Syria's Fight to the Death

My new essay in the print edition of World Affairs is now available online.

“We Arabs,” the late Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi once said to me in Beirut, “are not a warring people. We are a feuding people.” That’s generally true. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict looks far more like a Northern Ireland–style feud than a real war of the sort that tore apart the former Yugoslavia. The same goes for the chronic yet sporadic clashes in parts of Yemen, Libya, and Lebanon.

The civil war in Syria, though, is different. It is an existential fight to the death. It’s a real war with a real body count that already exceeds the butcher’s bill from the Bosnian war. What could have been a bloody but short Libyan-style revolution to oust the tyrant Bashar al-Assad has instead metastasized into a grotesque sectarian war between the Sunni Muslim majority and the ruling Alawite minority. And what could have been a major blow for the West in its cold war against Iran—Syria is Iran’s only state-sized ally in the Middle East—has instead morphed in part into a protracted red-on-red fight between an anti-American state sponsor of terrorism and the anti-American jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, which is fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army against Assad.

It’s not always true that the devil we know beats the devil we don’t. Last summer I wrote in these pages that the United States should back the Free Syrian Army against Assad’s government. What, I asked at the time, were 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.”

Jabhat al-Nusra, which the United States recently designated a terrorist organization, didn’t exist at the time. Then, the fight was between the Free Syrian Army and what was left of the regular Syrian army. The United States could have armed, funded, and trained the FSA and done its best to ensure that assistance flowed only to the opposition’s moderate and secular factions, thereby drastically increasing the odds that whatever order emerges after regime change would be friendly or at least not actively hostile to the West.

Instead, as we stood back and allowed a vacuum to occur, governments on the Arabian Peninsula got involved in Syria and backed their own proxies. And they’re giving money and guns to bearded jihadists instead of to secular and moderate forces. “In the absence of Western involvement,” says Eli Khoury, co-founder of the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation, “that’s how it works. Washington shouldn’t make the mistake of dropping its support for liberals, moderates, and minorities in the Middle East. Because what you’re going to get instead, if you do, is something you are really going to hate. You’ll have one, two, or even three additional Irans. Where is that going to take everybody?”

It’s not too late to arm politically and religiously moderate Syrians opposed to the government, but it’s getting close. Jabhat al-Nusra is not part of the Free Syrian Army. They’re separate organizations. But as they’ve long said in the Middle East, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The FSA and Jabhat al-Nusra are currently fighting shoulder-to-shoulder, but the alliance is temporary. They’ll fight each other when Assad falls. Think of it like the United States teaming up with the Soviet Union to fight Nazi Germany, only to face each other in a cold war for the next four and a half decades.

But if FSA fighters had been armed, funded, trained, and politically backed by the United States from the very beginning, they would have had no need to work with al-Nusra. The war could have been finished by now. Al-Nusra would have had no time to grow. Syria would not have become a magnet attracting freelance jihadists from all over the region who are always on the lookout for times and places like this to show their stuff.

But that’s not what happened. We failed to clinch with the Free Syrian Army. Now we face a much greater likelihood that the new Syria will be ruled, or at the very least severely destabilized, by Islamist fanatics with guns. The Obama administration recently announced that it will increase aid to Syrian rebels, but it's still not clear if weapons and ammunition will be part of the package. At least for now, the US appears to remain more or less on the sidelines while prospects continue to dim.


Assad is doing everything he can to turn the revolution into a sectarian war between Sunnis and Alawites. He needs this war to be an existential fight to the death to keep his allies on his side. His family, his clan, and nearly all his loyalists in the army, the intelligence agencies, and on the streets are at least nominal Alawites, a heterodox religious minority that makes up only twelve or so percent of Syria’s population, who for a thousand years have been considered infidels by Sunnis.

The Sunnis, by contrast—along with the substantial Syrian Christian, Kurdish, and Druze minorities—have been ruled by the Assad family’s totalitarian Soviet-style regime for decades. There isn’t room enough in the country for everyone anymore. Members and supporters of the Free Syrian Army will be jailed, murdered, and tortured to death if they lose. And the Alawites—even the powerless innocents who have nothing to do with the government—fear being driven from the country or at least persecuted should the Sunnis seize power and go on a bloody revenge binge.

