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While U.S. pundits may continue to quibble over the role of the Brotherhood within the SNC, the Syrians themselves have largely acknowledged it. “They are saying that there are weapons in depots here (in Turkey) but they won’t release them to us because we are not pledging allegiance to them. They want us to follow Saudi Arabia or a big organization like the Brotherhood,” said one Syrian arms broker speaking to Time magazine. “We are refusing this. That’s why the next batch of weapons has been delayed. Either we follow them, and get lots of weapons, or we don’t and die.”
The prominence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian rebellion has led to yet one more conflict of interests playing out inside Syria, between the Sunni Arab regimes in the region. Currently there is no “upside” for U.S. interests in this crucial conflict, largely because the Obama administration continues to insist that the Muslim Brotherhood is an acceptable regional actor, and has put the U.S. on the side of the Muslim Brotherhood in the regional conflict between the Brotherhood and the old guard Sunni regimes. This is due to a misconception held by the Obama Administration, which views the Muslim Brotherhood as a legitimate Islamist opposition to jihadist forces represented by Al Qaeda. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have both expressed concerns regarding the growth of Brotherhood power in the region, while Qatar and the Turks have largely supported it. The Saudis and their allies may have an interest in seeing some other force than the Brotherhood winning in Syria, which may lead them to back other forces, particularly if the FSA is subsumed by the Brotherhood-controlled SNC. Of course it is equally possible that they may see a Muslim Brotherhood-held Syria as a better option than Assad remaining in power.
The final conflict is between the Sunni and Shia. A defeat for Assad would be a defeat for Iran, the leading Shia state, and in that sense the Syrian conflict can also be viewed through the lens of the Sunni-Shia competition and the Sunni states fear of an aggressive Iranian regime. For many western analysts, this has been the conflict to which many are most attuned. Assad is an ally of Iran, and if Assad goes, Iran is weakened, ergo Assad should fall, whatever the cost.
In sum, the United States’ Syria policy has been deeply confused, in each of the numerous conflicts now taking place around Syria. In the fight for control of the Syrian opposition, the U.S. has backed the Muslim Brotherhood over overt jihadists, which insures an Islamist victor ideologically hostile to the United States over other more preferable actors. It has failed to recognize the interests at play for Russia, leaving the U.S. continuing to seek Russian complicity in a series of negotiations which are ultimately doomed to failure. Its desire for agreement with the Russians has led it to neglect the goal of ousting Assad and dealing a setback to Iran, which alienates the U.S. among the very rebels we seek to support. In dealing with Turkey, The U.S., through NATO, has both supported Turkey, while casting doubt upon its claims at the same time.
Ultimately as we began the piece by noting, the situation in Syria is made up of multiple interwoven conflicts. The U.S. has a coherent policy for none of them.
Kyle Shideler is a research fellow for EMET (Endowment for Middle East Truth).
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