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The Battle of Syria
Assad’s survival would be a victory for Iran — and a defeat for the U.S.

Syrians protest in Marat al-Numan, June 1, 2012.

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Clifford D. May

They say politics makes strange bedfellows. But even stranger are the bedfellows that national-security policy makes.

Andrew C. McCarthy, a friend and colleague, provides a stunning example. He points out that by proposing American support for Syrians who are attempting to overthrow Bashar Assad, Mitt Romney and “the McCain wing of the Republican party, and the rest of Washington’s progressive, Islamophilic clerisy” are aligning with “al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri and Muslim Brotherhood icon Yusuf al-Qaradawi.”

Of course, it would be equally correct to point out that wings of the Republican party opposing efforts to facilitate regime change in Syria are aligning with MoveOn.org, Vladimir Putin, and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Within the loose coalition fighting Assad, there are freedom fighters — I’m personally acquainted with some. But, yes, Islamists are in the mix as well. Should Assad fall, who will end up on top?

We can’t be certain, and that uncertainty lends weight to the anti-interventionist argument. As for humanitarian concerns, one can make the case that if the Arab League is unmoved by the massacres of Syrian women and children (their angry eyes fixed as ever on Israel), and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation doesn’t give a fig about Muslims slaughtering Muslims (a minor annoyance compared with “Islamophobia”), why should we Americans expend an ounce of energy?

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My answer to all the persuasive points above: because Syria, under the Assad dictatorship, is Iran’s most important ally and asset. And Iran is the single most important strategic threat facing the U.S. — hands down.

Andy observes that the “Iranian regime is not the only virulently anti-American revolutionary movement realistically threatening to enslave the Middle East in its version of totalitarian sharia and implacable anti-Semitism.” True, but it is the only virulently anti-American revolutionary movement that is within a hair’s breadth of obtaining nuclear weapons.

In addition, Iran’s rulers have long been the leading global sponsors of terrorism, commanding Hezbollah, now masters of Lebanon, and collaborating with al-Qaeda. They have facilitated the killings of Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan with impunity.

Their acquisition of nuclear arms, if it is allowed to happen, will license even more audacious behavior. Plan on this: They will threaten and perhaps lay claim to Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain (where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based); bend the flexible Qataris to their will; attempt to control the Strait of Hormuz, essential to a global economy that continues to depend on Gulf oil; intervene more forcefully than ever in Yemen; increase their influence in Iraq and Afghanistan; conspire against the Saudis (chiding them for their irresolute commitment to jihad while coveting the oil in Arabia’s majority-Shiite Eastern Province); and, of course, hang a nuclear Sword of Damocles over Israel’s head.

All that would be just the beginning. Remember that without nuclear weapons, Iran’s rulers did not hesitate to attempt to blow up a restaurant in Washington, D.C. With nuclear weapons . . .  Use your imagination.

By comparison, the Arab Spring is just a rainy season. The rise of a Muslim Brotherhood party in Tunisia has exchanged one form of autocracy for another. Before you could criticize Islam but not the government; now it’s the other way around. Libya is a mess (does that surprise anyone?), but the oil is again flowing and those attempting to use Islamism to paper over ancient tribal differences have so far not succeeded. 

As for Egypt, veteran Middle East analyst Amir Taheri notes that in the first round of presidential balloting, the Brotherhood candidate drew only “around a quarter of the electorate” — hardly a ringing vote of confidence for a movement that “has acted as the main opposition for almost a century” and that has “immense resources” at its disposal.

Andy rightly observes that a substantial Egyptian voting block is “deathly afraid” of the Islamists. Let’s assume that, nevertheless, the Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, wins in the next round of voting. Will he deliver the economic progress and other goods that most Egyptians care most about? Not likely. If he fails, will that fuel doubt about whether Islam — particularly the restored seventh-century model — really is “the answer” to all that afflicts Egypt and the broader “Muslim world”? Very likely.

In this light, it should become apparent that the threat posed by Iran is more urgent, by an order of magnitude, than any other now on the horizon. The War against the West that began with Iran’s 1979 revolution, from which have sprung all the other modern Islamist and Jihadist movements (al-Qaeda’s very much included) will be won or lost — it is not a misunderstanding that can be resolved through “confidence-building measures.” That ought to prompt us to ask: What is our war-fighting strategy? On which battlefields must we engage our enemies? Which battles must we win?

The answer to these questions — not frustration with the dearth of sincere Muslim freedom fighters, justified though that is; not humanitarian concerns, laudable as those may be — should determine whether or not we provide material assistance to the Syrian opposition.

And that’s all we’re talking about here: Those facing Assad’s guns are not asking us to put boots on the ground. What they do want are the means to defend themselves, secure communications technology, and a limited number of other assets that will give them a fighting chance — though no guarantees. Providing such assistance will give us a fighting chance to influence the opposition now and the post-Assad environment later — though no guarantees.

The alternative is to stay on the sidelines, leaving the opposition to the tender mercies of Assad and his patrons in Tehran who are supplying weapons, advisers, and more. They grasp that the Battle of Syria is hugely consequential. They know that the fall of Assad would be a major blow to them. By the same token, it will be a major blow to the West if, despite Washington’s pronouncements and posturing, Khamenei, with assistance from the Kremlin, rescues and restores his most valued Arab bridgehead. And should Khamenei move from that victory to the production of nuclear weapons, we’re in for a very rough 21st century.

It is worth recalling: In World War II, we first fought the Germans not in Europe but in the remote deserts of North Africa, correctly perceived as a battlefield we could not afford to cede. And, in that conflict, we aligned with Soviet Communists because, as President Roosevelt phrased it, he was willing to “hold hands with the devil” to defeat Fascist ideologies and movements. Roosevelt was thinking strategically. He understood that national-security policy makes such strange bedfellows — always has, always will.

— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.



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