Syria ‘extremists’ scare off U.S.?

 The Obama administration knows by now that Russia will not let any action against the murderous Syrian dictatorship get the green light from the U.N. Security Council.  In response, the administration is taking baby steps to help the Syrian uprising, dedicated to overthrowing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

These steps include sharing intelligence with the rebels and increasing the supply of communications gear.  The administration is still unwilling to provide the rebels with heavy arms or help create a “safety zone” in Syria. The main reason, as anonymous White House aides tell the media, is the feat that “extremists” could rise to dominate post-Assad Syria.

The Assad regime will go sooner or later, but the United States needs to be seen actively supporting the Syrian opposition for its own interests.  The Arab Spring is drawing the curtain on the era when America dominated the Middle East by standing on the shoulders of tyrannical dictators and monarchs.   In the years ahead, the security of American interests in that region will depend on the goodwill of its populist and democratic Arab forces.

Besides the Islamist bugbear, a pie-in-the-sky desire to choreograph Syria’s political future is hobbling active American support for the opposition. It’s a lingering Cold War mentality, which the administration shares with many American scholars and experts on the Middle East.

These experts included most of the panelists at a  seminar on  Capitol Hill in Washington on the Syrian crisis. They sounded the alarm that American arms and aid could fall into the hands of Salafists and other “extremists.”  And they called for a strategy that would help set up a secular, pluralist democratic regime in Syria. The lone dissenting voice on the panel was that of my friend Leon Hadar. I have always admired his insights.  Hadar advised against “trying to micromanage” Syrian politics over which Americans would have “no control.”

The seminar was organized by the Washington-based Middle East Policy Council, and it reminded me of another forum the MEPC had hosted on the Hill during the run-up to the Iraq war.  At that 2003 seminar, too, most of the panelists explored options to make sure secular democracy thrives in Iraq after the dictator Saddam Hussein was  overthrown.  The proposed options included bolstering Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. As we found out later Chalabi or his INC had no foothold inside Iraq. Thanks to his neocon promoters, however, the INC reaped millions of American tax dollars for its non-existent democratic movement in Iraq.

Interestingly, this week’s Capitol Hill panel included a spokesman for the Syrian National Council, Radwan Ziadeh, who admitted that his anti-Assad group hasn’t gained much public support in Syria. He blamed it on the insufficiency of foreign assistance and asked for  $45 million in monthly aid.

In any case, the assumption behind the thrust of the experts’ arguments about Syria this week was the same as those about Iraq nine years ago:  Secular Arab democrats would ally with American and Israeli secular democracies, while Islamists would oppose them.  Obviously, America’s bitter experience in Iraq has made little contribution to the thinking of these experts.  In Iraq, the U.S. invasion has turned a staunchly secular autocracy into a pseudo-democratic theocracy. It has transformed an implacably anti-Iranian regime into one that is allied to Iran, America’s and Israel’s archenemy in the Middle East.

It’s about time American policy makers and intellectuals review the myth that Islamists or Muslim “extremists” are innately anti-American.  Sunni Muslim “extremist” Mujahedeen fighters, including Osama bin Laden, were America’s allies during the 1980s war against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In Iraq, Shiite Muslim “extremist” Mahdi Army militia joined the American battle to overthrow the Saddam regime.

Muslim political activism, secularist or Islamist, revolves around what the activists believe to be the interest of their societies or communities.  Bin Laden, who sided with the United States in the anti-Soviet Afghan war, sponsored the 9/11 attacks on America because he and other Saudi Islamists were  outraged by the deployment of American troops  in Saudi Arabia, following the 1991 Operation Desert Storm.  I learned this during two research trips to Saudi Arabia in the 1990s .  Russian President Vladimir Putin keeps reminding his American interlocutors that 15 of the 19 September 11, 2001, plane hijackers were Saudis.

Many Arabs resent America’s wishy-washy role in the Arab Spring and continued support for repressive autocracies in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.   They see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit with Egypt’s Islamist President Muhammad Mursi as recognition of a fait accompli. The administration should reverse course on Syria and get on with organizing international action outside the United Nations to rid Syria of its monstrous dictatorship.

The effort should be conducted through the Friends of Syria group and begin with supplying the rebels with heavy arms and other necessary equipment through the Saudis, Qataris and others.  A safe haven for the rebels and civilian refugees should be created inside Syria alongside its Turkish border, under NATO air cover.  The campaign against the Syrian regime will require outside financial assistance, which should be provided to opposition forces struggling in Syria, and not to organizations outside.

Meanwhile, in the interest of better understanding between America and Islam, U.S. policy makers should revisit the main lesson from U.S. experience in the Muslim world.   Muslims, secular and Islamist, have no quarrel with America when its policies accommodate their interests. They resist, often to the bitter end, those American policies and actions that hurt their interests and their dignity.

  •  Mustafa Malik, an international affairs columnist in Washington, hosts the blog site Beyond Freedom

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