September 1, 2014

New Moderates! Syrian Rebels, Iranian President, and the Taliban!


Azaz, Syria during the Syrian civil war. After Syria government aerial bombardment (August 18, 2012).

Azaz, Syria during the Syrian civil war. After Syria government aerial bombardment (August 18, 2012).

Let’s suppose you feel Iran is the bigger of the two evils, and that Tehran, Hizballah, and Russia cannot be allowed to have a victory in the Syrian civil war. Therefore, the United States must supply weapons to the rebels despite the fact that they are America-hating Islamists.

I can understand that argument, but first let’s explore the adventure that the United States and European Union is about to embark on.

The cost: U.S. backing for the Sunni Islamist takeover of much of the Middle East. The benefit: denying Syria to Iranian influence after 30 years of it — though of course, Syria won’t come under U.S. influence. Also, many wars may flow from this policy: a Sunni Islamist regime’s war on Israel, Hizballah in Lebanon, the Syrian Kurds, and possibly Iraq (Sunni versus Shia) and Jordan (Islamist subversion to help the Muslim Brotherhood).

If the United States supplies enough weapons to just keep the rebels going, that would be one thing. But American policymakers are likely to be carried away — as often happens to Americans in this situation — and to see rebel victory as the equivalent of good, the heroic freedom fighters battling for the liberation of puritanical Sharia. It doesn’t seem to bother a lot of people to support an anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, anti-woman, anti-gay movement that has already committed atrocities, whose leading organization once collaborated with the Nazis, and about 20 percent of which consists of al-Qaeda supporters.

We have just seen the proliferation of weapons and terrorists following the U.S.-sponsored support of Islamists after the Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan wars. Moreover, don’t count the rebels out yet, despite the hysteria claiming that Assad is winning — five weeks ago, everyone claimed the rebels were winning. Also — while I don’t want the Syrian regime to win — let’s remember that two short years ago the Obama administration was courting Syria as a potential ally, treating what was still a dreaded dictatorship as if it was one step from singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Visiting U.S. officials and members of Congress became apologists for the regime. For those remembering these events, the current scene is disgusting. Suddenly Syria became a ferocious dictatorship? It was always a ferocious dictatorship. Suddenly Syria became an ally of Tehran, a stance that the Obama administration claimed two short years ago that it was going to reverse? It has been an ally of Iran for more than 30 years.

How short our memories. Analogies to other recent events are also often ridiculous (World War Two, the Spanish Civil War), made by people who know nothing about Syria. In Iraq, for example, there were viable democratic forces and the United States had real leverage over the situation. While one might want the overthrow of the Assad regime, that just isn’t true in Syria.

In Syria, the United States has not just accepted but backed from the start an exile leadership that not only was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood but which refuses to even allow a significant representation by liberal moderates and the Kurds. If U.S. policy, soon to be paying the bills and giving the weapons, cannot achieve that, then why give help without conditions? Again, one wants the Assad regime to fall, but cannot Washington even extract any political price for this support of the rebels? Perhaps, from Turkey to get more support for U.S. policy toward Iran from Ankara? Apparently not.

Will the murder of Christians and other rebel atrocities incur any penalties on U.S. backing, or not? Everyone should know that the United States cannot protect a single Syrian civilian from murder and persecution by the rebels.

Who is doing whom a favor?

The strategic issues have also not been fully thought out. Iran is not Nazi Germany, but it is going to get nuclear weapons no matter what happens in Syria. Its ability to project influence into the Arab world is limited to Lebanon — where the United States has always accepted it before — and to a lesser degree to Syria, even less to Iraq. One can make the case that the Sunni Islamists, without a big source of money or arms, are less threatening than Iran. Yet that depends, too, on how Sunni Islamist policy, which largely means the Muslim Brotherhood, develops.

What is needed here are cool-headed evaluations; what we see is bordering on hysteria.

There’s something in the U.S. military culture called “mission creep,” wherein the task given the U.S. forces is extended far beyond the original intention. Also, in military affairs nothing turns out to be as easy as you expect. If, for example, the rebels can’t win otherwise, will there need to be a no-fly zone? Or more intervention? All to produce a likely result of an anti-American terrorist-sponsoring dictatorship? Or perhaps it can be bought off for a while by sending billions of dollars of aid to subsidize a Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship. Already we see the war hysteria building.

