Tuesday, October 21st, 2014 | A post by Camille Otrakji
There is no shortage of finger pointing for what went wrong in Syria. “The Syrian regime” still has the lion’s share of the blame, but President Obama, the Syrian opposition coalition, Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, Qatar, and ISIS also get frequent mentions.
Aside from all the above players who deserve their shares of the blame, in this article I would like to also blame: “the revolution” and “the United States”… Both were enthusiastic promoters of the Arab Spring … a catastrophic aberration.
The United States (government, think tanks, journalists and activists) made a serious blunder: Believing in, then hyping the Arab Spring and raising expectations to the stratosphere. Revolutionaries were led to believe they were all noble, bright and courageous heroes. Change was promised at Hollywood action-movies’ speed (with Disney fairy tales’ elegance, and happy ending).
Irrational exuberance led to unmet expectations and that in turn led to anger which was often expressed through bloodshed, violence, denial and perpetual rebellions. Notwithstanding any mistakes or variations, most of the countries that were unfortunate enough to experience “the Arab Spring” paid a heavy price.
Who do we blame for ISIS?
“The Syrian rebels would be immeasurably weaker today without al-Qaeda in their ranks. By and large, Free Syrian Army (FSA) battalions are tired, divided, chaotic, and ineffective. Feeling abandoned by the West, rebel forces are increasingly demoralized as they square off with the Assad regime’s superior weaponry and professional army. Al-Qaeda fighters, however, may help improve morale. The influx of jihadis brings discipline, religious fervor, battle experience from Iraq, funding from Sunni sympathizers in the Gulf, and most importantly,deadly results. In short, the FSA needs al-Qaeda now”
Ed Husain, Council on Foreign Relations
In Syria, the United States did not keep an equal distance from the two large camps: the pro-government camp (with millions of supporters) and the pro-opposition camp (eventually including millions of supporters, but initially much smaller). In 2011 the U.S. did not side with “the Syrian people”. It did not even side with “the Sunnis majority” … it sided with the Hama-revenge camp, with the sectarian, and non-liberal Arab Spring camp … It sided with ANYONE who was motivated enough to help the United States topple the regime and who knew how to say the right things (not to embarrass the United States). It sided with opportunists … those who were willing to take money from Qatar (spent 3 billion dollars the first 2 years alone), Saudi, Kuwait, the UAE, and the west. An estimated $10 billions were spent on the regime change operation so far.
The few liberals in “the revolution” were granted superficial prominence (meeting western leaders, speaking to the media, being chosen to lead opposition councils and coalitions) while the real power behind the scene was initially the Muslim Brotherhood (sponsored by Turkey and Qatar) which was later joined by various shades of extremist groups backed by Saudi Arabia and the west.
Thanks to the Arab Spring, Liberals who wanted to have a role in revolutions, started speaking in religious terms and holding hands with the Islamists that they used to loathe. Christian opposition figures such as Michel Kilo and George Sabra were among the most consistent defenders of Islamist rebels.
Syria’s top philosopher Dr. Sadek J. Al-Azm (lectures at Princeton U., an atheist who used to ridicule religion) started to champion the cause of the struggle for enabling Syria’s Sunnis to wrestle power away from the Alawites… at any price.
Other Islamists realized all they need to do is to shorten their beards and to promise good relations with the United States and Israel, and to repeat (when interviewed by western media) that they respect minority rights and women’s rights.
American and western think tanks (and intelligence agencies) started hiring experts or inviting for lectures members or sympathizers of the Muslim brotherhood, an organization that is by now classified as terrorist in Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. State department documents reveal a 2010 assessment by the Obama administration of the Brotherhood and other Islamists that concluded the United States should drop its longstanding support for “stability” in favor of Islamists.
The LA Times revealed that in 2011 that President Obama placed more phone calls to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan than any other leader (besides the British prime minister). A year earlier the same Erdogan was quoted in cables from the U.S. embassy in Turkey as saying in private “Democracy is like a train. We shall get out when we arrive at the station we want”. Other cables described Erdogan’s inner circle members (such as Turkey’s current Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu) as believers in the Islamization of Europe and reclaiming Spain.
Davutoğlu’s former student professor Behlul Ozkan wrote an article at the New York Times last August in which he described Davutoğlu as a believer in fairy tales about the revival of Turkish Islamist empire that will rule over the land the Ottoman empire used to rule. Davutoğlu believed ”the nation states established after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire are artificial creations and Turkey must now carve out its own Lebensraum”. He ”predicted that the overthrown [Arab] dictatorships would be replaced with Islamic regimes, thus creating a regional “Muslim Brotherhood belt” under Turkey’s leadership”
It also did not bother the Americans (and their western allies) that in Arabic, top leaders of the Brotherhood were not denying that their goal is to start with an Islamic government, then, when they get more powerful they plan … “to rule the world”.
The Clintons played a prominent role in promoting the Brotherhood (and Qatari / Turkish leadership of the Arab Spring). Mrs. Clinton, more than anyone else, should be accountable for this costly mistake.
Luckily, by 2014, most of the liberal figures in the revolution camp learned, the hard way, that the brotherhood is impossible to work with. (read post by opposition figure Lama Atassi). Of course, some of the sharp criticism for the brotherhood is also the result of opposition figures’ awareness that the United States stopped supporting the Qatari / Turkish / Brotherhood project in favor of a larger role for the, brotherhood-hating, Saudis.
