Friday, June 14, 2013

Panic in Washington: Is Iran and Syria's Regime Winning and What to Do?

By Barry Rubin

A case can be made that the Syrian rebels must not be defeated because it would be an Iranian victory. But what is disturbing is that even if one could argue that the rebels must be helped it is a policy being conducted dishonestly. People do not know that the weapons given by the United States will almost all end up in the hands of pro-Muslim Brotherhood units. How would the American people feel if they knew that truth? At this point, almost 100 percent of the fighters on the front lines--are radical Islamists. The exiled political leadership is overwhelmingly Muslim Brotherhood. This is a choice of Sunni anti-Christians, anti-Americans, and antisemites rather than Shia anti-Christians, anti-Americans, and antisemites.  The United States--after Egypt and Tunisia--is now promoting the Muslim Brotherhood as regional hegemon. This is not a good idea and certainly not one to be made by honestly debating whether the United States wants to do this.

A new, important development has taken place in the Syrian civil war: Western panic that the rebels are losing has replaced optimism. This has spurred a desire to do something about the war. But how can the West do enough to prevent the feared rebel defeat? It isn’t going to intervene directly, nor with a big enough effort to save off a defeat. Anyway, is a defeat imminent?

This has been a war in which every week somebody different is proclaimed the victor. I don’t believe that the Syrian regime is poised for a victory but a lot of people in Washington and other world capitals do.

What this round has done, however, is to raise alarms, both in the West and in the Sunni Muslim world, that the Shia Muslim side is winning, that is Iran is emerging triumphant over the United States. What are the implications?

Remember some important points. Iran is not going to take over the Middle East nor is it about to win a lot of Sunni followers. Iran’s limit of influence is mainly in Lebanon and Syria (where its ally only controls half the country) and to a lesser extent Iraq. Tehran can fool around in Yemen, Bahrain, and southwest Afghanistan a bit, too. But that’s about it. There are real limits.

Why, though, has the Iran bloc seemed to have been winning?

First, Iran’s proxies are better organized than the Syrian rebels. They are unified, with Hizballah and the Syrian government coherent forces and a new People’s Army as a single militia. In contrast, the rebels are divided into a dozen groups which may cooperate but also battle among themselves and don’t coordinate very well.

Second, the Iran bloc gives more support to its proxies than the Sunni bloc or the West. Among the Sunnis, they are also divided into Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists, and al-Qaida) and what might be called non- or anti-Islamists. The United States will not intervene in a big way. Remember that in Libya, NATO had to hand the rebels’ victory by destroying their regime enemies. Nothing like this will happen in Syria. The Obama Administration will face a defeat rather than do so.

Third, this also means that the United States has worse and weaker proxies than the other side. In part, this is because the Obama Administration accepted their destruction, as in the dismantlement of the Turkish army’s power, the overthrow of the Egyptian regime, the subverting of Israel’s leverage, and the failure to support moderates or non-Islamist conservatives all over the region. Iraq has also been turned into a Shia power. In short, Obama helped dismantle the old strategic order and replaced it with one where enemies of America rejoiced.

So what happens if U.S. policy exaggerates a Sunni defeat, intensified by Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan—those who backed the Syrian rebels--begging it to do more?

Let me point out that once again this shows that the Arab-Israeli conflict is unimportant in the contemporary Middle East. This idea simply doesn’t seem to penetrate the brains of Western leaders. Perhaps Secretary of State John Kerry has turned into a full-time “peacemaker” because he thinks that defusing the conflict will shore up the Sunni Muslim side,

That’s ridiculous. There’s not going to be any progress on peace—if for no other reason the Palestinian Authority is terrified of either Islamist or Shia Islamist conquest of the region. Even if they wanted to make a deal—and they don’t—they’d be scared off by thinking peacemaking is suicidal.

But the wider issue could convince policymakers to enter an open alliance with Sunnis—including the Muslim Brotherhood—to counter the Shias. The Saudis and others would be pressured to get along with the Muslim Brotherhood; Israel would be pushed not to do anything to disrupt the grand alliance. Again, this could happen but it won’t work if it does.

There is, however, an alternative: the United States would understand that only Israel is just about the only reliable ally in the Middle East. It might take another president to do that.

What other implications does an apparent Syrian government victory have?

--It again reminds us that we are in an era characterized by two phenomena: the battle in each country between Islamists and non-Islamists, and the battle between Sunni and Shias. The old Arab nationalist era, extending from 1952 to 2011, is over.

--The United States should recognize that the increasingly repressive Erdogan regime has led it into a mess in Syria. The White House, however, won’t do that though there are many in the State Department who understand.

--Both Sunni and Shia Islamists are against U.S. interests but U.S. policymakers don’t quite get this and if they do what are they going to do about it?

--U.S. policy will probably become more favorable to the Muslim Brothers ruling Egypt (lots more military aid) and those wanting to rule Syria. They are becoming increasingly designated as “good guys” by the United States even though they are becoming more repressive and unpopular.

--The violence is growing in Iraq, where Sunnis are looking at Syria and saying, “We thought we couldn’t win but maybe we were wrong.” That country might also be destabilized. Ironically, the United States and Iran are both on the same side there, for a Shia regime against al-Qaida.

--The (Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese) Christians, (Iraqi and Syrian) Kurds, and Syrian Druze are going to look for a protector increasingly. But the United States will probably ignore them.

--Internal violence is growing also in Lebanon along Sunni-Shia lines. Perhaps the United States should reconsider a strategy which has indirectly supported Hizballah. Indeed, maybe it should consider covert operations to work with the Christians and mainly moderate Sunni Muslims to subvert Hizballah. But it won’t do that either.

Note: To my knowledge despite massive coverage of this Syria story, there has not been one article or even quote in any mass media outlet questioning whether the United States should arm Syrian rebels who are 95 percent either Muslim Brotherhood, Salafist Islamists, or al-Qaida. There was never any coverage of the idea that the United States should, before the civil war began, try to punish Syria and after the civil war began to support the non-Islamist moderates and Kurds, not the Muslim Brotherhood.This is the way foreign policy debates are conducted in the United States today. If one raises questions like this, or whether there really is a live Israel-Palestinian peace process, or whether U.S. policy should support the overthrow of the Egyptian government, or whether the Turkish regime's policy is bad for the United States, or that there were an astonishing number of pro-terrorist American Muslims being consulted and courted by the U.S. government, etc.,  you will be blacklisted and never before appear in the mass media. Incredible but it is really pretty much true.  We are not talking about outrageous, crackpot positions here but about well-documented arguments and about the most basic policy choices that have to be made. These are not really even innately partisan issues since, for instance, Senator John McCain is a leader in calling for arming the rebels. Can one say that there is a real foreign policy debate in America any more, at least over the Middle East?

This article is published on PJMedia.

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Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His next book, Nazis, Islamists and the Making of the Modern Middle East, written with Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, will be published by Yale University Press in January 2014. His latest book is Israel: An Introduction, also published by Yale. Thirteen of his books can be read and downloaded for free at the website of the GLORIA Center including The Arab States and the Palestine ConflictThe Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East and The Truth About Syria. His blog is Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.


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