Syria’s tyrant Bashar al-Assad is in the middle of a life-or-death struggle. He might be overthrown. He should be.
The Arab Socialist Baath Party regime, beginning with its founder Hafez al-Assad and continuing through the rule of his son Bashar, is the deadliest state sponsor of terrorism in the Arab Middle East. It assisted the bloodthirsty insurgency in Iraq that killed American soldiers by the thousands and murdered Iraqi civilians by the tens of thousands. It has used both terrorism and conventional military power to place Lebanon under its boot since the mid-1970s. It made Syria into the logistics hub for Hezbollah, the best-equipped and most lethal non-state armed force in the world. It has waged a terrorist war against Israel and the peace process for decades, not only from Lebanon, but also from the West Bank and Gaza. And it is Iran’s sole Arab ally and its bridge to the Mediterranean.
Tehran is the head of the Iranian-Syrian-Hamas-Hezbollah resistance bloc, and Syria is the junior partner in the alliance, but both governments have American blood under their fingernails. Unlike Damascus, however, Tehran may acquire nuclear weapons capability within the next couple of years. If we could take only one member of that bloc off the board, we’d be wise to pick the Iranian government. The Syrian government, though, is the second-best option. And it’s lower-hanging fruit right now because Assad is facing an armed insurrection.
Short of regime change in Tehran, the overthrow of Assad is the worst thing that can happen to the Iranian government and to Hezbollah. Iran will lose its only ally in the Arab world, and Hezbollah will lose one of only two patrons and its entire overground logistics network. Scud missiles and other enormous weapons can’t exactly be mailed to Hezbollah from Iran through the Beirut international airport.
A fresh government in Damascus will almost certainly be less friendly toward Iran and Hezbollah and more friendly toward Lebanon. Beirut will be able to make more of its own decisions, which are naturally closer to what the US and Israel would like, even if they aren’t ideal. So many of Lebanon’s politicians are currently bribed and bullied by Assad into doing his bidding, inducing their support for Hezbollah and violent “resistance” against Israel. Even Hezbollah’s most powerful tactical “allies” only support the organization under duress.
WikiLeaks published a batch of revealing diplomatic cables from Lebanon last year. One describes how Nabih Berri, Lebanon’s speaker of Parliament and Hezbollah’s supposedly most stalwart ally, reacted during the Israeli bombardment of South Lebanon in 2006. “Berri condemned the ferocity of Israel’s military response,” the cable writer says, “but admitted that a successful Israeli campaign against Hezbollah would be an excellent way to destroy Hezbollah’s military aspirations and discredit their political ambitions. . . . We are certain that Berri hates Hezbollah as much, or even more, than the [Western-backed] March 14 politicians; after all, Hezbollah’s support . . . is drawn from the Shiites who might otherwise be with Berri.”
According to another cable, Lebanon’s current prime minister, Najib Mikati, described Hezbollah as “cancerous” and wishes to see its militarized state-within-a-state destroyed. Mikati is the man who replaced the previous prime minister, Saad Hariri, at Hezbollah’s insistence. If even Syria’s and Hezbollah’s hand-picked allies are waffling and possibly even plotting behind the scenes, the entire rigged system may come crashing down if there’s a regime change in Damascus.
Many on both the political left and the political right in the US think we ought to stay out of this. Partly that’s because the devil we know, so to speak, is sometimes preferable to the devil we don’t. And we have good reasons to believe a post-Assad government will almost certainly be unfriendly to Israel, as nearly all Arab governments are, but it might also be unfriendly to the United States. After the disastrous results of the Egyptian parliamentary election last year, where radical Islamists received twice as many votes as secular parties, we’d be fools to think a Syrian election—assuming an election is ever actually held—would bring to power parties that are politically liberal and friendly. Since Libya degenerated into a failed militia state after the fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi, we’d be naive at best to assume a stable order must necessarily follow Assad’s. And the Iraqi insurgency taught us that the Arab world’s reaction to our removal of even a genocidal tyrant can lead to serious blowback that grinds on for years.