Transforming a revolution into a sectarian war is Assad’s internal strategy. His external strategy from the very beginning was to make the rest of the world think he’s fighting an anti-terrorist war.

Ever since former US President George W. Bush pulled the trigger on Iraq, Assad has feared that he’s next. (That’s why he did his worst to destabilize post–Saddam Hussein Iraq by sending al-Qaeda terrorists over the border to blow up Americans and murder Iraqis.) And since current US President Barack Obama helped topple Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, Assad had every reason to believe that he’s still next once the uprising against him began. So he tried to frame the Syrian revolution as a war between a secular reformist government and al-Qaeda before the Free Syrian Army—let alone Jabhat al-Nusra—even existed, before the opposition had fired even one single shot, when Assad’s own armed forces massacred peaceful protesters who asked for nothing more than reform. He even staged scenes on television to look like terrorist attacks because that’s what he needed.

“It’s exactly the same thing the Syrian regime did in Lebanon,” says Chatham House scholar Nadim Shehadi. “It’s a mind game. If you want to beat Assad, you have to disassociate yourself from his make-believe reality just as he has disassociated himself from everyone else’s. Listen to his speeches. They have no bearing on the real world. None at all. But people believe him. That’s the mind game. The Washington Post wrote that he’s strong because they listened to his speech and he sounded strong. There are idiot journalists in the West who will go to Aleppo, meet a guy with a beard who says he’s going to start an emirate, and they’ll put it in a headline.”

The trouble, of course, is that jihadists really are active in Syria now. This conflict has gone on for so long that Assad’s mind game about making a stand against terror groups has actually become part of reality. It’s not the whole story, but it’s part of it.

I spent much of February and March in Beirut. Almost every single person I interviewed thinks Assad won the mind game and that the White House is allied with Damascus. “The United States has more soft power in the region than before,” Shehadi says, “but you’re going to lose it in Syria because Barack Obama is seen as a supporter of Bashar al-Assad.”

Mosbah Ahdab, a former member of Parliament from Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli, put it to me this way when I met him for lunch: “Assad is receiving arms from Iran and Russia and the Nusra extremists are receiving arms from the Gulf. Why shouldn’t the Free Syrian Army receive weapons? Everybody here is wondering what’s going on.”


The truth is that Washington is just cautious. The Obama administration is horrified by the prospect of another war such as the one in Iraq and only joined the war in Libya because Europe led from in front and Qaddafi didn’t have any friends. Assad has powerful friends in Lebanon and Iran. Widening the war could set the whole region ablaze, especially if Iran and Hezbollah decide to drag in the Israelis, which could be accomplished in all of ten minutes. The US is also afraid of the Syrian aftermath and seems to have no idea what it should do.

'Samy Gemayel, son of Lebanon’s former President Amine Gemayel and a current member of Parliament, senses Washington’s confusion. “Before you can know what to do,” he told me in his office in Lebanon’s mountains above Beirut, “you have to know what you want.”

The way he sees it, the US has three strategic options in the region.

First, support the status quo regimes.

Second, support change. “Put your money on the democratic process that could evolve after a period of instability,” he says. “It’s risky. After decades of dictatorship, things can’t evolve rapidly into stable democracy after just one or two years. It takes time to build a real democratic system that puts moderate people in charge. Extremists always take the lead after dictators fall. So this is a long-term option.”

The third strategy, he says, “is to look at the social tissue of these countries and determine if they’re even viable. And if they are not, you partition the region.”

The first option isn’t really an option, at least not in Syria. The US can’t back Assad. He’s a sworn enemy of Americans and a state sponsor of terrorism.

The third option isn’t realistic either. The United States is not going to redraw the map of the Middle East the way the British and French did in the early twentieth century.

Doing nothing likewise isn’t an option. Superpowers can’t do nothing at all when their interests are at stake, not even superpowers with instinctive non-interventionists as president.

“Americans need to decide which strategy they want,” Gemayel says. “Maybe Washington wants a different strategy in each country. But in order to know what you should do, you need to know what you want. If you don’t know what you want, you won’t know what to do. But if you have a strategy and you know where you want to be in twenty years, you’ll know exactly how to deal with someone like Assad.”

Read the whole thing.

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