Although Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and other hawks have urged the United States to put “boots on the ground in Syria,” the Obama administration thus far seems determined to resist such calls. Indeed, the White House has rejected lobbying efforts even to establish a no-fly zone to impede Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s military campaign against insurgent forces. Such restraint is admirable, but Washington is nevertheless becoming involved in Syria’s civil war to a troubling extent—much as it did in the conflict that toppled Libyan tyrant Muammar Qaddafi. The United States is already providing humanitarian and other supposedly “nonlethal” aid to rebel forces, and U.S. weapons are finding their way to those groups from U.S. allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia. As in the Libyan struggle, there is a dearth of evidence that such meddling benefits the cause of human liberty—much less the security interests of the American republic.
Assad is a murderous, corrupt thug. The Syrian civil war, which began in March 2011, has now claimed an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 lives, and it is difficult to watch images of the carnage without revulsion. But before the United States blunders into yet another Middle East conflict, policymakers need to realize that the fighting is not a Manichean struggle between the evil Assad regime and noble freedom fighters seeking to bring enlightened rule to their country. Unfortunately, too much of the media coverage in the United States and Europe has portrayed the conflict precisely in that fashion.
Several factors demonstrate that the Syrian civil war is actually a complex domestic and regional political struggle rather than a simple melodrama. Furthermore, the conflict has implications not only for Syria’s future but for the distribution of power in the region and the U.S. position there.
One aspect that should be a flashing caution light for Washington is the nature of the insurgent forces. The rebels arrayed against the Assad regime constitute a motley, murky coalition. There are undoubtedly some who are pro-Western democrats who want a better future for their country. But there are also extremists who are determined to establish an Islamic state governed by sharia. Those fighters also are not shy about using terrorist tactics. In Aleppo, Damascus, and other cities, car-bomb explosions and suicide bombings, the hallmarks of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, have become increasingly frequent occurrences. In early April, a prominent Syrian faction, Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), announced a “merger” with Al Qaeda in Iraq to facilitate cross-border operations. There have already been skirmishes between the Nusra Front and the more secular Farouk Battalions, a segment of the Free Syrian Army, the insurgency’s principal umbrella group.
The Obama administration acknowledges that there are extremist elements among the rebel forces, but the State Department exudes confidence that it can confine U.S. aid solely to moderate factions. Given the dismal U.S. track record in aiding only benign parties in previous foreign conflicts, one ought to be skeptical about such assurances. The bulk of American arms and financial assistance to the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviet Red Army in the 1980’s ended up in the hands of the most virulent anti-Western factions. The Clinton administration’s assistance to Albanian Kosovars battling the Serbian government empowered the Kosovo Liberation Army, which then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) stated confidently was fighting for the same values Americans supported. A subsequent E.U. investigation uncovered evidence that, among other atrocities, the KLA had murdered Serbian prisoners of war, harvested their organs, and sold them on the black market. More recently, the Obama administration’s assistance to anti-Qaddafi rebels has helped produce an assortment of armed militias, many having a decidedly Islamist orientation.
Aside from the terrorist connections of some Syrian rebel groups, there are other reasons why U.S. intervention on behalf of the insurgency could prove unwise. Syria is a fragile ethno-religious amalgam. The population is divided among Sunni Arabs (about 60 percent of the population), Christians (roughly 10-12 percent), Alawites (a Shiite offshoot, 10-12 percent), Druze (about 6 percent), and various, mostly Sunni, ethnic minorities, primarily Kurds and Armenians. The Alawite Assad family has based its power for more than four decades on the loyalty of its religious bloc in a loose alliance with Christians, Druze, and, sometimes, one or more of the other, smaller ethnic groups. What we see today is a largely Sunni Arab bid to overthrow that “coalition of minorities” regime.
Evidence mounts about the extent of Sunni domination of the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council, the insurgents’ political leadership in exile. David Enders, a reporter for McClatchy newspapers, spent a month with rebel forces in northern and central Syria in 2012. He found that while the early anti-Assad demonstrations were sometimes multiethnic and multireligious, “the armed rebels are Sunni to a man.”
Members of the religious minorities fear oppression by the majority. That’s especially true of the Alawites and Christians. The latter saw the fate of their coreligionists next door in Iraq when Saddam Hussein’s minority regime was succeeded by a Shi’ite-led majority government. More than a third of Iraq’s Christian community has fled the country or taken refuge in the de facto independent Kurdish region in the north, the most secular and tolerant portion of the “new Iraq.” Syrian Christians worry that they will suffer a similar fate.
The fighting inside Syria is largely a power struggle between a Sunni insurgency and Assad’s “coalition of minorities.” It is also a regional power struggle between the Sunni and Shi’ite branches of Islam—and between influential powers on each side of that religious divide, Shi’ite Iran versus Sunni Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It is no coincidence that Tehran is Assad’s main ally, while Ankara and Riyadh are the most enthusiastic supporters of the rebels. A major reason Washington has backed the Turkish-Saudi policy is to weaken Iran by depriving the clerical regime of a crucial regional ally.
Washington is playing a dangerous game in a bid to undermine its Iranian nemesis. The most likely scenarios in Syria are either a Sunni rebel victory or the fragmentation of the country into ethno-religious ministates, much as neighboring Lebanon fractured (and for similar reasons) in the 1970’s and 80’s. Neither outcome would serve America’s best interests. The first would likely mean another Islamist regime in the Middle East—at least as bad as the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, and quite likely even worse. The second would risk the spread of chaos from Syria into Lebanon and Iraq, and possibly beyond. It would also intensify the Sunni-Shi’ite regional power struggle, with Iraq, located astride the Sunni-Shi’ite dividing line, being caught in the middle. America invested a tremendous amount of blood and treasure in that country, and U.S. leaders should not want to risk plunging Iraq back into a sectarian civil war.
It is entirely possible that even a restrained U.S. policy cannot prevent one of those unpleasant outcomes. But there needn’t be American fingerprints all over such a calamity. The Obama administration needs to intensify its caution and restraint rather than to succumb to siren calls for further intervention.