It seems like only yesterday Bashar al-Assad was being courted by progressive Western politicians even as he conspired with Iranian jihadists and Kremlin strongmen. And it was less than two years ago that Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue and comandante of the fashionistas, was celebrating Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad as “a rose in the desert,” whose “style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment . . . a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement.”
The Syrian dictator has yet to be pried from power, but with the Kremlin sending war ships for a possible evacuation of Russian citizens, it may not be long before the Assads are passé. That’s good news, isn’t it? In the Middle East, “yes” and “no” are rarely correct answers.
We can say this: Assad’s downfall would be preferable to Assad’s survival. As U.S. Central Command chief General James N. Mattis told Congress last March, regime change in Syria would represent “the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years.” And Iran — ruled by a regime that is building nuclear weapons, has plotted terrorism from Buenos Aires to Georgetown, threatens Israel with genocide, and proclaims jihad against the “Great Satan” — is unquestionably the free world’s most vexing challenge.
For reasons having more to do with geopolitics than ideology, Western-educated, English-speaking, outwardly secular and socialist Assad decided long ago to serve as the ayatollahs’ satrap, helping them extend their power into the Arab and Sunni worlds and facilitating their plans for hegemony over the Middle East.
The collapse of the Assad regime would impede this project and deliver a body blow as well to Hezbollah, Iran’s foreign legion and currently the best-armed — and therefore strongest — faction in Lebanon. By the same token, Assad’s survival would be a great victory for Iran and Hezbollah — and a defeat for Lebanon, the U.S., and Israel.
It was not until eight months after the anti-Assad protests broke out in January 2011 that President Obama called for the dictator to step down. Obama willed the ends but not the means. It was left to private groups to supply even the communications technology necessary for dissenters to organize against (and escape from) Assad’s forces. Today, the administration is assisting some rebel groups with communications, but other responsibilities – the provision of weapons for example — have been outsourced to Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
Those three nations agree that Assad must go. But they want him replaced by Islamists of some stripe, and so it is Islamist groups that they have been backing with what amounts to Washington’s tacit approval. As a result, Islamists have become dominant on the battlefield and within the newly established Syrian National Coalition of Revolution and Opposition Forces (SNCROF), which Obama recently said he will recognize.
Meanwhile, lacking money and weapons, moderate groups have been left in the lurch. Is it too late to begin assisting them now? Once again the answer is not quite yes or no: Yes, it’s too late to make them the driving force of the Syrian Revolution. But providing support even now would be consistent with both America’s values and interests.
As to values, Americans should always support those fighting for freedom, no matter how small a minority they may be. If we do not, no one else will — not Europeans, most of whom have become indifferent to tyranny; and certainly not the UN, which de facto sides with authoritarians and autocrats. As to interests: With help, freedom fighters may be able to damage and weaken our common enemies. (Without help they can do nothing but capitulate or die.)
Even after Assad’s departure, peace is unlikely to break out in Syria. Instead, expect revenge killings and sectarian fighting, with Iran fueling the fires. An election may be attempted but odds are not high that such an attempt will succeed. Currently, different groups and factions hold sway in different parts of the country. Many will not relinquish their power easily — and it’s not obvious that they should.
Syria’s most important ethno-religious minorities — Kurds, Druze, Christians, Alawites (Assad’s people), Shiites, and tribal groups with long and strong traditions — will certainly not want to be ruled by Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham, the two Salafi/jihadists groups that have played an increasingly effective role in the fighting over recent months. They also may not want to submit to Muslim Brothers who, though less thirsty for violence, are Arabs, Sunnis, and Islamists eager to impose their version of a sharia state.
If we provide support to anti-Islamist groups, will they at least be able to defend themselves, achieving a measure of autonomy within the boundaries of their home turfs? There is no guarantee. Without our support, however, it’s hard to see how they can avoid being crushed under Islamist boots.
One post-Assad outcome seems clear and positive: It will be a long time before Syria is again a threat to Lebanon or Israel — assuming, of course, that Assad’s chemical weapons can be eliminated from the equation. That those weapons of mass destruction have been allowed to stay in the dictator’s hands all these years represents yet one more failure of the so-called international community. I say that as someone with a “trained analytical mind who dresses with cunning understatement.”
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.