judges.
The article quotes Mahmoud Ashour, a former deputy al-Azhar official now at the Islamic Research Center as saying, “President Morsi cannot hide from these issues.” Hide from them? They are the center of his program!
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.