The false dichotomy of evil regime and evil ISIS/ISIL that “hijacked the peaceful democratic revolution” should be replaced with the more realistic picture: The majority of anti-regime coalition is made of various (paler) shades of ISIS. At best one finds sectarian liberals who cannot stand the Shia and Alawites. Early chants of “the Syrian people are one” were designed to appeal to the west and to Syria’s minorities. The real energy was behind the “no Iran and no Hezbollah, we want a God fearing President” chants, as “the people want to kill the President” revenge seeking chants.
That is not to say that the Syrian people at large are of this type (far from it), but within “the revolution” various shades of sectarianism can be dominant, especially among their most passionate activists.
ISIS gradually grew as the regime-toppling camp continued to tolerate or even welcome and admire more and more religiosity and violence.
- At first, the fact most demonstrations came out of mosques and were all-male, was justified (we have to protect our women from the regime’s brutality)
- Then demonstrators started to follow requests from eccentric Saudi based Shaikh Ar’our. We were told they are young and passionate, it is ok.
- Then when sectarian chants and an obsession with “justice” (i.e. violent revenge) became the norm, we were told “no need to worry, remember our peaceful protesters’ chants “the Syrian people are one” … those represent the spirit the “true revolution”.
- Then they formed their Rebel group … the FSA. But they promised it was only to protect olive branch carrying peaceful protesters.
- Then when their FSA (or dozens of different rebel groups by then) started to grow in size and to attack cities, they explain “The FSA is liberating our people in those cities from the murderous Assad army”
- The FSA was always communicating in very religious language. We were told this is beautiful and we should embrace the fact our freedom heroes believe in God.
- Then more and more radical versions of the FSA started to appear … they started to publicly declare their hate to anything democratic and their commitment to establish an Islamic state in Syria. This, again, was welcomed by liberal revolutionaries who explained that everything will be fine as our rebels are free in the new Syria to wish for anything, including an Islamic State, but no need to worry because “the Syrian people” want democracy, and the revolution is for every Syrian, Christian, Alawite, or Muslim ….
- Then Annusra (Al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria) started to out perform all other (1200) rebel groups. The United States classified Annusra as a terror organization, but a majority of Syrian revolutionaries protested and called Annusra heroes and freedom fighters. By this point, “liberals” .. including a few atheists that I know, were admiring and defending Al-Qaeda (their top rebel group).
- Iran and Shia hate became socially acceptable … no more need to hide one’s Shia/Alawite hate. Some protested but it was still considered “a point of view” and no one was boycotted for being a sectarian.
- Then ISIS emerged … denial ruled … Opposition figures told their supporters that the regime’s intelligence agencies are running ISIS … Proof?: the regime and ISIS never fight each other
But really … how different is ISIS from Annusra? How different is Annusra from the Islamic Front? … How different is the Islamic Front from the “FSA” that everyone admires until today?
For more on how ISIS (the very definition of evil) grew this large, read about “the slippery slope to evil” By American psychologist Phillip Zimbardo (Stanford U.). The line between good and evil is permeable… today, good people support or tolerate ISIS and many more support Annusra/Al-Qaeda, including some who are part of the Council on Foreign Relations.
So, what does the United States want in Syria? … nothing?
Since the start of the armed conflict in Syria I have been periodically asking friends who are have access to top American decision makers for an update on their current state of mind regarding Syria. The answer I got was always some variation of the following theme: “We don’t really care about Syria. Syria is a highly complex small country. The return on investment is not attractive. If we break it we have to own it. We have no horse in this race. They all hate us, especially the opposition (and we know it). There are no good guys in Syria. All we want is to make sure nothing leaks, because if our allies in Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan or Israel are exposed to violence, then we will be forced to act.
This is of course very different from frequent public statements that always expressed the administration’s concern and attention to the dire humanitarian suffering in Syria and its clear backing of Syrian opposition and joining or leading all international efforts that seek to topple the Syrian government.
So why do they like to think (or claim) that they do not care about Syria? Is Syria really that insignificant or unconnected to U.S. interests in the Middle East? Are all the Syrian leaders and activists (government or opposition) that much at odds with American values?
Foreign policy in the United States is supposed to be decided between the President and Congress (see article II of the constitution). But increasingly, various other power centers influence foreign policy decision making: Think tanks, the media. social media, democracy promoting NGOs, Humanitarian NGOs, Israel, Arab lobbyists, Oil and defence companies, Intelligence agencies, and zionist Christian organizations.
Unfortunately, the whole system in general has near zero incentives for caring about what is good for Syria.
It took President Obama over a year to be able to manage the appointment (in 2010) of Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford. Congressmen, journalists, and human rights activists opposed it. Syria has very few friends in Washington.
American media, think tanks, and Twitter activists overwhelmingly sided with “the revolution”. It is not President Obama who should be blamed for America’s foolish decision to continue arming ”moderate rebels” in Syria, it is everyone else who never stopped covering up for everything that is wrong on the side of the conflict that they supported.
In 2010, conservative analyst Lee Smith wrote at The Weekly Standard:
“The argument over how to engage Syria encompasses, both sentimental and strategic logic. It’s a debate in which emotions run surprisingly high for a country that has nothing like the significance of China, Russia, or Iran” … “a [Syrian] regime that much of Washington loves to hate” … “Many of those who are most contemptuous of the Syrian regime are to be found in the State Department”
Understanding American interventions in Syria and the Middle East: Humanity AND policy
In his book “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” (page 262) Thomas Friedman wrote about a fictional dialogue between former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and former Syrian President Hafaz el-Assad who Friedman imagined would say:
“You know what really bothers me about you Americans—you want to have it both ways all the time. You want to lecture everyone about your values, about freedom and liberty, but when those values get in the way of your political or economic interests, you just forget about them. So spare me the values lecture, Chris. You’re the ones who need to decide whether you want to be a superpower that represents your super values or a traveling salesman that represents your Supermarkets. Make up your mind. Until then, stay out of my life.” … “I will make peace with the Jews only in a way that establishes me as the one Arab leader who knows how to make peace with dignity—who does not grovel the way those lackeys Arafat and Sadat did.”
Going back to 1947:
“Politicians in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt seem to have been elected into power, but what elections! The winners were all candidates of foreign powers, old land-owners who tell their tenants and villagers how to vote, or rich crooks who can buy their votes. But peoples of these countries are intelligent, and they have a natural bent for politics. If there is a part of the world which is crying for the democratic process the Arab World is it.”
CIA station Chief Miles Copeland describing a speech by a member of a group of intellectuals at the U.S. embassy in Damascus. The group wanted to fine tune democratic process in the Middle East but later decided that the best way to help Syria become more democratic is to finance and support the first ever military coup against the country’s democratically elected leaders. [read details here]
“The first American attempt to help the Arabs occurred in Syria in 1868. American civil war veterans led 80 Arabs in a revolt against Ottoman rule. Armed with rifles and howitzers the rebels clashed with a superior Ottoman force near the Syrian city of Hama. The rebels (and their camels) were killed. American consul in Damascus worried that the incident would give Middle Easterners the impression that Americans sympathize with efforts to overthrow despotic governments and encourage them to revolt. In contrast to the European powers, he stressed that “America’s mission was one of humanity and not policy”
Michael B. Oren: “America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present”
In theory, and sometimes in practice, the United States intervenes to promote both its interest and its moral values.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is quite aware of that. When he met in 2011 with American supporters of Israel, he assured them:
“When you support Israel, you don’t have to choose between your interests and your values; you get both.”
The United States actively seeks to count among its allies all Middle Eastern countries that can impact, either positively or negatively, American interests. This includes countries that are financially powerful, countries that have a strong military, or countries that have large populations and size.
But enjoying the status of a valuable U.S. ally, influential Middle Eastern states also need to meet to some extent a number of American values: respecting the security of Israel, adopting market economy, “moderation” (as defined by U.S. preferences), and hopefully: democracy and human rights.
America’s other Arab allies cannot match Israel’s favorite-ally status. Saudi Arabia can serve American interests (being a financial power and a leader of Sunni Islam) but it is far from being perfectly aligned with American values. Lebanon is a democracy that respects free speech, women’s rights and minority rights. So it is an ally that the United States is proud to have. But Lebanon is a weak country that the U.S. cannot rely on militarily, politically or economically. Jordan is a “moderate Arab state” but not a democracy and not an influential ally either.
In other words, Israel is the only country in the Middle East that scores high marks along both dimensions (despite its horrible treatment of the Palestinians in the territories it occupies and despite being in violation of dozens of UN resolutions … but that’s another story).
So where does Syria fit on that two dimensional matrix?
Since 1970 Syria has been constantly on the move, trying to position itself closer to the illusive upper right quadrant (serving American interests and complying with American values) where Israel and only Israel exists.
But Syria wanted to eat its cake and to have it too. It wanted to maintain its independent decision making, including the right to oppose (often successfully) U.S. initiatives that Syria’s leadership found unjust or dangerous, but it hoped the United States would show some understanding and respect for Syria’s right to disagree with American wishes.
Unfortunately, the United States was never sure it needed to tolerate a country that wasn’t large enough … not populous enough … not rich enough … and not compliant enough with American values. Syria did meet SOME of America’s moral values requirements: It is a secular state that respected minority rights, religious rights, and women’s rights. Syria always remained moderate and prudent in its “resistance” to Israel’s occupation and aggression. Syria adopted a limited form of free market economy. But it was definitely not a democracy and it lacks any tolerance of political opposition.
The result is that Syria was pushed back and downsized each time it managed to grow in influence and/or respect. Who did the downsizing? It was always the United States and its allies in the region (and in Europe). How was it done?
1. By military and economic means: Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, rebels/jihadists in the current regime change war, economic boycott … zero loans and grants …
2. By humiliation and demonization: diplomatic boycott, placing Syria on a list of states that support terror, media attacks, amplifying Syria’s violations of human rights, UN resolution that forced a humiliating withdrawal of Syrian army from Lebanon …
In 1978 Syria opposed U.S. brokered separate peace treaty between Egypt and Israel arguing that with Egypt out of the way, Israel will never have any incentive to return occupied territories to Syria and the Palestinians. Syria was right of course, but the Carter administration decided to punish Syria. There was support for the Muslim Brotherhood (through America’s regional allies) and other pressure tactics. But to place economic sanctions against Syria and to humiliate and isolate Hafez Al-Assad, the Americans came up with “list of states that support terrorism”. The list was invented in 1979 specifically for Syria. Until today Syria is the only country that always remains on that list (for harboring “terrorists” Khaled Mashaal for example … although today he lives in U.S. ally Qatar).
Incidentally … Were you aware that the United States recently added Syria to the list of countries that are “not doing enough to fight slavery”? (not a joke, see this link)
In other words: The U.S. periodically decides to push Syria down (weaker) and to the left (less respected) on the chart below
But Syria always managed to recover and expand its power and regain its respect to some extent… until it was subjected to the next resizing campaign by the United States and its allies.
