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What Comes After Assad?

Al Qaeda is not a threat in Syria.

Sep 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 01 • By BARTLE B. BULL
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The moral and geostrategic arguments for a Western intervention in Syria speak for themselves. There is only good in helping a courageous majority free itself of a barbaric puppet of Iran and Russia who indiscriminately bombs his own civilians from land, air, and sea. Ethically, no outcome could be worse than more of this war. Strategically, nothing could be worse for civilized interests than Assad coming out of it the winner.

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But what happens in the aftermath of an intervention? There seems to be growing concern that al Qaeda has infiltrated the opposition and would come out of the conflict the big winner. On my most recent trip to Syria, last month, I found that this scenario is highly unlikely.

To see what a Sunni-dominated Syria might look like, I traveled to Idlib Province, close to the Turkish border, in what might be called the country’s Sunni heartland: the well-populated northwest, whose overflow has swelled Syria’s two largest cities, Aleppo and Damascus, into metropolises of many millions. Al Qaeda’s strategy in these parts of the country is to send organizers to the very poorest villages. The foreigners arrive with money, mobilize some locals, and gradually reveal the nature of their aims. The story always ends with the villagers rejecting the interlopers—just as the Sunnis of Iraq’s Anbar Province eventually got rid of Al Qaeda in Iraq during the years 2004-07.

One understands the dynamic after digging behind the headlines. For example, there were press reports of a checkpoint flying an al Qaeda flag in the Idlib town of Taftanaz. What was absent from most media coverage is the fact that a week or two later the flag was gone and local commanders vowed never to let al Qaeda return.

Any cross-section of the Sunni community—from local families to rebel units, from the more relaxed Muslims who observe the Ramadan fast but break it all day long with cigarettes and coffee to members of the Muslim Brotherhood—shows, in words and behavior, that what they want from their revolution is a tolerant and forward-looking future. “We have lived with the Christians for over a thousand years,” the commander of a notably religious rebel unit tells me.“Of course we can live with them tomorrow.”

It’s useful to register such statements with a degree of skepticism since Assad’s strategy to fan the flames of sectarianism is having some effect. And yet the sentiment accords with what we already know from Syrian history, old and recent. As in Saddam’s Iraq, in Syria it is the so-called secular ideology of Baathism that—like the atheist regimes led by Stalin, Hitler, and Mao—has done the most damage to the country’s social fabric.

As for other Sunni religious movements, experience in Syria indicates that, as with Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is potentially a deterrent against extremist Salafi currents. In any case, a post-Assad political system would see the Brotherhood itself competing for space within the Sunni community with businessmen and tribal representatives as well as liberals and secularists. One goal of U.S. policy then should be to identify and work with those in the Sunni community who are likely American allies. The Obama administration’s current policy, using a small fraction of the CIA’s softer capabilities and budgeting less than $100 million in nonlethal aid, merely perpetuates the stalemate.

The revolution, dominated by the Sunni Arab majority that represents around 60 percent of Syria’s population, is more than likely to prevail in the end and will not put down its weapons until it does. And yet Assad’s support from Russia and Iran means that, even as he has already ceased to govern, he will not soon be defeated by the lightly armed rebels.

Assad’s military advantages against the rebels rest on a relatively slender, and tactically vulnerable, base. The Damascus regime’s mostly Russian-supplied arsenal includes, according to Jeffrey White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, about 36-48 Hind combat helicopters, maybe 100 Mi-8 and Mi-17 up-armed utility helicopters, and perhaps 300 fixed-wing aircraft of types suitable for ground attack. About half, at most, of these aircraft are likely to be usable. On the ground, Assad has perhaps 1,600 T-72 tanks, less combat losses since the beginning of the revolt, and another 3,000-odd lesser tanks. Assad’s armor is worn down by a year and a half of hard fighting, and vulnerable now to simple RPGs.

White also explains that Syrian air defenses, once described by U.S. officials as “sophisticated,” are “not a serious obstacle for a Western air force” seeking to impose a no-fly zone. Similarly, the Obama administration and its surrogates should no longer imagine that the prospect of an al Qaeda victory in Syria is an obstacle to American support.

Bartle B. Bull, a former foreign editor of Prospect magazine, is a founder of Northern Gulf Partners, an Iraq-focused investment firm.

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