Every Arab country is different, however.
Egypt, for instance, is far and away the most conservative and, frankly, backward Arab country outside the Gulf region. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Cairo in 1928 and its organizational sophistication and popular base of support there is peerless. Hyper-conservative Saudi Arabia, where millions of economically struggling Egyptians have been working for decades, beams reactionary political and cultural ideas onto its neighbor like a blazing sun.
Syria is moderate and even liberal, at least by comparison. It has a large population of middle-class Sunnis in the big cities of Damascus and Aleppo who aren’t remotely inclined to support Islamist parties. They aren’t as progressive as the Sunnis of Beirut—where support for the local Muslim Brotherhood is minuscule—but they aren’t as conservative as the Sunnis of Egypt, either. They’re somewhere in between.
Sunni Arabs are the only ethno-religious group that provides a base of support for the Muslim Brotherhood in the first place, and they make up a smaller percentage of Syria’s population. They’re ninety percent of Egypt’s population, but only seventy percent of Syria’s. The rest are Christians, Alawites, Druze, and Kurds. A perpetually strong opposition to an Islamist government is baked into the demographics. Syrians can only back Islamists with the same numbers as Egypt if nearly every Sunni Arab in the country votes for them, which can’t possibly happen.
There’s no reason to believe the Syrian franchise of the Brotherhood itself is more liberal or moderate than its Egyptian branch, but Syrian society certainly is, and the organization has little choice but to adjust itself accordingly.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s new political charter unveiled in March declares as its goal the creation of a civil state rather than an Islamic one. It “completely dispensed with the notion of the ‘Islamic Umma,’” notes Hanin Ghaddar on the website NOW Lebanon, “which usually colors their rhetoric in the region. Their statement, with its ten straightforward vows, mentions international declarations and agreements more than it mentions Islam and stresses on human rights all throughout.”
That’s exactly what happened in Tunisia earlier this year. Ennahda, the Islamist party that won forty-two percent of the vote in the recent election, was forced by massive liberal and secular opposition to ditch its hinted-at goal of an Islamic state. Islamists make up a large minority in Tunisia, but they’re still a minority. Most of them want, or at least wanted, an Islamic state after the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship. They wanted that system of government enshrined in the constitution, but they had to drop it and formally announce they’re backing a civil state. To save face, they pretended they opposed an Islamic state all along.
Syria’s Muslim Brothers have reached that stage already.
Don’t be fooled by their words. They prefer an Islamic state, surely. That’s what the organization was founded to build. Syria, however, like Lebanon, is a polyglot place. Not even Hezbollah, powerful as it is, can impose a radical Islamist system on such a diverse population as Lebanon has, so it does not even try. We can’t yet know if Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood has come to a similar realization or if it’s only pretending so its opponents will let down their guard, but it’s bound to happen later for real if it hasn’t already.
Even so, Assad’s replacement could be worse for the people of Syria than Assad himself. It may not be likely, necessarily, but it’s certainly possible. Yet it’s unlikely that his replacement will be worse for the US and Israel.
What are we worried about? That Syria will become a state sponsor of terrorism? That it will be hostile to the US and to Israel? That it will be a repressive dictatorship that jails and murders thousands of people? That it will be an ally of Iran, our principal enemy in the region?
Syria is already all of those things.
The US couldn’t return Syria to the status quo ante even if it wanted to. The country has become dangerously unstable without Washington doing anything. It used to be one of the least stable countries in the entire world. Military coup followed military coup in the tumultuous years after its declaration of independence from France in 1946. Not until Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970 did things settle down.
“Hafez al-Assad stabilized Syria by focusing the country’s energy on conflict with an out group, the Jews of Israel,” says Andrew Tabler, a former Damascus resident and research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The regime uses the so-called Emergency Law,” a supposed national security response to the state of war with Israel, “to indefinitely detain people.”
Of course, the Assad regime hasn’t only fought against Israel. Damascus has also fought terrorist wars against the United States, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Jordan. It has sought to undermine and destabilize and in one case even conquer every single one of its neighbors.