To illustrate the dramatic rollercoaster ride that Syria has been going through since 1970, I will provide quotes from two different opinion pieces in London-based Saudi newspaper Asharq Alawsat. First, by a prominent academic and journalist, Mamoun Fandi who wrote an opinion piece in Sep 2005, when Syria was isolated, humiliated and weak, advising the leaders of Syria to give up and surrender.
“Syria is now in real trouble. What can be done to save Syrian people from paying the price of their governments wrong decisions? The solution is a meeting between all Arab countries including Syria, on the condition that Syria listens without being allowed a single one of its long disdainful speeches. The aim of such a meeting would be to give Syria a political cover to use in coming out of its current bottleneck. It would also present Syria with a frame to preserve its dignity as it withdraws from the pack of policies that reflect a state of obstinacy. Without such rapid Syrian withdrawal and without a similarly rapid Arab political involvement we will watch Syria move confidently towards hell with the speed of light. A group of foolish Arabs will remain applauding Syria as it heads to the bottom of the rank of Arab nationalism. I also hope that Syria will not imagine that this scenario will take many years to be executed, or that the Bush regime may have departed before the effects fully impact Syria.”
And in sharp contrast to the above tone, on June 28th 2010 Saudi Arabia’s most prominent journalist Abdel Rahman Elrashed (a Syria critic normally) wrote:
“On the Arab stage, Syria today is the only country that played on the scene continuously and in all directions. It holds the keys to many conflicts. Despite its limited assets (no strong army, weak economy, and continuously isolated by the US). The secret to Syria’s influence is her skilled diplomacy. She invents new realities, imposes new agendas that were impossible in the past, and keeps the region occupied with Syria’s wishes and not the other way around. I noticed that the Syrians are creative in enabling external players to play roles in the Arab world and are skilled in utilizing those roles to their advantage. In fact it was the Syrians who invented Turkey’s role as a new host for peace talks with Israel. After 80 years absence, Erdogan is now a main player in the Iranian and Palestinian files.
Before the Turks, Syria gave Iran a role. Without Damascus Iran would not have had any role to play. Similarly, the Syrians invented a role for Qatar and helped her settle the conflict in Lebanon (2008) and even helped Qatar participate in talks with Hamas. We should not forget that the Syrians had serious disagreements with former French President Jacque Chirac, yet it was the Syrians who gave President Sarkozy a role to play in the Middle East and made him the only western mediator. He, in turn tried to help Syria and the United States communicate again. Without the Syrians Sarkozy would not have had any role to play.”
It is clear that by 2010 Syria was playing a role much larger than most of her adversaries were willing to admit.
So again, it was time to bring Syria down. This time the Arab Spring led by Turkey and Qatar (at first) attempted to move power into Turkey’s hands as it tried to ensure that its allies, the Muslim Brotherhood, will lead in every Arab republic affected by the Arab Spring. In Syria they first tried to convince President Assad to remain (he was very popular) as a figure head, but when he did not play along, they started to demand he steps down (or aside).
The graph below illustrates the constantly-changing nature of Syria’s influence in the Middle East between 1970 and 2011.
US wants Syria to be Lebanon, Assad to be Sadat
“Begin remained intransigent, so Carter persuaded Sadat to give up his demand for a Palestinian state, to the outrage of his advisers”
The 50 Years War, a PBS documentary.
“A man of extraordinary brilliance and a good sense of humor, he was also ruthless and passionately nationalistic.”… “the kind of man who went into a poker game with a hand of twos and threes, and scooped the pot; the cleverest politician in the Middle East”
Henri Kissinger’s impressions of Hafez Assad
The United States does not like to deal with Arab leaders who are “passionately nationalistic and extraordinarily brilliant”. That is why President Carter eventually opted for working with Egypt’s Sadat instead of Syria’s Hafez Assad. Sadat went to Camp David unprepared and when faced with a little display of Israeli hardline bargaining tactics followed by some American pressure, he very simply gave up Egypt’s demand for a return to the 1967 borders. No Jerusalem, no west bank and Gaza, and no Golan Heights. The United States loved him.
Sadat made Assad, and Syria, appear unreasonable in comparison with his boundless flexibility. Most other Arab leaders were also consistently responsive to US demands or recommendations. Those became known as “the Arab moderates”. Syria was too difficult to deal with, perhaps as difficult as Israel and its Likud leadership at the time.
The United States might be a democracy within its borders, but on the world stage, it “pressures” disobedient leaders of weaker countries until they obey, or get removed. [ex: Iran’s Mosaddeq in 1953, Bashar Al-Assad in 2005]
What the people want in Syria does not carry much weight. In 2005 Washington Post associate editor David Ignatius visited Syria during the days the Bush administration was openly threatening that “Syria will be next”. Instead Ignatius admitted in an opinion piece titled careful with Syria that “It’s hard to find a Syrian who doesn’t want Assad to remain at least as a figurehead”. But then he still suggested that U.S. and French embassies in Damascus should work on promoting and backing anyone who wanted to eventually overthrow the popular President; “More pressure on Syria will be necessary if the Assad regime openly defies the United Nations … America and France should broaden their outreach to Syrian dissidents, human rights groups, artists, professors — indeed, almost anyone who’s willing to talk with outsiders. They should convey the message that the West is standing with the Syrian people as they move into the future. When Syria is truly ripe for change, these helping hands can ensure a safe passage.”
