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Assad Delenda Est

Here’s a piece I wrote for the print version of World Affairs that has just now come online. I’ll excerpt the first half here on the blog, and you can follow the link at the bottom to read the second half.

Syria’s tyrant Bashar al-Assad is in the middle of a life-or-death struggle. He might be overthrown. He should be.

The Arab Socialist Baath Party regime, beginning with its founder Hafez al-Assad and continuing through the rule of his son Bashar, is the deadliest state sponsor of terrorism in the Arab Middle East. It assisted the bloodthirsty insurgency in Iraq that killed American soldiers by the thousands and murdered Iraqi civilians by the tens of thousands. It has used both terrorism and conventional military power to place Lebanon under its boot since the mid-1970s. It made Syria into the logistics hub for Hezbollah, the best-equipped and most lethal non-state armed force in the world. It has waged a terrorist war against Israel and the peace process for decades, not only from Lebanon, but also from the West Bank and Gaza. And it is Iran’s sole Arab ally and its bridge to the Mediterranean.

Tehran is the head of the Iranian-Syrian-Hamas-Hezbollah resistance bloc, and Syria is the junior partner in the alliance, but both governments have American blood under their fingernails. Unlike Damascus, however, Tehran may acquire nuclear weapons capability within the next couple of years. If we could take only one member of that bloc off the board, we’d be wise to pick the Iranian government. The Syrian government, though, is the second-best option. And it’s lower-hanging fruit right now because Assad is facing an armed insurrection.

Short of regime change in Tehran, the overthrow of Assad is the worst thing that can happen to the Iranian government and to Hezbollah. Iran will lose its only ally in the Arab world, and Hezbollah will lose one of only two patrons and its entire overground logistics network. Scud missiles and other enormous weapons can’t exactly be mailed to Hezbollah from Iran through the Beirut international airport.

A fresh government in Damascus will almost certainly be less friendly toward Iran and Hezbollah and more friendly toward Lebanon. Beirut will be able to make more of its own decisions, which are naturally closer to what the US and Israel would like, even if they aren’t ideal. So many of Lebanon’s politicians are currently bribed and bullied by Assad into doing his bidding, inducing their support for Hezbollah and violent “resistance” against Israel. Even Hezbollah’s most powerful tactical “allies” only support the organization under duress.

WikiLeaks published a batch of revealing diplomatic cables from Lebanon last year. One describes how Nabih Berri, Lebanon’s speaker of Parliament and Hezbollah’s supposedly most stalwart ally, reacted during the Israeli bombardment of South Lebanon in 2006. “Berri condemned the ferocity of Israel’s military response,” the cable writer says, “but admitted that a successful Israeli campaign against Hezbollah would be an excellent way to destroy Hezbollah’s military aspirations and discredit their political ambitions. . . . We are certain that Berri hates Hezbollah as much, or even more, than the [Western-backed] March 14 politicians; after all, Hezbollah’s support . . . is drawn from the Shiites who might otherwise be with Berri.”

According to another cable, Lebanon’s current prime minister, Najib Mikati, described Hezbollah as “cancerous” and wishes to see its militarized state-within-a-state destroyed. Mikati is the man who replaced the previous prime minister, Saad Hariri, at Hezbollah’s insistence. If even Syria’s and Hezbollah’s hand-picked allies are waffling and possibly even plotting behind the scenes, the entire rigged system may come crashing down if there’s a regime change in Damascus.

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Many on both the political left and the political right in the US think we ought to stay out of this. Partly that’s because the devil we know, so to speak, is sometimes preferable to the devil we don’t. And we have good reasons to believe a post-Assad government will almost certainly be unfriendly to Israel, as nearly all Arab governments are, but it might also be unfriendly to the United States. After the disastrous results of the Egyptian parliamentary election last year, where radical Islamists received twice as many votes as secular parties, we’d be fools to think a Syrian election—assuming an election is ever actually held—would bring to power parties that are politically liberal and friendly. Since Libya degenerated into a failed militia state after the fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi, we’d be naive at best to assume a stable order must necessarily follow Assad’s. And the Iraqi insurgency taught us that the Arab world’s reaction to our removal of even a genocidal tyrant can lead to serious blowback that grinds on for years.

Every Arab country is different, however.

Egypt, for instance, is far and away the most conservative and, frankly, backward Arab country outside the Gulf region. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Cairo in 1928 and its organizational sophistication and popular base of support there is peerless. Hyper-conservative Saudi Arabia, where millions of economically struggling Egyptians have been working for decades, beams reactionary political and cultural ideas onto its neighbor like a blazing sun.

Syria is moderate and even liberal, at least by comparison. It has a large population of middle-class Sunnis in the big cities of Damascus and Aleppo who aren’t remotely inclined to support Islamist parties. They aren’t as progressive as the Sunnis of Beirut—where support for the local Muslim Brotherhood is minuscule—but they aren’t as conservative as the Sunnis of Egypt, either. They’re somewhere in between.

Sunni Arabs are the only ethno-religious group that provides a base of support for the Muslim Brotherhood in the first place, and they make up a smaller percentage of Syria’s population. They’re ninety percent of Egypt’s population, but only seventy percent of Syria’s. The rest are Christians, Alawites, Druze, and Kurds. A perpetually strong opposition to an Islamist government is baked into the demographics. Syrians can only back Islamists with the same numbers as Egypt if nearly every Sunni Arab in the country votes for them, which can’t possibly happen.

There’s no reason to believe the Syrian franchise of the Brotherhood itself is more liberal or moderate than its Egyptian branch, but Syrian society certainly is, and the organization has little choice but to adjust itself accordingly.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s new political charter unveiled in March declares as its goal the creation of a civil state rather than an Islamic one. It “completely dispensed with the notion of the ‘Islamic Umma,’” notes Hanin Ghaddar on the website NOW Lebanon, “which usually colors their rhetoric in the region. Their statement, with its ten straightforward vows, mentions international declarations and agreements more than it mentions Islam and stresses on human rights all throughout.”

That’s exactly what happened in Tunisia earlier this year. Ennahda, the Islamist party that won forty-two percent of the vote in the recent election, was forced by massive liberal and secular opposition to ditch its hinted-at goal of an Islamic state. Islamists make up a large minority in Tunisia, but they’re still a minority. Most of them want, or at least wanted, an Islamic state after the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship. They wanted that system of government enshrined in the constitution, but they had to drop it and formally announce they’re backing a civil state. To save face, they pretended they opposed an Islamic state all along.

Syria’s Muslim Brothers have reached that stage already.

Don’t be fooled by their words. They prefer an Islamic state, surely. That’s what the organization was founded to build. Syria, however, like Lebanon, is a polyglot place. Not even Hezbollah, powerful as it is, can impose a radical Islamist system on such a diverse population as Lebanon has, so it does not even try. We can’t yet know if Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood has come to a similar realization or if it’s only pretending so its opponents will let down their guard, but it’s bound to happen later for real if it hasn’t already.

Even so, Assad’s replacement could be worse for the people of Syria than Assad himself. It may not be likely, necessarily, but it’s certainly possible. Yet it’s unlikely that his replacement will be worse for the US and Israel.

What are we worried about? That Syria will become a state sponsor of terrorism? That it will be hostile to the US and to Israel? That it will be a repressive dictatorship that jails and murders thousands of people? That it will be an ally of Iran, our principal enemy in the region?

Syria is already all of those things.

Read the rest!


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