The Corner

Taking Sides on Syria

I don’t know if I’m Andy McCarthy’s greatest fan, but I’m right up there at or near the top of the list, so whenever I disagree with him my immediate suspicion is that I’ve got it wrong. I even find myself cheering at some of the things I disagree with, because they are so well said and so well argued and they bespeak a visceral reaction that I invariably share.

So it is with his “It’s a Pity Somebody Has to Win.”

Andy doesn’t think we should take sides in the fight against the Assad regime in Syria. He doesn’t like the regime, and he doesn’t like the people fighting against it either, so he wants us to stay out of it, and take grim pleasure in watching them slaughter each other. If we thought it was a shame that somebody had to win the Iran–Iraq war, why should we feel differently today about the Syrian civil war?

Nobody likes the regime — that is, nobody outside the “professional diplomats” and spooks, who long argued that Syria was actually helpful to us. Let’s not forget that Henry Kissinger once said that Hafez Assad was the most interesting man in the Middle East. But nowadays nobody this side of Moscow and Beijing is rooting for Assad.

Andy’s not rooting for the other side, either, because he thinks it’s likely to turn out the same way as the movements that overthrew Mubarak and Qadaffi. Muslim fanatics either drove them or took them over, and if anything, Egypt and Libya are worse today — worse for our interests, worse for civilization, worse for the people there — than under the previous tyrants.

My brilliant Russian grandmother Mashe used to say that things are never so bad they can’t get worse, and Egypt and Libya certainly got worse. But I’d like to stick in a footnote: It was not inevitable that Egypt and Libya get worse. They got worse because evil people won a struggle for power, and they won in part because we didn’t contest it forcefully enough. And not just in the endgame. The Muslim Brothers and the meddlesome Iranians were organizing their forces in Egypt for a long time, while we were absent. What would have happened if we had been busily supporting pro-democracy forces for several decades?

I don’t know the answer. It probably isn’t knowable. But I do know that by the time the post-Mubarak battles were fought, our Islamist enemies had a big competitive advantage. (End of footnote.)

Now we’ve got Syria. In fact, we’ve got more than Syria, because Syria has friends, most notably Iran and Russia, and then there’s Chavez, to our south, along with Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and the frères Castro. The symbol of this alliance is the Iran Air/Viasa flight that goes back and forth between Tehran and Caracas, with a frequent stop in Damascus (a lot of Iranian military aid to Assad is delivered on “passenger flights”). If you want another symbol, there’s the Russian navy, offshore Syria, and Russian generals warning that the Kremlin will go to war on behalf of Syria and/or Iran if anybody dares to support the regimes’ opponents.

It’s a mistake to talk about Syria by itself. It is part of a larger strategic picture, which I’ve called the Big War or the Real War, the war that is being waged against us by an alliance of jihadis and leftists. Syria is one battlefield in that war. Syria policy should be thought about, designed, and conducted in that context.

Radical Islam is the mobilizing ideology for most of the foot soldiers who kill Americans all over the Middle East, and are planning and training to kill us here, and the prime mover of radical Islamic terrorists is Iran. Those Shiite mosques sprouting in the Catholic humus of South America aren’t just religious centers, they’re terrorist training operations as well, and the Iranians have sent weapons, drones, and probably missiles to Venezuela. Those terrorists, and those weapons, are to be used against us.

Syria’s a link in that network. Egypt and Libya weren’t. If Syria weren’t engaged in the Big War against us, I’d be more inclined to say “let them kill each other.” (Remember that I thought we should stand by Mubarak when the mobs gathered in Tahrir Square.)

Iran is the centerpiece of the enemy alliance, and Syria is in many ways an extension of Iran in the region. The Tehran regime knows this, which is why Hezbollah and Revolutionary Guards troops have been fighting against the insurrectionists in Syria, and why Iranian drones are killing them, and why Iranian experts are helping Assad block, filter, and analyze the insurrectionists’ communications (the Russians and Chinese help, too, having earlier helped the Iranians do it).

If Assad falls, it would be a body blow to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and a welcome plus for our national security. It would make it harder for our enemies to wage the Big War. So we should support his downfall, unless we think it would make things worse.


No doubt there are lots of bad actors among the insurrection, and there are friends of America and even would-be democrats, too. If we were actively engaged, we might be able to shape their ideological outlook and their future behavior after Assad is destroyed. For sure, we won’t have much to say if we “lead from behind” or remain aloof, hurling curses on both their houses. The victorious Free Syrian Army and whatever “civilian” force succeeds Assad, would know that we had declined to arm or train them, provide them with communications gear, or money, or intelligence. 

What if radicals from the Brotherhood and other noxious jihadi groups take over Syria, as they are doing in Egypt and Libya? Will that make things worse? It might, but we’d have to make a real mess of statecraft to pull that off. (Yeah, I know we’ve demonstrated a real talent for that, but still.) But there too, we have a better chance of keeping the likes of Zawahiri from penetrating the opposition if we’re engaged in the fight, than if we wait and see how it turns out. The world changes when America moves, after all.

It would be even better if we supported Khamenei’s domestic enemies, and they succeeded in bringing down the regime in Tehran. That would be a two-fer. I don’t believe Assad could survive that, nor would Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, two murderous tentacles flowing from the Iranian hydra.

We’ve had several chances to support the Iranian opposition, but both Bush (whose secretary of state pulled the plug on a planned Iranian general strike in 2003) and Obama (who abandoned the huge numbers of Iranian demonstrators demanding an end to the regime in 2009) became accomplices to the evil of our declared enemies. 

That’s the main battle, and as you know I think we can win it without deploying troops or dropping bombs. We should support non-violent revolution, or, if you’d rather, insurrection. That option no longer exists in the Syrian theater, if it ever did. It certainly did in Iran, and I think it still does.

We have more pleasant lines of action in Iran than in Syria, but it would be folly to remain aloof from the Syrian battlefield. It’s part of a war in which we are the prime target. If Assad wins, the alliance waging the Big War gets stronger. That’s the way it is.

One more thought: There is a linkage between the intensity of jihadist fervor and results on the battlefields of the Big War. An apocalyptic/messianic movement of the sort the bin Ladens, Zawahiris, and Khameneis lead gains enormous support when we are either defeated or seen to be intimidated. But the movement loses strength, and recruitment becomes much more difficult, when it’s defeated, as in Iraq (We failed to ask, what ever happened to the divine support Osama claimed for his jihad, anyway?). Syria and Iran are central to the Big War, and we can’t escape it. They are waging war against us, as the Iranian regime has for 33 years, and we can either win or lose. We can’t opt out. They won’t let us.


Michael LedeenMichael Ledeen is an American historian, philosopher, foreign-policy analyst, and writer. He is a former consultant to the National Security Council, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense. ...


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