A Dispatch From The Front Lines In Syria

At the Weekly Standard, Jonathan Spyer has an interesting report from the anti-Assad resistance in Syria. A sample…

But there is another type of fighter in the ranks of the armed opposition in the town. On the first evening, away from the main opposition center, I met a group of FSA members returning from an attack on an army checkpoint outside Idleb city. Among them were representatives of a type of man immediately familiar to all observers of early 21st-century Middle East politics. A type of man very calm, often smiling, with a sort of serenity about him. Bearded, invoking the authority of holy text, though rarely in a histrionic way. Salafi Islamist fighters are prominent among the FSA men in Binnish. They tended to keep away from Abu Steif’s clubhouse and to have their own gatherings elsewhere. They were local men, though, not foreigners.

I interviewed one of the Salafis shortly after they had returned from the attack on the checkpoint. He was in his mid-30s, black-bearded, and with the attitude typical of FSA fighters, a gloomy assessment of the balance of forces combined with a kind of generalized optimism. “We have no support from any country, and we receive no weapons from anyone,” he told me. “The regime, meanwhile, has Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, and China.” How long until Assad is destroyed? I asked. “I give it,” he said, in the manner of a physician revealing a prognosis, “roughly a month.”

Should America be involved in Syria? Not with troops, certainly. But arming the rebels ought to be considered a no-brainer, for several reasons.

First, taking down the Assad regime and its desire for unconventional weapons is in America’s national security interest. Assad worked with Pakistan and North Korea to build a nuclear weapons program before the Israelis took it out with an airstrike late in 2007. From the stories Spyer passes along in his piece it appears Assad has chemical weapons as well. An active WMD program in the hands of a hostile dictator has long been considered a prerequisite for American intervention. This fits the bill.

Second, we’ve attempted to turn Assad since he succeeded his father – with nothing but failure to show for it. Assad has chosen to align himself with Iran and funnels Iranian aid into Hizbollah and Hamas despite it clearly being in his country’s national interest to join the international community. After such a long period of clear refusal to honestly deal with us and clear support for terrorist organizations, it should be obvious that if we have a chance to rid ourselves and our allies of him we should act to do so.

Third, Assad was instrumental in building “rat lines” from which Al Qaeda jihadists funneled into Iraq’s Anbar Province to kill civilians and U.S. soldiers. The Bush surge in Iraq, together with the weight of the atrocities those jihadists committed against the Iraqi population ultimately put an end to the effectiveness of the trans-border terrorist parade, but Assad’s role in that adventure shouldn’t go unpunished.

Fourth, taking down Assad knocks Iran’s influence in the region down several pegs. Without Assad’s support from Damascus, it’s entirely possible Iran’s proxy Hizbollah loses its ability to make trouble in Lebanon and/or threaten Israel. Without Assad’s support Iran’s navy no longer has a friendly port in the eastern Mediterranean from which to menace the Israeli coast.

And fifth, American support in taking down an enemy dictator in the Middle East sends the signal that we, rather than Iran, still maintain the top position of influence in the Middle East. And after the past year, in which stupid mistakes of actively participating in the demise of America-aligned strongmen in Egypt and Libya (for better or worse, that’s what Qaddafi was at the time the revolt in Libya began), we need to show that we’re still the top dog in that part of the world.

Naturally, those steely-eyed Salafists Spyer describes could well be worse than what’s currently in place in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood which arose from the ashes of Mubarak’s regime in Egypt can certainly offer a degree of pause. But there’s a major difference between letting a slimeball dictator who maintains a working relationship with the United States fall to a bunch of Islamists and assisting those Islamists in taking down an American enemy.

Which is where the refrain from the Left and the isolationists on the Right kicks in. Namely, by arming the Syrian insurgents we’d be making the same mistake we made in Afghanistan – those same folks we helped to overthrow our enemies would soon turn on us.

To which the best response is that the “blowback” narrative in Afghanistan is horribly overblown. American aid to the mujahedin and the Taliban in Afghanistan didn’t create 9/11 – in fact, our principal ally in that country against the Soviet occupiers was a man Al Qaeda assassinated two days before 9/11. That man’s name was Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir. Massoud would likely have been the George Washington of his country had he not been killed on Sept. 9, 2011; the Wikipedia biography on him makes fascinating reading.

Massoud was not Al Qaeda. Massoud was pro-American. Massoud was our chief ally during the 1980’s in that country, not Osama bin Laden.

And even if Salafists managed to dominate the Syrian regime which replaces Assad, those Salafists would at least have to recognize that American help brought them to a position of power and American help could serve to replace them – meaning some accommodation would have to be made with us.

But Spyer’s piece doesn’t end on a positive note, as he sums up the current limitations of American foreign policy in the age of Obama…

For the people and the fighters of Idleb, the fight goes on. They know that once Assad is finished with Homs and Hama, and once he thinks he can get away with it, he will turn his attention back to the north. Then it will be their turn, and the dictator will exact a bloody and terrible revenge for their effrontery.

What could prevent this is an effective coalition to counter the anti-Western one (Iran, Hezbollah, Russia) that currently underwrites the dictator. This Western coalition can only happen outside the auspices of the U.N., where Russia and China have already vetoed Security Council resolutions demanding Assad step down. Part of that Western response would involve turning the FSA from a collection of ragtag militias into a more formidable force. And it would commit to the creation of a free zone in Syria more solid and guaranteed than those zones currently held, with hope and courage, by fighters armed only with AK-47s and RPG-7s.

Arming the Syrian rebels is a prospect which only makes sense if done very quietly and outside the auspices of formal alliances and the UN. The exercise of American power through covert or asymmetrical means can’t be subject to Russian or Chinese veto at Turtle Bay; certainly, the Russians and Chinese don’t exercise their objectives through that body.

Which means that if Spyer  is correct we will be passing on an opportunity to influence events in Syria to our benefit. And our influence in a part of the world where the spark that will likely ignite the next world war is sure to be found will continue to wane.

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