In March, the Syrian regime began slaughtering peaceful demonstrators in Deraa, a small city close to the Jordanian border. In August, the American president called for the man responsible for the killing to step down. It took six very long months, but President Barack Obama’s statement of August 18 seemed quite definitive: “The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way,” he said. “The time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
Given this stated policy, you would think that news of the Syrian opposition gaining ground on Assad’s regime—the Free Syrian Army, for example, now has 17,000 men under arms and has carried off a number of daring operations—would be welcomed in Washington. But you would be wrong.
In the past three months, the White House has failed to realize its stated goal of removing Assad from power. A key reason it has failed isn’t for lack of ability to project power, but rather because it has become distracted by the fractured nature of the opposition—over what comes after Assad—rather than focusing on the far more manageable pursuit of bringing down a long-time U.S. adversary.
Yes, the Obama Administration has built a strong sanctions regime, which is choking off the Syrian regime’s finances. But fearful of owning a potential civil war, the White House has shied away from any talk of force—not only U.S. force but even force on the part of the opposition. Taking up arms will play into the regime’s hands, undermine international support, and “divide the opposition,” the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said earlier this month.
But it’s too late for such warnings. The Syrian opposition, as Feltman surely knows, is already divided. One faction, the Syrian National Council, has modeled itself after Libya’s Transitional National Council in the hopes of attracting the same international support, including a no-fly zone. The group just released its political program, which says it aims to “build a democratic, pluralistic, and civil state by … breaking down the existing regime, including all of its operatives and symbols.” Another faction, the National Coordinating Committee, has reportedly met with officials from the Islamic Republic of Iran, Assad’s closest—and, increasingly, its only—ally. The Iranians’ purpose in backing the National Coordinating Committee is to create a ready-made ally should Assad fall, much like they backed various actors inside Iraq, such as Moqtada al-Sadr. In Iraq, this competition turned into armed conflict. In Syria so far, it has set the opposition against itself. This group has so far distinguished itself by countering the Syria National Council’s strategy, arguing that the opposition does not want foreign intervention, or a no-fly zone.
The Obama Administration is reluctant to throw its support behind any Syrian opposition group when those factions are already at one another’s throats. But the White House should learn from the Iranians: Choose your horse and ride it. Moreover, it was Washington itself that gave an opening to the National Coordinating Committee—and Tehran—by over-emphasizing the importance of the opposition. The administration ought to be pulling every possible lever to overthrow the Syrian dictator, and U.S. policymakers are making a mistake by getting caught up in the details of the opposition’s weaknesses. What’s more, this obsession with “what comes after” is quickly becoming the undoing of U.S. foreign policy.
The White House doesn’t want post-Assad Syria to look like post-Saddam Iraq, torn by civil war. But that outcome is probably unavoidable, regardless of U.S. involvement. Syrian political culture suffers from most of the same pathologies that marked Iraq before and immediately after the 2003 U.S. invasion. The main purpose of authoritarian security states is to stifle political opposition to the ruling regime. Thus it should come as no surprise that the political skills of any opposition group in a country like Syria are going to be rudimentary at best. And, as happened in Iraq, Syria’s opposition movement is going to attract opportunists, especially from the exile community, who have more contact with Western officials even though their understanding of what is happening on the ground is often murkier.
There will be much more conflict to come in Syria, perhaps as much as there was in Iraq. Like in Iraq, Syria’s sectarian strife has deep roots. Syria is historically a Sunni-majority region, dating back to the beginning of the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled from 661 to 750. Some fear that the specter of civil war now threatens Syria, but the truth is that the country’s civil war has been under way since 1966, when the Alawite minority first came to power and the Sunni majority lost its privilege to a heterodox Muslim sect with beliefs both Sunnis and Shiites consider heretical. Certain Sunni factions, spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood, rose up against Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, in the late 1970s, a revolt the late president put down with the 1982 massacre in Hama, killing tens of thousands. What we are watching now is the latest effort on the part of the Sunni majority to overturn the system and retake control of the country. This time around, the Sunnis will almost certainly be successful, and the Alawites, and perhaps other minorities, will pay dearly for it.
The Obama Administration is understandably concerned about the country’s various minority communities, even as some, like several Christian clerics, have disgraced—and perhaps further endangered—themselves by siding openly with a dictatorial regime whose business of late has been slaughtering Sunnis. Nonetheless, in the end there is little Washington can do to cool the enmities that have been roiling Syria and the region for more than a thousand years. It was not the presence of U.S. troops that gave rise to civil war in Iraq, and it will not be the absence of them that touches off more killing in Syria. Those conflicts are indigenous to the region.
Given the political character of the Middle East, which the Iraq war dramatically exposed, the Obama Administration is rightly wary of nation building. However, it does not seem to recognize that the desire to manufacture the ideal opposition movement in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries in turmoil is an outgrowth of the same hubris. The United States is limited in its ability to shape the political climate of foreign countries.
And yet policymakers on both sides of the aisle now seem beholden to the so-called Pottery Barn rule famously articulated by Colin Powell when he was George W. Bush’s first-term secretary of State. But, in fact, Washington is not required to buy something it has broken—especially if the damage was caused for the purpose of advancing U.S. interests. The Pottery Barn conviction has effectively become an article of faith in the foreign-policy establishment, and one that will eventually come to deter the United States from taking actions to protect U.S. citizens, allies, and interests. American taxpayers cannot be expected to sign on for foreign adventures if the price-tag is going to include remaking failed states, including those with leaders and publics who might wish us harm regardless of our contribution.
In the end, all Washington can control is what touches us directly. Right now, we want Assad fighting for his life in Syria because it will restrain the regime from projecting power abroad—exporting terror across the country’s borders into Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. With Iran’s lone Arab ally neutralized, the eventual fall of Assad will weaken the regime in Tehran and its regional proxies, especially Hezbollah, whose supply line goes through the Lebanese-Syrian border. For the United States, that simple outcome is a victory that we’ve sought for more than 30 years.
Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).