- - Wednesday, September 24, 2014

At the outset of the Arab Spring, when the Tunisians successfully and speedily overthrew the government of Zine El-Abidine in a huge popular uprising, commentators from all over the Middle East were taken by surprise at the ease with which a well-entrenched Tunisian state had been overcome by a massive tide of popular discontent. Members of the Syrian opposition, especially those residing in Europe, pointed to the “psychological barriers of fear” in the minds of Middle Easterners which, they claimed, had until then exaggerated the power and strength of the existing political regimes in the area.

With the subsequent fall of another well-established political regime in Egypt, that of Hosni Mubarak, Syrian dissidents became increasingly confident that the overthrow of their own government, led by Bashar al-Assad, would follow without too much trouble. In fact, they were so confident of their own side’s strength and so dismissive of that of Mr. Assad’s that, unlike the Libyan opponents of the Qaddafi regime, they vehemently opposed any external military assistance in their confrontation with their own government.

However, as weeks dragged into months without much success in sight, Syrian opponents of the Assad regime began to have a change of heart; they now sought outside help to make possible his ouster. But by then, much of the world had been somewhat sobered by the new developments emerging from the Arab Spring. As the dust of battles began to settle, it became increasingly clear to many that the democracy, liberalism and pluralism that the world had hoped for did not actually materialize in the region; instead, Tunisia became dominated by an Islamist party; Egypt was caught in a tug-of-war between the Islamists and the military; and Libya found itself with an Islamist-dominated government that has not been capable of effectively running the country or reining in the lawless militias.

To make matters worse for the Syrian opposition, Russia and China, which had previously been persuaded by France, the United Kingdom and the United States to help authorize U.N.-mandated military intervention in Libya, were now strongly opposed to the use of outside force in Syria. Israel, which had earlier felt optimistic about the potential outcome of the Arab Spring, was now very worried that an Islamist takeover in Syria would seriously threaten its own security. On the other hand, Mr. Assad felt uplifted and reassured by the vigorous interest shown by Iran and Hezbollah in providing his regime with all the help it needed to survive the conflict.

Apart from the reluctance of the international community to take action in their favor, Syrian opponents of Mr. Assad found themselves, moreover, facing a political regime that was prepared to fight to the bitter end, no matter what it took. The unswerving determination of the Assad regime to go for broke was mainly motivated by the real prospect of genocide being perpetrated against the Alawite minority, to which Mr. Assad belongs, should the Syrian regime disintegrate. (And some other Syrian ethnic minorities, notably the Christians, felt just as threatened by such an eventuality.) In addition, Mr. Assad’s stand has also been consolidated by a virtual lack of defection inside Syria of senior political and military figures. All of the aforementioned factors contributed to a prolonged war of attrition between the Assad regime and its Syrian opponents. The world just shook its head and waited for things to play out.

Enter the Islamic State group (IS). The rapid rise and success of this organization in Iraq and Syria, their ruthless persecution of opponents and minorities, and their threat to Iraqi Kurdistan prompted the U.S. to belated action through, among other things, aerial bombardment and pressure to form a new, all-inclusive government in Baghdad. The combination of the two halted and even rolled back some of the Islamic State’s earlier advances. In reaction, IS publicly beheaded three Western hostages, two of whom were Americans. It was then that the U.S. decided to widen its war against that group by attacking it in its home base in Syria. To do so, the American government has proposed support for “moderate” Syrians, who will fight IS on the ground, backed up by U.S. airpower and advisers, very much like what the Americans have lately been doing in Iraq with anti-IS forces. However, there are some serious problems with this parallel plan.

First, the U.S. does not have a reliable, tested ally in Syria like the Kurds in Iraq. Second, the U.S. does not have positive interaction with the Syrian government, on whose removal from power the U.S. has consistently insisted. Third, Syrian territory is not anywhere near as familiar to the U.S. as that of Iraq. Fourth, the ability of U.S. intelligence to gather vital information inside Syria is far weaker than it is in Iraq. Last, but not least, the Free Syrian Army, whose assistance the U.S. intends to enlist in its fight against IS, is not a single, cohesive fighting force; it is, instead, a hodgepodge of numerous militias, many of whose members are at a minimum Islamist-leaning.

This last point raises a specter reminiscent of past American mistakes in Libya and elsewhere: removal of a hated regime, followed by descent into chaos, with extremists, such as the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s designated affiliate in Syria, being in the best position to reap the rewards. 

It is not inconceivable that the U.S. will one day regret its uncompromising insistence on Mr. Assad’s removal from power. If the U.S. government had been more flexible and imaginative, a compromise might have been reached, allowing for power-sharing in Syria, while at the same time averting the hijacking of its politics by religious fanatics.

The American government would do well to remember that it was political pragmatism that convinced Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to join hands with Joseph Stalin in order to defeat Adolf Hitler. Had Roosevelt and Churchill insisted on Stalin’s removal from power for his crimes against humanity as a precondition for their cooperation with the Soviet Union in WWII, Hitler might not have been as decisively overcome.

Born in Libya, Husam Dughman is a Muslim scholar, political scientist and activist residing in the United States. He is the author of the book “Tete-a-tete with Muhammad.” Web: www.husamdughman.com


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