In Syria, the same mistakes
Bush’s shadow hangs over Obama

Reuters

A Free Syrian Army fighter holds his gun as he walks to take up position at the front line during a fight with forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo December 26, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Almost two years after the Syrian uprising began, President Bashar Assad’s reign appears shakier than ever.

    Tweet This

  • For humanitarian and national security reasons, America will be better off with Assad gone. #Syria

    Tweet This

  • President Obama’s team must also recognize that, just as war ravaged Iraq, it has forever changed Syria.

    Tweet This

  • Assad’s demise is the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end. Real challenges begin after the dictator’s fall.

    Tweet This

Almost two years after the Syrian uprising began, President Bashar Assad’s reign appears shakier than ever. Rebels are closing in on Damascus. This month, the United States and 100 other countries recognized the opposition as Syria’s legitimate government. For humanitarian and national security reasons, America will be better off with Assad gone.

Assad was no bulwark against Islamic radicalism. Though he opposed extremist elements at home, he supported them abroad, helping Al Qaeda terrorists infiltrate Iraq. He also enabled a lifeline to Hezbollah, a group whose targeting of Americans and global reach rivals that of Al Qaeda.

While American officials worry that Assad will use chemical weapons, many forget that had the Israelis not destroyed his nuclear facility in 2007, he might now be brandishing a deadlier arsenal.

That regime change will likely come without any U.S. military commitment should not be a source of White House pride, however. As an eyewitness and Pentagon participant in both Iraq pre-war planning and postwar reconstructing, I see the Obama team replicating Bush administration mistakes one by one.

Start with intelligence. When the Syrian uprising began, the State Department had little insight into who the free Syrians were.

The revolt caught both the State Department and the CIA by surprise. Overnight, determining who the Syrian rebels were became the foremost priority.

Patching together an opposition is no mean feat. The Bush administration’s attempt to organize the Iraqi opposition was as effective as herding cats. Most of the Arabs who wound up rising to the top had never appeared on American radar screens.

The same dynamic is at play in Syria. Syrians have come out of the woodwork to claim connections beyond the State Department’s wildest dreams. They have hashed out declarations at U.S.-sponsored meetings in Istanbul and Doha, none of which have relevance to ordinary Syrians.

President Obama also seems slow to understand that, just as in Iraq, regional states play a subversive role. The Free Syrian Army has arrested dozens of Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen pretending to be pilgrims. Damascus has its shrines, but to be a religious pilgrim in war-torn Syria is like heading to Newark for its skiing.

Turkey, too, is playing a double game: Syrians accuse Ankara of supporting hardline Islamists to undercut secular Kurds. Qatar is today a financier for most radical religious factions. Rosy descriptions of the Syrian opposition repeat the Bush-era triumph of wishful thinking over reality.

The formation of the Syrian Opposition Council, praised by Obama for its inclusiveness, replicates another Iraq mistake: Confusing democracy of process with democracy of result. The instinct that inclusion promotes democracy is often wrong. Some groups will ride the democratic wave only so far as it suits them, and then return to their guns.

As the Iraqis quickly learned, too disparate a group brings deadlock. Sometimes, the best path to democracy is marginalization, not inclusion. Obama would never appoint Mitt Romney to be his vice president; he should not expect the Syrians to be more magnanimous.

Obama’s team must also recognize that, just as war ravaged Iraq, it has forever changed Syria. Government forces and the irregular militiamen engaged in sectarian cleansing as deliberate as that perpetrated in Bosnia and Iraq.

Today, Syria is a country of ethnic and sectarian cantons, some Alawite, some Sunni and some Kurdish. There is no turning back the clock. Yet, despite the new reality, there has been no apparent long-term planning for Syria’s future.

One thing should be clear: What happens in Syria won’t stay in Syria. Should Christians head to Lebanon to flee the rise of Islamist militants, they will upend that country’s delicate sectarian balance. Iraqis fear an Al Qaeda presence in Syria could reignite sectarian violence in their country. Turks fear both Alawi separatism in Turkey’s Hatay province and Kurdish nationalism across the board.

Obama must plan for the worst. There will be a Syrian insurgency. Contesting power is one thing; accepting defeat is another. The region’s powers will pick their proxies, fueling a lengthy conflict.

Al Qaeda, not known for compromise, will join the mix. On Dec. 11, a new Jihadist council led by the Nusra Front, recently designated by the United States as a terrorist group, declared that they seek “nothing other than victory or martyrdom.”

Assad’s demise will be the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end. As our last President learned only too well in Iraq, the real challenges begin only after the dictator’s fall.

Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Michael
Rubin


  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.


    Follow Michael Rubin on Twitter.


  • Phone: 202-862-5851
    Email: mrubin@aei.org
  • Assistant Info

    Name: Ahmad Majidyar
    Phone: 202-862-5845
    Email: ahmad.majidyar@aei.org

What's new on AEI

image The Census Bureau and Obamacare: Dumb decision? Yes. Conspiracy? No.
image A 'three-state solution' for Middle East peace
image Give the CBO long-range tools
image The coming collapse of India's communists
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
    MON
  • 22
    TUE
  • 23
    WED
  • 24
    THU
  • 25
    FRI
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Graduation day: How dads’ involvement impacts higher education success

Join a diverse group of panelists — including sociologists, education experts, and students — for a discussion of how public policy and culture can help families lay a firmer foundation for their children’s educational success, and of how the effects of paternal involvement vary by socioeconomic background.

Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Getting it right: A better strategy to defeat al Qaeda

This event will coincide with the release of a new report by AEI’s Mary Habeck, which analyzes why current national security policy is failing to stop the advancement of al Qaeda and its affiliates and what the US can do to develop a successful strategy to defeat this enemy.

Friday, April 25, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 1:15 p.m.
Obamacare’s rocky start and uncertain future

During this event, experts with many different views on the ACA will offer their predictions for the future.   

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled today.
No events scheduled this day.