The Problem of Syria and What to Do about It
What is to be made of the mess that is Syria? Does there exist a side with which America might prudently align? To decipher this puzzle, it's important to recall a little of Syria's history and how that history continues to shape its people.
Syria is a nation with a diverse collection of ethnicities and a multitude of religious affiliations. Its capital, Damascus, is the oldest still existing city in human history. Since 1970, when a coup led by then-family patriarch Hafez Assad brought them to power, the Assad family have enjoyed uninterrupted rule, despite repeated attempts to dislodge them.
The Assads are Alawites, a small minority sect of Shia Islam. Hafez Assad was the first Shiite head of state since the 11th century, and his ascension to power served as inspiration for the Shiite Iranian revolution less than a decade later.
Indeed, Assad sheltered Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini during part of his exile and, having become close friends, Assad provided logistical, political, and financial support to Khomeini during the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
While Syria is 87 percent Muslim, Shias are a mere fraction of those at only 12 percent. President Bashar Assad belongs to a small minority in the country he rules, maintaining power through the support of fellow Shia adherents Iran and its terror proxy, Hezb'allah.
The Shias are natural enemies of the Sunnis, as the Sunnis consider themselves the only true Muslims. Today, the interests of the Sunnis are represented in large part by the Muslim Brotherhood, which believes in the return of the caliphate and total world domination by Sunni Islam. In their view, Shiites are infidels and apostates; hence, they must be killed. However, don't feel too bad for the Shias; they feel just the same way toward the Sunnis.
There have been four bloody uprisings against the Assad regime between 1979 and 1982. All were prompted by the Muslim Brotherhood, resulting in nearly 60,000 Brotherhood adherents being massacred by the brother of Hafez Assad.
The Assads have much at stake when confronting the Brotherhood-aligned Sunnis. If they are defeated, the entire population of Alawites will most certainly be exterminated. Since the failed uprisings, both sides have shared a tense but relatively peaceful co-existence. That all changed in 2011 when the machinations of political outsiders once again transformed Syria into a powder keg.
The Muslim Brotherhood has spent decades grooming the United States to be an ally in helping it achieve dominance in the Middle East. Through the false narrative that they offer sound ideology, superior organization skills, and adequate numbers to maintain peace in the region, they have effectively duped the last four U.S. administrations into following their advice and implementing their suggested policies.
However, they found their huckleberry in Barack Obama. Under the leadership of the Obama White House and the Clinton State Department, working in concert with the Brotherhood, the Arab Spring was ignited, and one by one, nations fell – Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen. Each secular dictatorship was replaced with an Islamic dictatorship, as the Muslim Brotherhood began assembling the components of its long awaited caliphate.
The plan was moving along without a hitch – until Syria. Assad – backed by Russia and aided by his Shia allies – fought back, refusing a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of the nation. The "rebels," armed and funded by the Brotherhood and the United States, found themselves stymied in the face of a dictator willing to sacrifice the lives of vast numbers of his own people to retain power.
News coverage of the Arab Spring uprisings reported that leaders were being overthrown by a "spontaneous grassroots movement," interested in establishing democratic rule. What was billed as spontaneous was in truth a carefully crafted plan known as the 21st Century Statecraft Project, developed by two Clinton State Department staffers, Jared Cohen and Alec Ross. Their project leveraged technology and social media to facilitate regime change.
In March 2011, Clinton's State Department began posting information designed to mobilize youth and opposition parties in Syria, and Assad's government began to wobble. Seeking to avoid the mistakes of the failed uprisings of the past, the Obama-Clinton cabal began arming the underground opposition (rebels), providing millions of dollars in weapons.
By September, the battle for Syria was spiraling out of control. Iran and Hezb'allah exposed the covert involvement of the United States in shipping arms through Benghazi, and President Obama sensed a growing potential for disaster but chose to double down on his gambit.
In October, he drew his "red line," threatening full regime change in Syria, but gravely miscalculated Assad's response. Never intending to back up his threat, Obama found himself hopelessly outmaneuvered and thoroughly embarrassed. Iran and Hezb'allah called on their ally Russia to come to their aid, and the Russians responded to the red line threat by officially entering the Syrian civil war.
By the time of President Trump's election, Syria was in shambles. Seven years of civil war, the deaths of countless Syrians, and the destruction of many of their key cities posed a significant problem for the incoming administration, which had vowed to reverse the Obama administration's support of the Muslim Brotherhood.
After years of feckless foreign policy, there remain few options for dealing with Syria. None of them is particularly good.
- The U.S. can get out of Syria and let the Syrians handle it on their own. A non-starter, as such a withdrawal would empower Iran, Hezb'allah, and Russia, all of whom would officially take full control. While endangering American influence in the Middle East, as well as the safety of the state of Israel, it would also spark renewed conflict between Shia and Sunni that would set the Middle East on fire.
- The U.S. can remove or kill Assad through massive application of airpower. This approach would be prohibitively expensive, result in tremendous collateral damage, and bring us into direct conflict with the Russian forces now stationed in the theater of operations. Even if successful in removing Assad, it offers no means of keeping Iran, ISIS, or Hezb'allah from filling the vacuum.
- The U.S. can remove or kill Assad and occupy Syria in conjunction with international forces. This is a repeat of the Iraq and Afghanistan scenarios, made far worse by the unique confluence of disparate ideologies, ethnicities, and political affiliations present in Syria. A boots-on-the-ground war in Syria would make Iraq look like a walk in the park.
- Replace Assad through diplomatic means or by force, using Arab Sunni military forces who are anti-Muslim Brotherhood. This is the most difficult option but has the potential for the best outcome. This option would involve intense diplomatic efforts, ponderous sanctions on the current key players (Iran and Russia), and the marginalizing of naysayers like Turkey and Qatar. Above all, it must fully exclude any Muslim Brotherhood influences.
This option puts an Arabic face on an Arabic problem. Dovetailing with the current reform efforts underway in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, this option holds the promise of breaking the stranglehold of Islamic supremacists over the region. Successful implementation would forestall the pitfalls of the other three scenarios and may even lead to a regional stability not seen since the middle of the last century.
Did Assad gas his own people? We may never know, but given the dangers of his continued rule and the potential benefits of his carefully managed removal, it may soon become a moot point.
The author is the founder and executive director of the Global Faith Institute and is a former Muslim who converted to Christianity. His father and uncle remain high-ranking leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Dr. Christian's native Egypt. He welcomes visitors to www.globalfaith.org.