Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Give Syria to the Islamists

by Ryan Fleming

Photo courtesy of

The events of August 21, 2013 in the suburbs of Damascus hardly need introduction. The ghastly images of dead men, women and children, faces ashen, laid out in rows, inspires not only sadness but rage. As the specifics of this grisly attack have come to light over the past ten or so days, what is increasingly unquestioned is that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad deployed chemical weapons against his own people, killing hundreds (if not a thousand). It’s a disgusting new chapter in a conflict that has roiled the entire Middle East and sent 100,000 people to their graves.

Laypeople and Middle East experts alike caution that Syria is a pit of ethnic hatred and sectarian warfare, and yet the war is not without its ironies: one of the most potent groups resisting the Syrian dictatorship include groups linked to al-Qaeda. While nothing new, this bizarre circumstance didn’t escape the writers of TIME’s online edition, who penned the headline, “As Syria Attack Seems Imminent, Al-Qaeda and the U.S. Eye The Same Enemy.”

To be clear, a decade of Middle Eastern wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, with Iran waxing and waning in the offing) has left Western nations fed up with military intervention of any kind in that part of the world. One could fill volumes contrasting the gravity of the current situation with the empty lies that led us into Iraq, while likening the dangers of toppling one Baathist regime to the other. The more urgent lesson comes to us not from Baghdad, but Cairo.

The lowdown on Egypt, of course, is that a dictator was deposed in a revolution and replaced with groups whose Muslim faith played an important role in their political identity and aspirations: enter the (gasp) “Islamists.” So it was that the Muslim Brotherhood rode a wave of popular support into the presidency with the country’s first elected leader, Mohamed Morsy. Following decades of persecution, far from the seats of power, the Muslim Brotherhood admittedly did not do a very good job in governing Egypt. Corruption, mismanagement, and some executive overreach marred President Morsy’s time in office (have we had any executive overreach in this country in the last 10-15 years?). Then, in comically predictable fashion, President Morsy was illegally ejected from office in a military coup and imprisoned. Old habits die hard, and the U.S. dithered in calling the coup what it was, choosing instead to try to find something democratic about upending democracy. Secretary of State John Kerry uttered perhaps the most shameful quote of his tenure at the State Department: “The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people, all of whom were afraid of a descendance into chaos, into violence. And the military did not take over, to the best of our judgment – so far…in effect, they were restoring democracy.”

There are no easy explanations for this absurdity, from which the Obama Administration has had to backpedal following the violent suppression of protestors and persistence of chaos. If one accepts that American foreign policy is needlessly allergic to political Islam of any kind, however, this stance starts to make more coherent sense – if only because it constrains our ability to work with anyone other than secular-ish dictators, no matter how repressive. We funneled aid to Hosni Mubarak for decades, and lingered by his side while the streets of Cairo seethed against him. Our Egypt policy failure is assuredly complete.

In Syria, weasel word politics have won the day to date, with our leadership so terrified of “Islamists” taking over the country that consensus on moving against a murderous, chemical weapon-deploying psycho has been difficult to find. Senator Rand Paul has lent his voice to this brand of objection, musing publicly whether or not Assad is any worse than those who would replace him.

There’s something darkly trite about the saying “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” but it may not be entirely untrue here. There are ostensibly Muslim governments all over the Middle East who blend Islam with public policy without butchering their own citizenry en masse and trashing international bans on chemical weapons. In the Palestinian territories, Hamas had to pivot toward pragmatism when they won elections and it suddenly became their responsibility to keep the lights on. Responsibility has a perceptible, if not radical, moderating effect. When it comes to Syria policy, it’s increasingly clear that our calculus has been totally off. Islamists and Americans share a common enemy in Bashar Assad. As plumes of poison gas hang in the streets, refugee numbers balloon to unsustainable levels, a rash of bombings spreads across the region, and 100,000 bodies litter the ground in Syria, I can’t help but wonder how many more Syrian children need to be gassed while our Islamophobic intransigence leaves us paralyzed. 

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