Focus is everything – knowing what the central problem is and dealing with it.
Here I want to discuss three articles I basically agree with to point out how
they miss the key issue and thus are somewhat misleading.
I’m glad to see
these three articles being published, but to quote Lenin, it’s a case of two
steps forward, one step back.
First, The Washington Post published an
editorial entitled, “The time for patience in Syria is over.” It criticizes
“America’s long paralysis in responding to the conflict in Syria,” pointing out
that the war and horrific bloodshed is escalating. And it concludes: “President
Obama called on [President Bashar] Assad to leave office, a proper reaction to
the brutality. But Mr. Obama has not backed his words with actions that might
help them come true.”
It isn’t every day that a mass media organ
criticizes Obama. Yet there are two problems. One is that the measures the
newspaper proposes are very much out of date:
“No one is arguing for a
Libyan-style intervention into Syria at this point. But the United States and
its NATO allies could begin contingency planning for a no-fly zone, now that Mr.
Assad is deploying aircraft against the opposition. Instead of providing only
non-lethal support, such as medical supplies and communications gear, America
could help supply weapons to the outgunned opposition fighters. It could work
with Turkey and other allies to set up havens for them.”
opposition has been asking for a “no-fly zone” for about six months, arguing
that the NATO allies “could begin contingency planning” for one isn’t exactly a
bold measure. Moreover, while the US is only directly “providing only non-lethal
support,” it is facilitating the supply of lethal weapons by Saudi Arabia and
Qatar. And third, there are already safe havens for the opposition
fighters in Turkey.
SO NONE of those three ideas is decisive or even
highly relevant. The key point is mentioned in passing in another
passage, calling on the United States, “...To get a better read on opposition
forces and to encourage those less inclined toward sectarianism.”
this is the central issue. There is no point in supporting an opposition that’s
going to procure a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis.
That’s the issue: The United States should do everything possible to help
moderates – both defected officers and liberal politicians – gain the upper
hand. It should work closely with the Kurds and press hard to make sure
Christians are protected and that the opposition (or at least the parts of the
opposition responsible) will be punished if it commits massacres.
so hard to see?
But guess what? Sen. Marco Rubio also never mentions the
Islamism issue in his article on how the US should intervene in Syria. He better
get an advisor who knows something about the Middle East fast or he may end up
as another John McCain on the Middle East.
Second, Vali Nasr has some
good points in a New York Times op-ed. But I perceive two very big flaws. One of
them is a warning:
“If the Syrian conflict explodes outward, everyone will lose:
it will spill into neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. Lebanon and
Iraq in particular are vulnerable; they, too, have sectarian and communal
rivalries tied to the Sunni-Alawite struggle for power next
Really? The issue is not that the conflict is going to spill over
but that it is part of a Sunni-Shia battle that will be a major feature of the
region in the coming decades. Lebanon and Iraq are merely other fronts in this
battle and whatever happens in Syria isn’t going to start some new problem in
The question is merely who wins in Syria. A Sunni
victory in Syria would empower a moderate-led Sunni community in Lebanon against
Hezbollah. As for Iraq, another Sunni power will make that government unhappy
but isn’t going to intensify already existing sectarian tensions there. And
Kurdish autonomy in Syria isn’t going to set off a Kurdish-Turkish war in Turkey
But it is dangerous to pretend that a solution in Syria will make
the Sunni-Shia battle go away. The most likely change is a post-Assad regime
that would strengthen the Sunni side in the regional picture. That’s good if you
feel Iran is the main threat but bad if you worry about growing Sunni
The other point is even more serious. Nasr advocates bringing
Russia and Iran into some kind of joint solution in Syria:
“But the single most
important participant would be Iran. It alone has the influence on Mr. Assad and
the trust of various parts of his government to get them to buy in to a
transition.” This kind of talk makes for an op-ed likely to be published and
appreciated in the United States, but such arguments have no connection to the
reality on the ground.
The interests of the outside and inside parties
are too much at odds. Anyone who imagines that the current regime and the
opposition can form some kind of coalition arrangement under international
pressure is imagining things. And when analysts promote fantasies they are not
doing anyone a favor. Even if such a thing were cobbled together it would
collapse in weeks.
Let’s face reality. Either Assad will survive and
unleash a bloodbath or he will be replaced by the opposition, which might
unleash a bloodbath. Again, that’s why the main priority must be to support
moderates, including Kurdish nationalists seeking autonomy, in the
Moreover, why should the United States possibly want to
please Tehran, whose regime is the world’s leading source of international
terrorism, anti-Americanism, subversion in the Middle East, and anti-Semitism
and which is doing everything possible to obtain nuclear weapons and use them
for aggressive purposes? Of course, at times one can overreach and compromise
can be useful. Yet the dominant idea in the current era seems to be that helping
your friends and weakening your enemies is some kind of bizarre belief. In Syria
it makes no sense at all.
My third case study is a Los Angeles Times
article about growing Islamism and radical Islamic intolerance in Egypt. It is
welcome that the newspaper is actually covering this story. But there’s
something very curious in the article.
Every example of extremism is
portrayed as being Salafis. The Muslim Brotherhood are the moderates:
Mohamed Morsy, a religious conservative, has called for tolerance, but many
Islamic fundamentalists see a historic moment to impose sharia, or Islamic law,
on a country left off balance by political unrest and economic
In other words, there are these bad extremists who want to
impose sharia but fortunately the Muslim Brotherhood and the president it
elected are against it! The article continues:
“The struggle between
ultraconservative and moderate Islamists has reverberated through generations.
It is as critical a balancing test for Morsy as his battle to pressure the
Egyptian military to relinquish control over the nation. Morsy courted Salafis
during his campaign and is now confronted with their agenda and insistence that
he not appoint a woman or a Christian as a vice president.”
I don’t think
the Brotherhood was eager to appoint a woman or a Christian as vice-president,
since its position on the issue has been identical to that of the
To portray Morsy as a man who might want to restrain the
Salafists somewhat makes sense, but only in the context of having the same goals
but more patient tactics.
If the Muslim Brotherhood is now the protector
of democracy, moderation and tolerance in Egypt, those three virtues don’t have
much of a future there.
The article is on somewhat better grounds by
calling the Al-Azhar university establishment “moderate thinkers,” though they
are also capable of very radical stances. Yet there’s another problem here:
eventually the government will remove the Al-Azhar leaders and replace them with
reliable Brotherhood members.
And the article seems wrong when it says,
“Moderates call for a document based on the ‘principles’ of sharia, which would
be less strict and offer broader civil liberties to women as well as Christians
and other non-Muslims.”
According to reports in the Egyptian media the
Salafis have accepted the “principles” approach because of another provision –
that the meaning of that term will be determined by clerics and not judges. And,
anyway, isn’t Morsy and a parliament dominated by Brotherhood and Salafi
legislatures going to be choosing judges in future? And there are plenty of
radical Islamists who can and will become court judges.
quotes Mahmoud Ashour, a former deputy Al-Azhar official now at the Islamic
Research Center as saying, “President Morsy cannot hide from these issues.” Hide
from them? They are the center of his program!
The writer is director of the
Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center.