So let’s say that Obama sets a policy of sending only limited numbers of light weapons to moderate forces. Naturally, though, the U.S. trainers will not be able to vet every trainee. We know that’s true, and there will no doubt be terrorist-minded and extremist soldiers whose skills will increase thanks to Uncle Sam. Many of them are young; perhaps some of them won ‘t retire after the Syrian civil war ends.

But what’s really worrisome is the next step. Suppose the rebels still aren’t winning — the aides and experts and advisers then explain to the White House that unless more and better weapons are sent, then “our” side will lose. That can’t happen, right? It will be an even more humiliating loss to the Russians, Iranians, Hizballah, and the Syrian regime that not so long ago — just over two years ago — was Obama’s good buddy.

At that point, there comes escalation: more weapons, more American involvement, better arms. That is going to be a big temptation. Who is going to stand up and say “no”?

Now think of the opposite outcome: the rebels quickly reverse the tide of battle, and they are winning. In that case, the officials say, “Just a little more aid, and we can have a big victory.” Once again, mission creep.

And what would the U.S. government do if and when the rebels start murdering civilians? There are people who don’t support Israel and want the United States to reduce help because it is “immorally” doing certain things — are these criticizers of Israel going to accept rebels cutting off heads, wiping out dozens of civilians, shooting prisoners, and even eating a few body parts?

All of these things have already happened and will happen more frequently, and the United States will have no leverage to affect this behavior. The leaders are not in control; the rebels don’t want to do America’s bidding. Will the aid be cut off at that point? No. Too many reputations will be on the line; too much political capital will have been extended.

Meanwhile the Sunni Muslim side — particularly the Sunni Islamist side — will urge the United States on, promising it anything if it puts their friends in power. Obama will believe that the Arabs love America and will support U.S. interests. Until, of course, the day after they take over — or, say, several months afterward — when the Muslim Brotherhood turns on America and the Salafists attack Israel.

There is, however, one possible way out: if the United States can say Iran made us do it by escalating its own involvement in the war.

There is something peculiar happening after the Iranian presidential election. On one hand, the media throughout the West is proclaiming that Iran is now moderate, forgetting that the same thing happened 16 years ago (the election of a relatively moderate president) without changing anything. On the other hand, Iran seems to have become more aggressive and threatening after the election. The Iranian supreme leader directly insulted Obama, saying he was a puppet of Zionist interests and was only elected in a phony process, unlike the freedom enjoyed in Iran.

The point is that Iran may have overplayed its hand, throwing away a wonderful opportunity to fool the West and to get sanctions reduced while still building nuclear weapons. At any rate, this is a big mess and it will not turn out well.

Speaking of big messes, to consolidate the Obama Doctrine — allying or engaging with Sunni Islamist extremists — the United States is now entering public negotiations with the Taliban. The Afghan Taliban, you might remember, was a partner in the September 11, 2001, attacks and has been unrepentant. The supposed price will be that the Taliban, which is killing Americans on a daily basis in Afghanistan, may merely renounce al-Qaeda. But since al-Qaeda doesn’t exist any more in Afghanistan, this is  hardly significant.

Mere words from the no-doubt trustworthy Taliban — will even an apology be required? — will make up for the murder of around 3000 Americans. According to U.S. policy, there is a radical and moderate wing of the Syrian rebels, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood regime, the Turkish stealth Islamist regime, probably now the Iranian regime, and several others as well, no doubt. The Taliban has been calling the Afghan government an American puppet, and the Afghan government reacted to news of the talks angrily, with a feeling of betrayal, and broke off its own talks with the United States.

Sound like a pattern? The U.S. government siding with enemies and subverting historical allies?

Oh: four American soldiers were killed by a Taliban attack the same day these diplomatic developments occurred.

Finally, the new Iranian president has been declared a moderate by much of the Western establishment. First, it is only assumed he is a moderate — true, he was the person out of desperation who was supported by the opposition, but he has a long record as a key national security official who does not differ from the main political line. Second, he is powerless, because the supreme guide is in charge.

Imagine a Cold War in which the United States took the Communist side, and you get a picture of current U.S. policy.

This article appeared in PJ Media.

About Barry Rubin

Prof. Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia at http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan)