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The Muddle East

Every idea President Obama had about pacifying the Muslim world turned out to be wrong.

Sep 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 02 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Until recently Obama appeared to have grasped only vaguely the regional dynamics at play in Syria, or to have grasped them but not to care. One has the impression that his concern about Iran’s role in Syria has only become serious since Assad again flouted the White House’s red line on chemical weapons. Since then, Secretary of State John Kerry—who as a senator, on behalf of President Obama, tried to make nice with Bashar al-Assad and his cosmopolitan wife—has much more sharply drawn the battle lines between the United States and Iran. It really shouldn’t be that hard for the administration and the legion of Republicans and Democrats who utter the phrase “civil war” as if it were a talisman against American involvement to draw helpful historical parallels. The Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 pitted leftist Republicans against rightist Nationalists and was, as all schoolchildren were once taught, a testing ground for Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, which gave critical aid to Francisco Franco’s ultimately victorious Nationalists. Spanish Republicans were often an ugly, vicious fighting force, with morally repellent backers (the USSR). And as fascist dictators go, Franco was certainly not in the same league as his German patron. But the overarching imperative should have been to deny Hitler and Mussolini a victory. It never gained traction. Instead, the United Kingdom and France showed complacency about a fascist triumph in Spain. It was a complicated struggle between unwholesome adversaries. Britain and France basically sat it out, to their later regret. 

The Syrian civil war is as international as was the Spanish conflict. It started as a rebellion against a savage dictatorship, and the Assad regime successfully turned it into a battle between two religious communities. The Syrian Sunnis are strongly backed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two Wahhabi states that have done untold damage to the modern Middle East with their well-funded Islamist missionary activity. In the Syrian conflict, they have backed cruel Islamic radicals, some of whom are affiliated with al Qaeda. Sunni jihadists will unquestionably be a big problem in post-Assad Syria since the Assad regime has done its best to destroy the Sunni social order. But Syria’s 17 million Sunnis are not Afghan Pashtuns, whose village ethics mirror pretty closely the primitive mores of the Taliban. Syria’s Sunnis culturally are much more cosmopolitan than Iraq’s Shiites, and in most places even the Iraqi Shiites have successfully fought off the radical ethics of the Shiite Islamist hard core. Militarily, Sunni jihadists in Syria, especially those who are foreign, are likely to encounter extreme resistance and enmity from the vastly more numerous mainstream Sunnis the day after Alawite power is broken. 

If Assad’s regime falls, the bulk of the Sunni Syrian officer corps, currently held in check by the regime’s security services, will enter powerfully into this equation. There is no evidence that these men are jihadist sympathizers. In Iraq jihadists have fed off minority Sunni grievances and revanchist sentiments. The opposite is going to happen in Syria, where the next government, whatever its shape, will be overwhelmingly Sunni in composition. The future for holy warriors in Syria isn’t at all bright. 

The overarching foreign issue in Syria is Iran’s determination to maintain its strategic position in the Middle East while it develops its nuclear capacity. Anything the United States can do to upset the mullahs’ plans while the Muslim Middle East remains nonnuclear is worth the effort. The odds are not great that a peaceful, diplomatic path exists to negotiate away the Iranian nuclear threat, but we do know that the only serious delay in Tehran’s nuclear program occurred after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The display of American power has always made the clerics and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, who oversee the nuclear program, take notice. The best odds for countering Iran in the Levant without the Quds Force, the expeditionary branch of the Revolutionary Guards, resorting to terrorism against the United States come from a massive American strike against Assad. President Obama ignored the Quds Force’s role in an attempted bombing operation against the Saudi ambassador in a Washington, D.C., restaurant in 2011—a serious mistake.

The United States has always had the capacity to recover from its bouts of listlessness and depression through its unrivaled capacity to bring pain to the enemy. But it certainly cannot signal Tehran, or other aggressive regimes, its serious intent by shooting cruise missiles at dispersed and buried chemical weapons. Given what happened in London when Prime Minister David Cameron lost a war vote in Parliament, both Syrian and Iranian leaders already view Obama’s decision to go to Congress as confirmation of America’s weakness. Assad apparently thinks he’s already won. The ruling elites of both countries certainly don’t appreciate the twists and turns of democratic politics, but they are probably not wrong to see Obama’s caution as timidity. 

It’s possible, of course, that the president and Congress could stand down in Syria and then stand up against Iran’s nuclear program, as some now argue. We could avoid a small war but commit ourselves to the possibility of a much bigger one. But does this pass the pinch test? The American desire to avoid war in Syria overlaps rather well with the desire to avoid any U.S. military threat against the Islamic Republic. The fear of the ripple effect, of quagmire, of terrorism, of years more of Middle Eastern Islamic messiness, of the unknowns that always accompany military conflict is certainly much greater with preemption of Tehran than intervention in Syria. The two issues are not analogous to the collapse of Vietnam and the defense of Western Europe in the 1970s (and many Democrats who turned away from Vietnam also became increasingly accommodationist with the Soviet Union everywhere else). Syria and Iran are near neighbors. As the late Samuel Huntington might have put it, it’s the same oikoumene, for Allah’s sake. If we cave on one, we will, in all probability, cave on the other. 

Only one thing is crystal clear: Assad used chemical weapons because he needed to. They are the ideal terror weapon for a regime with limited manpower fighting a rebellious population. Conventional weapons have been deadly in Syria, but bombs, bullets, and artillery shells haven’t quieted the opposition, which in some places (including the suburbs of Damascus) is still gaining ground. Chemical weapons could well do the trick. Terror weapons accomplish a lot with a little, and chemical weapons offer the possibility of graduated escalation—also ideal if a dictator is feeling out the resolve of outraged Westerners. The odds are excellent that Assad will use these weapons again and again until the opposition cracks. If we are to stop their use, then Assad must fall. That so many in the West don’t see this, and are unwilling to go to war to stop such an atrocity—to send a clear signal to tyrants elsewhere—only shows how far we’ve come since 9/11. The Middle East’s power politics have, again, hit us head on. We are, perhaps, too “fatigued” this time round for the challenge. 

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and the author of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East.

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