THE UNITED STATES has taken a welcome step to tackle the Syrian crisis. It has joined Russia in arranging a peace conference in Geneva next month, which, unfortunately, would also expose America’s diminished global standing.
The end of Syria’s murderous Bashar al-Assad regime will come, however, from its eventual attrition from the uprising. A main reason the United States has so far failed to offer meaningful material support to the rebellion is that it’s being spearheaded by Islamist militants, America’s ideological nemeses. American officials are trying to keep Syrian Islamists from participating in the Geneva forum. Yet I welcome the proposed conference in the hope that it would, among other things, find a way to stop the slaughter of Syrian men, women and children. More than 80,000 of them have so far perished in the two-year-old mostly Sunni rebellion to overthrow the minority Alawite dictatorship.
It’s a shame that Russia and Iran have been defending the atrocious Assad regime. But morally indefensible policies are not new in international politics and diplomacy. Haven’t America and the West been underwriting the brutal Israeli regimes? Israel not only has ethnically cleansed itself of most of its Palestinian population, but also has kept Palestinians under its colonial subjugation. Nothing justifies the Russians’ or Iranians’ abetment to Assad’s wanton butchery, but their apologists often point to the many precedents that America and the West have created by installing and supporting monstrous tyrants in Asia, Africa and Latin America through the decades and centuries.
All the same, I commend the convening of the Syria conference also because it offers the Obama administration a chance to defuse the pressure from American hawks for U.S. military involvement in Syria. Given America’s dismal military performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, I can’t conceive of a different outcome from an intervention in Syria. Creating no-fly zones, disabling the Syrian air force, giving arms to rebels, etc., which are being proposed would drag America into another Middle Eastern quagmire. And until Washington finds a way to reconcile with Syria’s Islamists, the mainstay of the rebellion, American intervention there is sure to become messy and self-defeating.
Islamist resistance was a main cause of the United States’ debacle in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has undercut its international clout. The spoken and unspoken Russian terms under which Secretary of State John Kerry agreed to co-sponsor the forum reflect that reality. Kerry apparently has dropped the persistent U.S. demand for Assad’s removal from power as a precondition for any multi-national talks on the Syrian imbroglio, a key Russian demand. Besides the Iraq and Afghanistan fiascos, America’s or the rebels’ inability to dislodge Assad has all but forced the Obama administration to accept the tyrant as a negotiating partner.
A second concession awaiting the United States is the accommodation of Iran’s role or interests in a Syrian settlement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has demanded that Iran formally participate in the Geneva talks. The United States and Arab monarchies will resist that demand tooth and nail. But whether Iran shows up at the table, its interests can’t be ignored while Assad holds on to power in Damascus. Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian Shia Islamist group from Lebanon, has joined Assad’s forces against the rebels inside Syria. It will remain as an additional lever of Iranian power in the region.
The larger issue here is not so much the future of the Assad regime, or Iran’s role in Syria. It’s Israel’s future and America’s role in the region. American and Israeli policy makers wanted the Assad regime overthrown mainly because that could undermine Iran’s influence in the Levant and, consequently, the Hezbollah threat to Israel. Assad’s survival, at least for now, would infuse fresh adrenaline to Hezbollah Islamists. And Iran’s clout in Syria and Lebanon would continue to bolster the Islamist Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups fighting to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
In the long run, the United States or Israel would have little to celebrate from the demise of the Assad regime. That would turn up other Islamist forces, fueling anti-Israeli and anti-American militancy in the region. If – or rather when – Assad goes, the Sunni Islamist groups in Syria are likely to dominate Syrian politics. And they, too, would support the Sunni Palestinians’ struggle against Israel and perk up the simmering Arab Spring in the Arabian Peninsula, which inevitably would have an anti-Israeli an anti-American edge.
Sunni militancy in Syria would, especially, energize the Islamists-led opposition to the pro-American monarchy in neighboring Jordan. Since January, Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, an ideological ally of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, has stepped up its campaign against the King Abdullah II. The IAF hates the monarchy because of its peace treaty with Israel and subservience to the United States. Palestinian anger over the treaty has been a source of the Islamist organization’s steadily increasing support among Jordanians of Palestinian descent, who make up nearly 60% of the country’s population.
Anti-Americanism in the Muslim Middle East has reached its highest levels ever – 90% and more – under the Obama administration. The only way the United States can dampen the ominous development is through a conceptual policy breakthrough. It has to recognize the legitimacy of the Islamist struggle against Israeli colonialism. It needs to accept the reality of the Muslim rage at its blind support for Israel, and its own hegemony over many Muslim societies. A detente with the Islamists would be the best safeguard for U.S. interests in the Middle East and the Muslim world in general. But that has to await another American administration.
Meanwhile, the proposed Geneva parleys offer the the United States an opportunity to defuse its hostility to the Islamists, besides helping to alleviate the agony of Syria.
◆ Mustafa Malik is an international affairs columnist in Washington. He hosts the blog Islam and the West.