A reminder to the administration: the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. The friend of my friend is not necessarily my friend. And the friend of my enemy is not necessarily my enemy, but he may be not by my friend, either. Friends, in fact, are hard to come by in the Middle East.
Bashar Assad, for example, is Iran’s puppet, Hezb’allah’s patron, Israel’s nemesis, Hamas’s erstwhile landlord, and his people’s tyrant. He is the enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood — our (former?) enemy. And he has a mixed relationship with al-Qaeda, permitting it to infiltrate Iraq to kill Americans, Shiites, and non-compliant Sunnis, but now finding it joining the jihadis against him.
But Assad is also the friend of Russia, the object of the Obama administration’s ardent courtship. And Russia’s enemies are Sunni jihadists, including Chechens and the Muslim Brotherhood. One (admittedly unlikely) calculation of American interests might have had us join the Russians in stopping the rebels and then working with the Russians to effect political change in Syria. It couldn’t have worked any worse for the Syrian people or the U.S.-Russian relationship than Mrs. Clinton hectoring Putin but failing to change his deeply rooted interest in maintaining its port in Syria and hitting back at the jihadists.
On the other side of the equation, the administration admitted that it didn’t know who the “anti-Assad rebels” were or what alliances, if any, they had. The U.S. therefore decided publicly to stay out of the fight. It was a rational decision, if one that drove the left nuts. But we didn’t actually stay out. Instead, the president outsourced the political organization and military establishment of the rebels to a combination of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar — three countries that do not share our views on a variety of important issues. Turkey positions itself as an enemy of America’s friend, Israel; Qatar broke the quarantine on Hamas, our enemy; Saudi Arabia funds radical Islamist organizations up to and including al-Qaeda.
There are now reports that the U.S. was actually arming the rebels all along. Benghazi wasn’t a consulate in the classic sense; it was a CIA station, where the agency was collecting arms from the Libyan revolutionaries and passing them along. Ambassador Chris Stevens’s last meeting was with the Turkish ambassador. A full year ago, Libya’s revolutionary leadership was meeting with Syrian rebels under Turkish auspices and offering them arms. In April, Lebanese authorities impounded a Libyan ship with weapons destined for Syria. Most recently, in mid-September, a Libyan ship carried more than 400 tons of weapons, including SAM-7 surface-to-air antiaircraft missiles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). There were ships in between.
The recent decision by Secretary of State Clinton to withdraw recognition from the Syrian National Council and form a new working group in Qatar is an overt attempt to be relevant on the political side of the uprising and, perhaps, deflect attention from the Benghazi debacle. Not surprisingly, several Syrian groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have already distanced themselves from the new effort and/or denounced the U.S. effort as an attempt to control the future and buy influence in Damascus later.
If that is the intent, the effort is doomed.
Nowhere in the Arab Middle East, Pakistan, or Afghanistan (or Iran under the shah) has the United States created a government that shares our values, despite the investment of billions of dollars, millions of person-hours, and the lives of thousands of brave American soldiers. (That is not to say that there aren’t people in those countries who share our values — certainly there are — but it is to say that the institutions under which they live do not.) Minority rights including women’s rights and gay rights, the concept of a “loyal opposition,” the peaceful transfer of power, civil society outside religious or government control, free speech, transparent government and business, and personal liberty are not the operative conditions under which the people of the region live. And they live with well-funded, deeply rooted extremist organizations that see chaos as an opportunity to ingrain themselves ever more deeply into society.
The U.S. and Europeans spent millions on “civil society” organizations in Egypt, for example, operated by brave individuals who literally took their lives in their hands to help pry open society to enable free speech and free association. But when the revolution came, the replacement for the secular dictator was a religious dictator.
The idea that Syrian society writ large can be liberal, tolerant, and pluralistic is simply out of touch with everything we knew about it even before the revolution, not to mention the hardening of attitudes that will accompany the war. Support for “the rebels” in the war, or creation of a new, more broadly based revolutionary council, does not translate into politics in the Western sense.
A strong case can be made that the elimination of Assad’s regime is important to set back Iranian/Shiite influence in the region. But it is the height of naïveté to remove a radical Shiite outpost in the Levant assuming it can be replaced by a government with which the U.S. has influence. It will almost assuredly be replaced by a radical Sunni outpost reflective of the strength of its most forceful member.