After the first wave of Arab Spring protests hit Syria, President Assad was presented with a list of ten names of potential Syrian moderate opposition figures who might be suitable for forming a national coalition government that would satisfy the regime’s opponents. The President looked at the list and told my friend who proposed it: “only two out of the ten are patriotic Syrians, the other 8 are “embassy types”. Embassy types are artists, liberal thinkers, Kurds, and other government opponents who are always at the American, French or British embassies. The ones David Ignatius suggested cooperating with. The United States finds it normal that it should influence, organize, promote, or brainwash local activists.
In 2006 William Roebuck, at the time Charge d’Affaires and head of the embassy in the absence of an Ambassador – in Damascus wrote this in a cable outlining strategies for destabilizing the Syrian government. In his summary of the cable, Roebuck wrote:
“We believe Bashar’s weaknesses are in how he chooses to react to looming issues, both perceived and real, such as a the conflict between economic reform steps (however limited) and entrenched, corrupt forces, the Kurdish question, and the potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists. This cable summarizes our assessment of these vulnerabilities and suggests that there may be actions, statements, and signals that the USG can send that will improve the likelihood of such opportunities arising.” … That is, the likelihood of such conflicts and threats arising.
In another cable, Roebuck writes:
“– Possible action: PLAY ON SUNNI FEARS OF IRANIAN INFLUENCE: There are fears in Syria that the Iranians are active in both Shia proselytizing and conversion of, mostly poor, Sunnis. Though often exaggerated, such fears reflect an element of the Sunni community in Syria that is increasingly upset by and focused on the spread of Iranian influence in their country through activities ranging from mosque construction to business. Both the local Egyptian and Saudi missions here, (as well as prominent Syrian Sunni religious leaders), are giving increasing attention to the matter and we should coordinate more closely with their governments on ways to better publicize and focus regional attention on the issue.”
Arab leaders who understand their limits get to enjoy America’s respect for as long as they are alive. When they visit Washington DC they get an official welcome at the White House, Christiane Amanpour refrains from attempts to humiliate them when she interviews them for CNN, and when they die, they get all surviving former American Presidents and foreign ministers to show up and pay their respects at their funerals.
When Anwar Sadat gave up Palestine and other Arab rights, Time magazine placed him on its cover seven times, four in one year. He was also named Time’s man of the year.
So, what kind of Syria would the United States like to see? “A democratic Syria” of course. But what kind of democracy?
Between 2003 and 2008 the US often accused Syria of meddling in Lebanese affairs.
On August 1st, 2007 President Bush issued an executive order entitled “Blocking Property of Persons Undermining the Sovereignty of Lebanon or Its Democratic Processes and Institutions.”
Anyone who engages in any act-violent or nonviolent-against the government of Lebanon risked having his or her property frozen.
Syrian meddling in Lebanon constitutes an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” Bush asserted, adding, “I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.”
Wikileaks 002602 (Dec 2006) is a cable sent from US Ambassador Jeff Feltman to one of the Bush administration’s many resident neocons, Elliott Abrams. The ambassador sounded content and amused:
“9. (C/NF) On a positive note, Hariri praised with seeming sincerity the performance of PM Fouad Siniora during this crisis. “If I had picked Bahije (Tabbarah, former Minister of Justice) a year ago,” he said, his voice trailing off as he shook his head. We think that this was a tacit acknowledgement, Saad-style, that the strong advice we and the French gave him to pick Siniora over his initial choice of Tabbarah was the right one. But what was encouraging in Saad’s praise for Siniora was the suggestion that the two of them will now be able to cooperate without the internal rivalries and jealousies that had plagued their relationship earlier this year. In general, we think Siniora has done a better job when he hasn’t had to worry about the less experienced but politically more powerful Saad second-guessing him.”
So the United States and France can name the prime minister of Lebanon by offering “strong advice” to the leader of the coalition that won the 2005 elections forcing him in effect to drop his own choice for prime minister (Tabbarah) and to accept America’s choice (Seniora).
Mr. Feltman later admitted that the United States and its allies spent over 500 million dollars trying to weaken the Aoun/Hezbollah (pro Syria) political coalition. Other Wikileaks cables show the US and French ambassadors generally had strong influence on decision making of the democratically elected leaders of Lebanon.
This is the democracy that the United States accused Syria of threatening. It is also the preferred democracy model that was promoted for Syria after the Arab Spring, by the United States, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. They want to turn Syria into another Lebanese democracy which is always weak, relying on outside powers for solving its internal conflicts, and always stuck in endless conflicts because it will suffer from the same multi-dimensional complexity of Lebanese politics where each politician takes into account the wishes of four bosses: his Prime minister or President, his favourite religious leader (Nasrallah, Patriarch Sfeir, Shaikh el-Aql, the Mufti …) the regional or foreign power that backs him or his party (Syria, Iran, the US, Israel, France, Saudi Arabia …), and perhaps a local political leader whose family is trusted by his people to lead them or protect their sectarian interests (Geagea, Hariri, Jumblatt, Gemayel, Chamoun, Frengiyeh, Aoun, …). Imagining the same for Syria would be worrying. The region will be frequently suffering from Syria’s lack of stability, keeping in mind Syria is much larger than Lebanon and it affects and borders other hotspots like Iraq, Israel and Turkey’s Kurdish regions. A dysfunctional Syria will invite more active competition among the region’s powers which will lead to continued instability.
If the United States is interested to put aside its own interests and focus more on what is good for Syria then there is room for meaningful constitutional reforms provided they do not threaten the country’s independence and stability; Religion must not be part of Syrian politics and the Presidency in Syria should not be open to the highest bidder from Saudi or Qatar…
Moving forward: US options in dealing with the ISIS Crisis (it rhymes!)
Option 1: Vetting, arming and Training “moderate rebels” = a few more years = a war of attrition.
“Even in an era of precision weapons, war is hell; it can be civilized to some extent by rules of conduct, but the most humane thing to do is to end it as quickly as possible.”
Time Magazine, revisiting the “Highway of death” story where U.S. air force unnecessarily killed thousands of retreating, Iraqi soldiers.
By the middle of 2011 the United States was sharply critical of the Syrian regime for its violent repression of the demonstrators which led at the time to hundreds of casualties. Yet by deciding to work on building that 10,000 member “moderate rebel” fighting force, it is also a decision to prolong the war for years which also means that tens of thousands will likely die.
So far President Obama continues to apply the brakes to slow down his key allies (Turkey and Saudi) who are pushing the United States to open up its weapons’ depots to the non-existent “moderate rebels”. Special Presidential envoy John Allen, briefing reporters on countering ISIS said: “And so that’s the intent. It’s not going to happen immediately. We’re working to establish the training sites now, and we’ll ultimately go through a vetting process and begin to bring the trainers and the fighters in to begin to build that force out”
But for the past three years the conflict has been consistently driving its stakeholders to escalate their commitments above what they originally planned.
Option 2: Boots on the ground, … but whose?
The United States does not have eligible allies in its fight against ISIS (and other extremists) today. Here is what is needed:
- Powerful enough and large enough army
- Will remain committed to fight for years and die in the tens of thousands
- An army that the Syrian and Iraqi people will not object to
- A country (leadership) that the United States and its allies do not object to
- A country that the U.S. knows and does not object to seeing it grow in prominence and influence after being declared U.S. partner in this fight.
The above criteria excludes the following armies: Israel, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, the “FSA”.
Turkey under Erdogan’s leadership is ideologically closer to extremist rebels in Syria than it is to the liberal west. It prefers to fight the Kurds and not kill fellow muslims (ISIS/Annusra). Saudi Arabia will be committing suicide if it sent its army to fight thousands of Saudi Wahabi rebels in Syria. Egypt is too busy with its own menacing internal challenges and its army is starting to work closer to home on fighting extremist rebels in neighboring Libya. Jordan is too small and its population includes a large segment of ISIS sympathisers (U.S. intel is aware of that). Israel is not interested or able to to fight Jihadists in Syria and Iraq for years. Iraq’s army was designed by the United States to be non-ideological. It is closer to a police force than a real army. So far it failed consistently in Fighting ISIS. Iran is powerful and motivated enough to fight the shia-hating Wahabi groups, but Iran is still classified as an adversary for the U.S. and more importantly, the U.S. would be risking alienating all its other allies if it partners with Iran in Syria and Iraq.
The “moderate rebel” new army? … Aside from the CIA conclusion that arming rebels seldom works, the new rebel national army’s spokesman was recently interviewed on Orient TV (Arabic). He said: “نحن كجيش وطني يجب أن نستوعب جميع المجاهدين” … or “we, as a national army, must welcome all the Jihadists”. A look at their first batch of trained soldiers suggests they are not exactly secular. Very simply and bluntly: To fight and die you need to hate some enemy and to love some cause. Most of these “moderate rebels” will not die fighting other Islamists and they will not die for democracy and liberty.
Solution? … Yes: but it takes a strong will and many years … a clean break with the past
There are no solutions on the horizon. There is instead a long list of formidable challenges that have not been properly recognized, assessed or dealt-with. Collectively, they serve as a reminder that we are far from seeing the end of the various conflicts in Syria, the Levant and the Middle East at large. Here are some of the main challenges:
- US / Syrian (regime) relations that when in their worst shape always correlated to high level of chaos in the Middle East.
- U.S. allies in the GCC are panicking over news of nearing U.S. Iranian agreement.
- Saudi Arabia is not sustainable but changing it in any drastic way will be highly risky
- Turkey is led by dangerous ideologues with extensive regional ambitions. It is a country with contradictory ideologies and loyalties that might lead to an existential threat.
- Religious states: Iran, Saudi, and Israel are seen as a threat to others in the region.
- The Middle East went too religiously conservative the past 3 decades (and these are not fans of the U.S.)
- There is a regional conflict between liberal and religious extremist forces.
- Population of Egypt and Syria young, poor, jobless and fast growing
- There is no easy solution that would satisfy the Kurds but not threaten the integrity and stability of the four countries that border “Kurdistan”
- Arab Israeli conflict and U.S. bias for Israel complicates everything
- Lebanon is not a country that can function when there are regional conflicts. Regional powers manage Lebanon … when they are not talking to each other.
- The Muslim Brotherhood organization (and Turkey behind it) is by now at war against everyone else
- People who want to form larger entities (or to protect current borders) will fight those who want to divide their nations into more cohesive areas (worldwide problem)
- The United States is extremely unpopular among its Middle Eastern allies and it ran out of ideas on how to address this problem (supporting the Arab Spring and Turkish leadership of the Muslim world was the latest flop)
- Political borders are competing with desire to establish sectarian-based borders
- Young and better informed populations are more selfish and impatient but less submissive to any leadership. It will be difficult to manage them while providing more freedoms.
- Many American and Israeli strategists want to see ongoing conflicts (dual containment fans). They continue to successfully coordinate their efforts in this direction. Their goal is to weaken or divide Israel’s neighbors and perhaps to move to a set of controlled Shia Sunni military confrontations (and this is not a “conspiracy theory”)
- Syria and Egypt are bankrupt but their populations expect government subsidies and free education and medical care to continue
If the United States is serious about promoting its moral values, then it needs to work (with everyone else, and not only with its allies/clients) on each of the above challenges. State department (the very definition of mediocrity with its most recent success, the Camp David accord, in 1978) might consider assigning resources for dealing with each of these areas.
In this long article I covered the story of Syrian American relations. There is so much that needs to be said but the United States must act on President Obama’s statement on the Middle East in May 2011 when he warned that “the status quo is not sustainable anymore”. It is time for constructive and creative solutions. Drop all the angry, the sectarians, the narcissists and the delusional and form new alliances that are at an equal distance from all the different sides of each conflict.
As for better relations with Syria (or the part of Syria that backs the government which is wrongly reduced to “the regime”), since the current leadership structure (including the Syrian army) is not going to change anytime soon, and since Syria and the region do not need a new burst of post-regime-collapse chaos, the most rational and most genuinely humanitarian decision is based on facilitating cooperation and communication between all the antagonists, including the Syrian army and leadership.
But there are five objections against better relations heard in Washington:
- Syria is irrelevant, … too small for us to waste time and energy. We have better things to do.
- Too much blood was spilled by the regime. We don’t do business with war criminals.
- The Sunni majority needs to reclaim their country. Assad and the Alawites must give up power.
- Regime has many enemies and zero allies in DC … And we said Assad has to go.
- Syria is an ally of Iran, this goes against U.S. and Israeli interests (and wishes)
Numbers 1 and 5 are about US interests. Numbers 2 and 3 are “moral arguments”, and number 4 is an emotional argument.
I have already addressed point number 1 (Syria’s significance) in detail throughout this article. I will next address the four other objections.
2.Regime’s Responsibility for the bloodshed:
Everyone is responsible, starting with the leadership in Damascus. But anyone who was behind the regime change project is also very much responsible. Anyone who called for arming the rebels, or for not engaging in dialogue, anyone who went to the security council trying to pass a chapter 7 resolution that would allow NATO to bomb Syria, anyone whose objective (making the previously popular Assad less popular) needed bloodshed and chaos to succeed, anyone who used his formidable media empire to manufacture anger and hate and sectarian division in Syria, any expert or activist on Twitter who worked tirelessly to pressure President Obama to bomb Syria or to send more arms to “the moderate rebels”…
In addition to the Syrian leadership and its allies, the United States and all its allies are fully responsible… at the government level, media, neocons and liberal interventionists … The moral argument applies to all, or to no one. It is better to forget the past, since it won’t be possible to punish all those who contributed to bloodshed in their own ways.
In World war II the allies decided to go to war when they faced a dangerous ideology. Sixty million (that’s 60,000,000) people died in that fight. There is always a way to justify decisions to use force. According to a reliable source, in a private conversation end of March 2011, President Assad said Basically, they want me to gradually pass Syria to the Brotherhood. This will be a long and difficult conflict. Since President Assad has been the only Middle Eastern leader to warn in 2002 and 2003 against the Bush administration’s plans to invade Iraq (which led to hundreds of thousands of casualties), and since most of the “friends of Syria” by now realized their mistake of promoting Prime Minister Erdogan’s grandiose regional project (dominating the Arab world through his Muslim Brotherhood allies and the Arab Spring “freedom” fairy tale hype), then the moral argument against Assad deserves serious examination. Was the Nazi project more dangerous than the Brotherhood + Wahabi/Al-Qaeda (Annusra/ISIS/IF etc) projects? … was it twice as dangerous? ten times? … 300 times more dangerous? Because WWII’s death toll was 300 times higher than Syria’s.
Selective use of the moral argument to boycott specific decision makers who decided to use force is more politics and propaganda than justice. Decision makers, and army generals, work under a different set of moral values than the one that applies at the personal level. If President Clinton can still be favorable compared to President Bush Jr. even though his sanctions on Iraq in the 90′s killed a million civilians, including half a million children (see his secretary of state confirm on CBS that “the price is worth it” … did anyone ask what was “it” that was worth killing a million Iraqis for?) then it is only fair to not use the moral argument to complicate efforts to end the Syrian war until all sides are allowed a fair chance to explain their rationale for using force.
Again, and regardless of any potential rational or strategic justification, the regime is still partially responsible, if it had a more refined way of dealing with the initial protests, there would have been less anger and less bloodshed. But the keyword here is “less”. Even if the regime did everything right, the Arab Spring coalition was determined to change Syria, by any means. Another number (a ration, in fact) to pay attention to: Casualties on the pro-government side (Army, police, security, irregular militias) is comparable losses among “the rebels”. You bombarded the Syrian government with up to 150,000 rebels, don’t be surprised at the results. The government used excessive force only until July when your allies started the “FSA” rebel force. Since then “the monopoly on use of violence” principle of modern states applied. Back to the kill ratio … a 1:1 ratio is far from Israel’s rations in Gaza and Lebanon or America’s ratio in Iraq (or in World war II) … (those varied between 100 to 1 and 1000 to 1). “Proportionality should be a guideline in war”
3. Sunni majority must rule, Alawites too powerful :
Religious minorities in Syria add up to an estimated 25% of the population. Minorities including the Kurds are 35%. We are told by many American (and European) interventionists that the fact “minorities ruled in Syria for the past 50 years” is by itself a justification to continue fighting until “the Sunni majority” can reclaim power.
Compare that to the situation in the U.S.
After dozens of democratic elections (over the past 225 years) nearly half US Presidents were Episcopalian or Presbyterian, even though those “minorities” (or “offshoots” of the “majority religion” (Catholic Christianity)) that dominated America’s politics are made of 0.6% (1.85 million) and 0.62% (1.95 million) of US population of 313 millions… or almost 1.2% combined. And this has been going on for 225 years.
