It is becoming clearer by the day that the U.S. is facing a strategic catastrophe in the Middle East thanks to the Obama administration’s mishandling of the conflict in Syria, which eclipses the geopolitical implications of Libya. Should Bashar Assad prevail, he will be infinitely indebted to Iran and Hezbollah, and the “Shiite Crescent” will remain unbroken. Islamists have become the dominant rebel force due to the Obama administration’s decision to let “allies” like Qatar and Turkey take the lead. Non-Islamist rebels are losing faith in America, two million Syrian Christians are in peril and the conflict is spreading into Lebanon and Turkey. The disaster of today is likely a foreshadowing of the greater disaster of tomorrow.
Over 33,000 have lost their lives in the conflict, mostly civilians. This is just a fraction of the number of people who have been wounded or imprisoned, many being tortured while in captivity. About 1.5 million are now homeless and 300,000 have fled to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. These numbers are especially breathtaking when you consider the fact that Syria only has a population of about 21 million.
The U.S. is “leading from behind” by letting Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia handle relations with the Syrian opposition. As these governments are Islamist, it should come as no surprise that they favor the Islamist rebels. Qatar is especially supportive of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, much like it supported the Libyan Islamists. The result of this outsourcing of U.S. influence is that the majority of arms shipped to the rebels are ending up in the hands of jihadists.
Non-Islamist Syrian rebels stand alone, mystified that the Obama administration isn’t picking their side. The leader of the Free Syria Army (as much as one can be a “leader” of such a fragmented force) is Riad al-Assad. He says that new councils appeared on the ground in recent months and “people’s loyalty changed because of the weapons supplies” as “there is nothing to offer them.” He says that his forces haven’t received arms in four months, while his jihadist competitors have a steady flow. The jihadists even launched the battle for Aleppo on their own, while the Muslim Brotherhood has established its own militia.
“I talked with America, Europe, and the media that they needed to support the leadership of the FSA [Free Syria Army]…If there is no support for the FSA…new groups would appear and the work will fall apart, because then we wouldn’t be able to control what was happening on the ground…And that’s where we are now,” he says.
The West has embraced the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella group that has a secular, moderate face but has the Muslim Brotherhood as its most powerful component. The U.S.-based Muslim Brotherhood is closely tied to it. Kamal Labwani, another secular activist who openly calls for an “Islamic reformation” to vanquish Islamist thought, says the U.S. and Europe pressured him and other non-Islamists to unite under the SNC’s authority. He urges the U.S. to support the “liberal opposition” instead of Islamists.
Randa Kassis, another secular opposition figure, agrees. She is the president of the Coalition of Secular and Democratic Syrians and she has begun a new bloc called the Movement for a Pluralist Society. She urges the U.S. to pressure its “allies” in the region to end support for the Islamist opposition. Other elements of the Syrian opposition became vocally disgusted when their requests for money, weapons, body armor and satellite phones were completely denied and they were told there’d be no consideration until after the election.
“With regard to America, specifically, we would like to say to President Obama that waiting for election day to make the right decision on Syria is unacceptable for the Syrians,” said Abdelbaset Sieda, the President of the SNC. He is a secular Kurd.
Joseph Holiday of the Institute for the Study of War explains that the U.S.’s reluctance to pick sides based on ideology is a gift to the Islamists.
“The irony of our fear of supplying Islamist groups is that the others who are arming the opposition – the Saudis, the Qataris, the Turks – are doing just that, providing weapons and ammunition to Islamists. Our lack of giving support is actually leading to the Islamicization of the opposition,” he says.
The strength of the Islamists among the opposition has forced most of Syria’s Christians to support Assad for the sake of self-preservation. Some Christians in Aleppo took up arms against the rebels in Aleppo. The regime is also targeting Christians who provide any care for civilians in need. Churches have been destroyed and Christian activists have been killed. Others who side more strongly with rebel forces are also persecuted. The regime stopped banks from working with the Greek Orthodox Mariamite Church after it gave money to the rebels.
The situation is not going to get any better any time soon. The civil war is at a stalemate and the fighting will become fiercer as one side is forced into retreat. If the regime begins falling apart, it may use chemical and biological weapons. Vast amounts of weapons of all kinds will become available to the highest bidder or the fastest looter. Ethnic cleansing is a probability, as the 10-12% of the population that is Allawite will fight for their lives, fearing what the mostly Sunni rebels have in store for them for their support for Assad.
The civil war in Syria can ignite new conflicts and inflame old ones. It has become a proxy war with Iran, Hezbollah and Russia backing Assad, while the Sunni Islamists and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are backing the rebels. It is very possible that Iran and Hezbollah will retaliate against these countries for their involvement and they will retaliate in kind.
Jordan just stopped a series of attacks planned by Al-Qaeda operatives involved with the rebel cause. Syrian mortar rounds are killing Turkish civilians, prompting retaliation. The Turkish military may be compelled to enter Syrian territory, where they will take on the PKK Kurdish terrorist group and perhaps begin a fight with the Kurdish community as a whole. Lebanon is erupting after the assassination of an anti-Assad figure in a car bombing in a Christian area of Beirut. The Lebanese prime minister’s office was nearly taken over by angry protesters.
The humanitarian and strategic catastrophe in Syria cannot be contained. The spillover is already happening, yet the West hasn’t even begun to reach out to the anti-Islamist forces in the region. Syrian secularists like those mentioned shouldn’t have to beg to be recognized. With the Obama Administration unable to even recognize that the Muslim Brotherhood is an enemy and its democratic opponents are valuable partners, the Islamists have every reason to be optimistic about Syria and the region.
This article was sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
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