U.S. Policy in the Levant: Islamism for Syria, Ruin for Israel
Let us, for a moment, return to the golden days of yesteryear when Arab tyrants could keep order in their countries by simply killing their opponents in any number necessary to hold power. No Arab tyrant was better at this than the late Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad. President Assad’s standout power-keeping moment came in 1982 at the Syrian city of Hama when the Syrian army’s massed artillery made rubble of much of the city and killed 20,000 or so people in an operation meant to annihilate the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB). The Hama attack served Assad’s immediate goal, temporarily breaking the Brotherhood’s back and driving its survivors deep underground and into exile in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and elsewhere, where they licked their wounds and prepared for the future.
After the smoke settled at Hama, Assad decided to try to co-opt and moderate the remaining Islamists in an effort to keep the threat tamped down; create a “moderate” Islamic alternative to the extremists; and build support for and financial dependence on the regime among his just-defeated religious foes. Assad’s regime began to: build mosques by the thousands; establish higher-education religious schools dedicated to the study of the Koran, including “The Assad Institute for Memorizing the Koran”; host Islamic students from more than 50 foreign countries in Syria’s religious schools; and open Sharia schools for men and women across the country‘s rural areas.
As always happens in such co-option attempts, the Assads -- father and then son, Bashar -- have ended up riding the tiger. In 2004, for example, Bashar al-Assad’s government was asked by the SMB to grant amnesty to all its jailed members. The regime said no, but agreed to a case-by-case review of the prisoners. The result was that “hundreds of prisoners were released, almost all of them jailed for their alleged connection to Islamic movements.” And by 2005, the Western media was reporting that “a religious revival is sweeping Syria”; that Wahhabi Sunni Islam was gaining a foothold in the country; and that the number of women wearing the veil was growing quickly. Newspapers in the Levant also were commenting that “Islamism is growing in Syria, whether at the grassroots level of Damascene society or in the provinces of northern Syria.” One prescient Syrian publisher noted that the Islamists “are simply biding their time at this stage knowing that things will come their way, that their organizational skills will allow them to fill any gaps [if the Baathists fall]. They’re in no hurry. They’ve bided their time for decades, and they’re very patient.”
As this regime-induced growth in piety was picking up momentum, the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq and initiated a long war with Sunni mujahideen from Iraq and other Muslim countries. For the expatriate, Iraq-bound insurgents, Syria provided a key point of access to the war, and large numbers of fighters flowed across the Syrian border into Iraq. Syrian Islamist groups were intimately involved in making logistical arrangements to greet, house, and then insert the expatriates into Iraq. Initially, President Assad turned a blind eye to this process -- which pleased the Syrian SMB -- but then yielded to intense pressure from Washington and its allies and acted to better secure the border, slowing the arrival of foreign fighters in Iraq. By this action, Assad alienated Syrian Islamist leaders, and left numbers of foreign jihadis stuck in Syria.
Today’s bottom line, then, is that Syria has entered the so-called “Arab Spring” with a president who is not as fully in control of the country as was his father; who is dealing with Islamist leaders who are more powerful and popular than at any time since his dad tried to settle their hash at Hama; and who is under intense pressure to accommodate protestors’ demands from Western leaders, most of whom seem to have no clue that the change they want in Syria likely means the slaughter of al-Assad and his Alawite minority sect -- about 10-percent of the population -- and a greatly increased role for Islam in any post-Assad regime. As in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen, Washington, its allies, and the Western media are mindlessly opening the Syrian door not to democracy, but to the growth of Islamic militancy.
And if al-Assad is deposed, the lack of democracy in Syria will be the least of the West’s problems. The media and political leaders, each deathly afraid of even questioning the intent of anyone mouthing the word “democracy,” have made scarce mention of the fact that the one thing the Arab spring is unquestionably bringing is the destruction of Israel’s physical security, which has long depended on the maintenance of border-controlling tyrannies in Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. The end of Mubarak regime’s has made the Egypt-Gaza border more porous, and the elimination of Assad’s Baathist regime would weaken Syria’s willingness—and perhaps ability—to control its border with Israel. This would leave only Jordan, which is a far weaker regime than those in Egypt or Syria.