On the other hand, Catholics (the largest religious group in America) only got one President, and he was assassinated. Does this mean that a “Catholic revolt” should be on the way and that we should all support it?
Similarly, should non-Jews in the United States (a 97% “majority”) complain at the exceptional power the 3% “minority” of Jewish Americans have everywhere from Hollywood to the media to the economy to Wall street to the justice system to academia?
No they don’t. In fact according to a PEW Research recent poll, Jews happen to be the most liked religious group in the Unites States.
So if for the past 50 years the minorities (and non-minorities from Syria’s liberal Sunnis as well as from Syria’s Sunni rural areas) had more than their share of power, is it such a disaster that merits the destruction of Syria?
Sunnis in Syria still control most of the economy. They still exist in large numbers in the army, and they form the vast majority of Syrian ministers or members of parliament.
Alawites do play a role that is larger than their ratio in national security or in the army, but if you look at the U.S. army, African Americans are there in numbers that are twice their size in the population of the United States. Should white Americans complain?
There are numerous valid complaints against Syria’s security forces or against many army officers who abused their power to benefit from corruption. “The regime” must realize the need to listen and to act on any legitimate complaint. But those who are obsessed with reducing the power of minorities should wait until American Catholics start a revolution against the Episcopalian, Presbyterian or Jews. THEN, Syria’s sectarians and their western promoters would be justified to follow.
Syria needs accountability and justice that would prevent anyone (a minority or not) from abusing his or her power.
The Syrian leadership needs to seriously consider passing much of its power to a strong, democratically elected Prime Minister (who probably would be a Sunni Muslim). The regime has been highly skilled and mature in its national defense or foreign policy (and it should maintain control over those areas), but it has been far from successful in its internal policies… time to pass day to day management to an elected government.
Regime has too many enemies in DC:
True. Washington DC is full of Syrian regime haters (see again Lee Smith’ quote above) who were at various points publicly committed in challenging the Syrian leadership (without success). A new book on French Syrian relations by renowned French journalist George Malbrunot concluded that Syria-related decision making by French leaders was very often “childish and about score settling”. This includes former Presidents Chirac and Sarkozy as well as former foreign minister Alain Juppe
But the United States is a superpower that has serious responsibilities today. If Dennis Ross, Elliott Abrams , Dick Cheney, Steven Heydemann, Fred Hof and Senator McCain are anxious for a victory over “the Syrian regime”, President Obama has no emotional need for such a victory, and the United States certainly does not need to score “national pride” points in small Syria. America is collecting those every day in science or the arts.
President Assad has been consistently avoiding confrontational statements against the United States. His message is a variation on this theme: The United States in making a mistake in our country. We will wait until one day they realize their mistake. Compare his tone to that of Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Qaddafi for example. National pride in Syria is purely about independence of decision making and not about settling scores. Syria has been right and wise where the west and its allies have been wrong for decades. (I can comfortably illustrate in great detail in another article).
Those, in the great nations of the west who have a need to humiliate small foreign countries should seek professional therapy instead of being heard as “experts”.
Relations with (alliance with) Iran:
Syria under the leadership of the two Assads always tried to balance its regional and international relations. When the Soviet Union was busy supplying Syria with billions of dollars of free weapons, President Assad was meeting with President Nixon and Henry Kissinger trying to establish the best possible relations with the United States. When Iran supported Syria economically against a U.S./Saudi led boycott (2003 to 2011) Syria was working on establishing relations with Turkey and Qatar that balanced relations with Iran. Syria always sided with Saudi Arabia even when taking such positions disappointed Iran. 1) Syria supported in 2010 Saudi Arabia’s moderate candidate Iyad Allawi who was competing against Iran’s candidate (Al-Maliki). 2) in 2009 Syria declared its support for Saudi Arabia in its fight against the Houthis in Yemen who are backed by Iran, and 3) in 2011 Syria voted to legitimize Saudi army’s presence in Bahrain which again disappointed Iran.
In 2010 Turkey was working hard trying to establish special relations with all of its neighbours, but Syria carried more weight than any other country in the region. Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said “We believe this relationship [Turkey and Syria] is the one which will change fate of the region”.
Surely he wouldn’t have planned this partnership had Syria been an Iranian satellite. By 2010 Syria opened up its borders with Turkey and signed economic agreements that heavily favored Turkey’s producers at the expense of Syria’s (leading to high profile bankruptcies among Aleppo’s established industrialists). Four of Aleppo’s large boulevards were named after Ottoman Sultans (that were always hated by most Syrians), Turkish (not Iranian) romantic TV series were flooding the Syrian market, and on Syria’s official news agency, SANA, daily news were reported in Arabic, English and Turkish.
Now that millions of Syrians (the pro revolution camp) started to hold highly negative feelings towards Iran, it is reasonable to expect Syria’s leadership to do something to accommodate their preferences or fears. But what has always been bothering the United States is not that Syria is an Iranian satellite (it is absolutely not). The problem is that the United States wants Syria to be an American/Saudi satellite. Perhaps The United States can reconsider what democracy means outside its border. Allowing Syria to enjoy excellent relations with the United States WITHOUT forcing it to downgrade its relations with Iran and Russia. In comparison, Iran and Russia never forced Syria to abandon its attempts to improve relations with the United States. Take a look at how Syria was treated by the east, and compare to how the United States and its allies periodically boycotted, pressured, and even supported instability and terror in Syria.