Now that the government is being violently resisted on the domestic front, the days when Damascus could achieve peace at home by waging wars elsewhere in the region may be at an end—especially if the neighbors turn things around and lend robust assistance to the Free Syrian Army. Rather than Syria destabilizing the Middle East, the Middle East may again destabilize Syria. That’s the normal state of affairs and has been for millennia.
“Syria before Assad was a playground of foreign intervention,” says Martin Kramer, also at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Hafez al-Assad turned Syria into a regional player in its own right, occupying Lebanon, running his own Palestinian factions, and enabling Hezbollah. But now Syria has reverted to what it was before: a jumble of clashing interest groups and resentful sects, pitted against one another, all seeking foreign backers who might tip the balance in their favor. In the long view, fragmented weakness may be Syria’s default condition, and the Syria of Assad père, an aberration.”
If radical Islamists take over—that would be a long shot, but it could happen—Syria’s Christian, Druze, and Alawite minorities will almost certainly suffer, as would liberal and moderate Sunnis. But it makes no moral or strategic sense for the US to base its foreign policy on their needs if the cost comes at the expense of literally everyone else, including not only our friends in the region, but also ourselves.
Even if Sunni Islamists do take over in Syria, Damascus will still be less friendly toward Iran and Hezbollah than the current government is. Hezbollah is the mortal enemy of the Levant’s Sunni Arabs. Syrian activists have been yelling slogans against Iran and burning Hezbollah flags in the streets for a year now. When I spoke to Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Lebanon, I couldn’t quite figure out who they hated
more—Israel or Hezbollah.
Syria is a mess and will likely continue being a mess whether Assad holds on or not and whether we get involved or we don’t. It may blow up in our faces even if we stay out. Radical Islamists are reportedly active in Syria now, though Damascus has been trying for a year to claim that it’s fighting our war, that we’re really on the same side, that it’s struggling against radical Sunnis at home just as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s unclear how many of these people have actually arrived from somewhere else to fight the government and how many are propaganda props for Assad. Either way, the longer this drags on, the more actual jihadists are bound to show up and cause trouble.
It’s time we decided whether or not we want a vote, so to speak, in which direction this goes. An Iraq-style intervention is off the table. A Libya-style intervention is a distant possibility. Far more plausible is gun-running to the Free Syrian Army. That will likely be the next stage of the conflict whether the United States gets involved or it doesn’t. Assad has too many enemies in the greater Middle East who are itching
to finally be rid of him.
The prospect of a proxy war ought to make everyone pause and swallow hard, especially because Syria presents so many variables and competing interests. The final outcome can’t possibly be controlled. But it’s a near-certainty that the final outcome will be worse if the Free Syrian Army gets assistance from al-Qaeda, the Saudis, or Turkey’s Islamist prime minister instead of from the United States.
Perhaps the best reason, though, to get rid of Assad while we can is the grim prospect of what will happen if he wins.
“If the regime survives,” says Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “the message in terms of regional power dynamics is stark: Iran and Russia stand by their allies to the end while the US does not. The US will appear to have no understanding of the strategic contest and balance of power, and will be—wittingly or not—shielding its enemies. The fundamental rule of foreign policy is straightforward: you protect and reward your friends, and you punish your enemies.”
Assad will feel invincible if he wins and that he can act with impunity. He will have plenty of justification. He will have sponsored terrorism throughout the Middle East and gotten away with it. He will have murdered Lebanese citizens and government officials and gotten away with it. He will have killed Iraqi civilians and gotten away with it. He will have killed Israelis and gotten away with it. Most crucial of all, he will have killed Americans and gotten away with it. Whatever feelings of deterrence and restraint he felt when he came to power in 2000 will completely evaporate. If Assad pulls this off, the region will change, and not for the better.
Michael J. Totten is a contributing editor and blogger for World Affairs. His most recent book is Where the West Ends: Stories from the Middle East, the Balkans, the Black Sea, and the Caucasus.