U.S Policy on Syria Changes for the Better, Sort of / Prof. B.Rubin

July 12, 2011
It took 2.5 years, months of massive revolutionary upheaval, and a violent attack on the embassy in Damascus, but U.S. policy toward Syria is finally changing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked:“President [Bashar al-] Assad is not indispensable and we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power….Our goal is to see that the will of the Syrian people for a democratic transformation occurs.”

Hooray! Hooray! Oops! For despite this major step forward, the Obama administration can’t stop itself from setting up a new potential disaster. For how are they going about this regime transition effort? Why, with Syria’s neighbor, Turkey. The regime thinks it can create a sphere of influence for itself in Syria. In other words, Turkish interests (as defined by the regime) and American interests in Syria are diametrically opposed! Obama is relying on a mediator who will support an Islamist state in Syria or at least one dominated by Islamist forces.

Obama’s colleagues and supporters rightly say that they worry about Syria’s future yet are now following a strategy most likely to lead to a bad result.

Turkey? Why not the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia directly, and also Jordan? Remember these (ex-?) U.S. allies? Like Syria, these are Arab states. Ah, but for the Obama administration, Arabism isn’t important. Only Islam is. And if you undermine Arab identity–as Obama has been doing since his Cairo speech–in favor of Islam, then you’ll get Islamists, not nationalists.

In Iraq, the State Department advocated, as it always does, a Sunni Arab approach. This was a big problem since there Sunni Arabs only comprise a 20 percent minority. But in Syria, Sunni Arabs are 60 percent of the population. In Iraq, where Shia Muslims are the largest group, Saudi and Jordanian intervention was a problem; in Syria, though, going through the countries that have long been U.S. allies makes far more sense.

The U.S. military loves Turkey and many officers have served there. But these same officers know from the bitter complaints of their Turkish colleages–who hate the current regime–just how bad things are with that regime.

Of the many mistakes made by the Obama administration, the preference of Muslim over Arab identity is one of the more neglected but very dangerous ones. Nationalism in the Arab world has many sins and catastrophes to its name, but what other bulwark will there be to Islamism, as an alternative identity? (Democracy is not an identity.) This bad idea was probably dreamed up in the CIA as a brilliant innovation: the United States will promote an Islamic identity to combat the radical Islamist doctrine of al-Qaida and Iran.

Yet if one looks at various struggles–say that between the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas, or within Lebanon or in Egypt–the Islam card is going to be dominated by radicals. There is no organized body of moderate Islam; though some relatively moderate Islamic groups are evolving they are quite weak and probably likely to ally with the Islamists in the end.

And as for Turkey, it is run by an Islamist regime that is aligned with Iran, Hamas, and Hizballah. Why partner with a government that opposes all of your interests? Well, most of them anyway since there is some parallelism in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many people have asked me why Turkey is now opposed to the Syrian regime, often assuming it is out of a love of democracy on the part of those running things in Ankara. But that’s not it at all. Rather, as a Sunni Islamist movement, the Turkish regime has decided to back the Muslim Brotherhood and other forces in Syria. It dreams of having a sphere of influence in Syria.

In other words, the Obama administration has turned to the worst possible partner in Syria whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of the United States on this issue. Thus, it has now chosen a strategy most likely to bring about that bad result.

Another mistake of the Obama administration thus appears here: supporting one’s enemies rather than one’s friends. I don’t mean to suggest that “Turkey” is an enemy of the United States. But on a number of issues (Israel-Palestinian, Lebanon, Syria, Iran), the Turkish regime is on the opposite side of where the United States should be.

For now, Clinton’s statement marks an improvement in U.S. policy. But in the long run, Obama administration’s policy on Syria may have taken, to quote Lenin, one step forward, two steps back.

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