Middle East Forum head Daniel Pipes argues over at National Review that the United States should entertain the idea of supporting the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war. He suggests that, though Assad is terrible, “a rebel victory would hugely boost the increasingly rogue Turkish government while empowering jihadis and replacing the Assad government with triumphant, inflamed Islamists.” The best outcome for U.S. interests is a long war that sucks energy from both sides. Accordingly, support should go to whoever is losing. Eventually, “when Assad and Tehran have fought the rebels and Ankara to mutual exhaustion, Western support then can go to non-Baathist and non-Islamist elements in Syria, helping them offer a moderate alternative to today’s wretched choices and lead to a better future.”
On the surface, it sounds like classic realpolitik, even if his optimistic conclusions (and, elsewhere in the article, support for Western force to punish either side for violations of the laws of war) are hardly realist. Absurdity lurks just below—is America to align with its enemy, Iran, against a fellow NATO state, Turkey? Is Turkey, which not two weeks ago began the process of restoring (at Obama’s request) its relations with Israel, “increasingly rogue”? Pipes endorses the U.S. support for Iraq in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War while noting that if Iraq had begun to press the advantage, Washington would want to back Tehran. The problem is that U.S. involvement in that war decades ago continues to have consequences. Fighting a brutal war against a neighbor backed by the entire world, a neighbor that seemed to be able to violate international law without the world powers saying a peep, had a critical impact on the formation of Iranian strategy. If the bad guys win in Syria after the U.S. supports the odious Assad, they might have a similarly dangerous view of their neighborhood.
But there is a broader logic to Pipes’ argument. There are four possible outcomes in Syria: Endless, shifting conflict a la Lebanon’s civil war; a victory by moderate factions in the Free Syrian Army; a victory by Assad; and a victory by anti-Assad jihadists. Each outcome has a different likelihood of being realized. Each outcome has different implications for American interests. What Pipes realizes is that while a moderate victory is indeed the best outcome for the United States, it’s far from likely; he further realizes that a jihadist victory has serious drawbacks that many overlook.
The jihadi factions are stronger than ever in Syria. J. Malcolm Garcia, writing of a trip to Aleppo in Guernica, spoke with a young rebel who said that after the conflict he’d support the jihadists, because “when the war is over because the jihadists will kick the FSA’s ass.” That fear is growing among Syrians and in the U.S. intelligence community. Deadly clashes have occurred already. The extremists are widely regarded as the bravest and most effective fighters. If Assad falls (or, more likely, is just driven back from much of Syria), they are not going to suddenly become inept cowards that the FSA can bring to heel. And they are not likely to want a role in Syria’s governance that is smaller than the role they played in Syria’s “liberation.”
One could argue easily that a jihadi-run Syria is a more threatening outcome for America than an Assad-run Syria. Assad’s Syria is certainly a threat. It’s an ally of Iran. It’s a vital supporter of Hezbollah, and it’s a chemical-weapons state that’s dabbled with nuclear weapons, too. It let the forces of international jihad move through its territory to attack our troops in Iraq. It’s a bitter enemy of our ally Israel, and it has a long history of backing factions we don’t like in Lebanon. Yet it was also a bounded threat. Assad wasn’t trying to launch attacks on American soil. We had done plenty of business with his father, allying with him against Saddam Hussein and shepherding serious (though ultimately fruitless) peace negotiations with the Israelis. The Assads are brutal men with few moral scruples. But they aren’t crazy.
An Islamic Emirate of Syria, on the other hand, could be a source of international terror. Al Qaeda-type groups could get permanent bases, which they haven’t enjoyed anywhere in the world for just over a decade. Those bases would let them train operatives that they could dispatch around the world. The U.S. would be forced to take the war on terrorism into Syria in one form or another. That will not happen with Assad.
If there is anything to be gleaned from Pipes’ essay, it is that those in the West who are so eager to have Assad gone, and who see this civil war as a fight between good and evil, are dangerously naive. That doesn’t mean we have to start supporting Assad’s butchery. The rise of the jihadists has prompted the formation of anti-jihadi forces within the FSA. It’s also sparked, according to the Washington Post, rumors “that [Syria’s eastern] tribes are hoping to form a “Sahwa,” or Awakening, movement similar to the one that the United States sponsored to quell al-Qaeda in Iraq.” Many of those tribesmen have cousins who, just over the border, supported the U.S.-backed Awakening. Should the jihadists prevail, the tribes of the east—not Bashar al-Assad—will be Washington’s first and most reliable partners.