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--headed by a mild version of a Muslim Brotherhood supporter long resident in Texas--are of no real importance on the ground though their doings fill the Western news.
This is the mess now 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 he switched 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 childrens' 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-Qaida, and might even use nerve gas to make propaganda?
Sadly, the truth is that there are Islamists all the way down.
Monday, May 06, 2013