By Barry Rubin
“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-Qaida.
“Once Assad is gone, al-Qaeda won’t stay long in Syria.”
“We know that there are radical forces like [al-Qaida] 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-Qaida 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. 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.
–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. It is not clear whether these groups are under the Brotherhood’s discipline. If they aren’t then the situation is even worse since that means the Salafist forces are stronger than they seem.
Even this numerical advantage understates the Brotherhood’s power because its political leadership is centralized while Jabhat al-Nusra is spread thinly across the country and the Syrian Islamic Front is a loose coalition of different Salafist groups.
But the Brotherhood won’t suppress even the most extremist ones, that is al-Qaida, as long as they don’t attack the new central government and don’t disrupt the country too much. The Brotherhood will let them attack, massacre, and bully the country’s Alawites, Christians, Druze, political moderates, and non-Islamist women.
The too-late proposed Western strategy is to strengthen non-Islamist forces in Syria and to create safe zones, for minorities and to keep out Salafists, near Syria’s borders. This looks good on paper but it won’t work for several reasons.
First, the non-Islamist forces are too weak to hold any territory. his might be influenced by the successful creation of such a zone for the Kurds in northern Iraq. Yet the Iraqi Kurds were a well-armed, coherent ethnic group that was sufficiently united and had favorable terrain. These conditions don’t apply to Syria, or at least only for Syrian Kurds and Druze, not for the Sunni Muslim majority or Christian minority. The setting up of safe zones on, say, the Jordanian and Israeli borders will simply be an attractive target for Salafists who will mobilize popular support by branding the “moderates” as the traitorous tools of infidels and attacking them. Non-Islamist forces are also at this point unreliable and some of those groups touted as “moderates” seem to be closer to the Brotherhood.
And then we will once again be told that the Islamists and lots of Muslims only hates the West because it invades their countries and intervenes against them. Incidentally, don’t be surprised when after the revolution the victorious Islamists will claim that the West was behind the old dictatorship–a lie–and that not giving the rebels even more weapons was a Western stab in the back that further merits hatred.
Given these realities, then, the task of Western policy will be based on the understanding that they will not be able to shape events in Syria. It could have been different if a proper policy had been followed earlier.
The best that can be done now would be to help Christians either to survive or flee; to assist Druze and Kurds protect themselves by strengthening the former’s militia and the latter’s autonomy; and even, as a purely humanitarian strategy if Assad has fallen, to help Alawite civilians not guilty of war crimes to escape. Otherwise, thousands of people could be massacred.
There are other important issues that simply are not being fully discussed:
Will Western countries allow those in threat of being killed to be granted political asylum for thousands of Druze, Christians, Alawites, and moderate Sunni Arabs? Or will they insist that everything is great in Syria and even push back the refugees who have already left the country?
Will Western countries correct the disastrous policy toward Egypt and actually help moderate Sunni Arabs, or at least anti-Islamist Sunni Arabs, to organize for elections and political influence so that the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists don’t steamroller over them?
Will Western countries give additional help to Israel, having helped to bring it a new and more energetic enemy on its border, or Jordan, a moderate regime that the West usually takes for granted?
Will Western countries do a better job than in Libya about collecting advanced weapons so they aren’t use for terrorism against Syria’s own people, a Syrian Kurdish autonomous zone, Israel, Jordan, and Iraq?
People will continue to debate increased Western intervention but–and U.S. policymakers now partly understand this–to deal with the strategic disaster that’s been created, in part by them.
If you are interested in reading more about Syria, you’re welcome to read my book The Truth About Syria online or download it for free.
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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 next book, Nazis, Islamists and the Making of the Modern Middle East, written with Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, will be published by Yale University Press in January 2014. His latest book is Israel: An Introduction, also published by Yale. Thirteen of his books can be read and downloaded for free at the website of the GLORIA Center including The Arab States and the Palestine Conflict, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East and The Truth About Syria. His blog is Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.