- - Monday, July 7, 2014

President Obama is asking Congress to approve $500 million to intensify support for “moderate” and “appropriately vetted” Syrian rebels in the context of a $1.5 billion Syrian regional stability initiative. The request comes within a week of the president’s startling acknowledgment that the notion of a U.S.-armed, moderate Syrian opposition overthrowing Syrian President Bashar Assad is and always has been a “fantasy.”

In an underreported CBS News interview, Mr. Obama asserted that it was absurd to think that an American-backed moderate opposition made up of humble “farmers and dentists” could stand up to either the Assad regime or the Islamist rebels. It is “simply not true,” he insisted, that providing stronger military support for Syrian moderates would have prevented the spectacular rise of the Wahhabi-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), now rebranding itself as simply IS or the Islamic State.

The president first presented this fantasy as policy three years ago when he announced that Mr. Assad, from the Muslim minority Alawite sect, “must step aside” for the “sake of the Syrian people.”

The Obama administration was now promoting regime change and euphemistically calling it “democratic transition.” But the real strategic goal was, and remains, the erosion of Russia’s and Shiite Iran’s regional influence, and the expansion of Washington‘s, based on the aspiration to achieve an American-led unipolar world order.

The president’s strategy did not require American boots on the ground but was grounded in economic sanctions and support for what he portrayed as a moderate, democratic rebel movement. With none to be found, American agencies hastily conjured up the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council, both based in Turkey. Their main function was to serve as a smoke screen for Washington’s support of the more potent opposition to the Assad regime – i.e., radical, anti-democratic Islamist movements.

Militant Sunni supremacists have long been Mr. Assad’s most dangerous rivals for power. After decades of repression, the Arab uprisings of 2011 gave them an opportunity to rear their heads. Supported by Washington’s authoritarian Sunni allies — Saudi Arabia, Qatar and NATO member Turkey — sectarian extremists became Washington’s principal instruments of political change in Syria. In this rough neighborhood, as in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is no firewall separating moderates and extremists. The promise of credible vetting is empty.

The results of the president’s fantasy have been catastrophic, especially for the Syrian people in whose name it has been pursued. When the president announced his intention to topple the Assad regime in August 2011, approximately 2,000 Syrians had been killed in the fighting. Now the figure stands at over 160,000. Nine million out of 22.5 million Syrians — 40 percent of the population — are now displaced.

Syria’s economic infrastructure is in ruins, as is the country’s religious harmony. Sectarianism dominates the armed conflict. Rebel-held areas have been virtually “cleansed” of Christians, Alawites, Shiites and others whom the Sunni Islamist opposition regards as infidels. Meanwhile, the majority of the displaced, including moderate Sunnis, flock to Assad-controlled territory for protection.

The catastrophe has now expanded beyond the borders of Syria into neighboring Iraq. ISIL, which controls much of northern and eastern Syria and Mosul, is collaborating in Iraq with CIA-backed Sunni rebels, including a so-called Free Iraqi Army and tribal militias to oust the Shiite-based government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. His fatal flaw is the same as Mr. Assad‘s. He has become too close to the Iranians and, through them, to the Russians.

Iraq still reels from the violent consequences of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Instead of the promised democratic transition, the country descends deeper into sectarian civil war. It is now on the verge of religious and ethnic partition. All the horrors of the Syrian civil war are now being visited upon Iraq. Will Lebanon and Jordan be next?

The descent of Syria and Iraq into jihad-driven chaos has created a crisis for global security. Mr. Obama’s proposal to perpetuate the fantasy by “ramping up” support for bogus Sunni moderates will lead not to a restoration of regional stability, but will fuel even more dangerous destabilization. If his plan is approved, Washington will throw good money after bad — the bad already amounting to $6 trillion spent on failed regime change policies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.

There is, however, an alternative to using Sunni sectarian proxies to reshape the Middle East. It is one that global hegemonists in Washington will find unpalatable. Mr. Obama needs to engage with Russia and China in the search for regional stability. Herein lies the true interest of the three Great Powers — none more so than the United States — and true interest of the people of the region.

⦁ John Eibner is CEO of Christian Solidarity International and has traveled to Syria and Iraq over the past year.