Jonah’s column today on the Syrian Civil War is, as one would expect, stellar. I’ll leave to others the debate over whether the better historical parallel is the Spanish Civil War (Michael Ledeen’s argument) or post-Reformation Europe (Jonah’s) — as with most analogies, the situations involved are similar but not duplicative. For the moment, I’d like to make two observations about the question Jonah implies at the start of his analysis: Was there a point in time — a point now passed — when the U.S. could have productively intervened in Syria?
1. The conventional wisdom, which pro-interventionists continue to spout, is that the “failure” of the U.S. to take timely action in Syria created a leadership vacuum that has since been filled by Islamic supremacists, including al-Qaeda affiliates. As I’ve posited here before, I think this is wrong and worth rebutting because similar intervention controversies are bound to arise going forward.
Jonah asserts that “the rebellion began as a nonsectarian protest against Assad’s corruption.” I will stipulate that this is so for argument’s sake, even though the recent history of Syria is that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic supremacists have been the backbone of opposition to the Assad regime (both father and son). My point is that we must not conflate the trigger for the current uprising with the brute, overarching reality of Syrian society: Even if we assume secularists are a strong enough faction to spark a rebellion, they are not strong enough to topple the Assad regime. There was never a chance that Assad (particularly when we factor in the backing of Iran and Hezbollah) could be overthrown without the committed participation of Islamic supremacists, including well-trained violent jihadists. I do not believe there was a void caused by the failure of American leadership. All along, the choice in Syria has been Shiite supremacists or Sunni supremacists; there was never an option C.
2. Among the most significant contentions Jonah makes is that “Christianity benefits from dogmas and doctrines more conducive to the separation of church and state than those found in Islam.” There are varying interpretations of Islam, but it is worth emphasizing that the sharia supremacism that dominates the Middle East is not merely less conducive to a separation between the sacred and the secular; it flatly rejects such an arrangement. That is why the supremacist construction of Islam is better thought of as a political ideology than a religion. I am not arguing that Islam is not a religion or that even supremacist Islam is bereft of what we in the West would recognize as religious tenets. But religious tenets make up a very small component of supremacist Islam; the ideology’s express ambition is to control every aspect of political and social life. And many very influential Muslim scholars who endorse this interpretation of sharia contend that a separation of mosque and state is a betrayal of Islam, not just a different way of interpreting Islam.
In the Middle East, this contention is the equivalent of accusing someone of apostasy — a capital offense. Muslim reformers are extraordinarily courageous. It is easy to see how our admiration for them leads to wishful thinking about their prospects for success. But their struggle is a very long slog. As Jonah suggests, a lasting solution to the Middle East horror is not in sight, and it is up to people on the ground there — not much we can do about that.