“The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend”: Obama, Syria, and Islamism

Apart from the loss of life and destruction, one of the tragedies of the Syraq war is that the Obama-led U.S. has pulled into the conflict on the side of the Sunni supremacists and Brotherhood-affiliates posing as freedom fighters. In this case, we must learn to think in terms of sober Realpolitik, and to acknowledge that ISIS toppling Assad is not in the U.S. interest.

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By Paweł Piotr Styrna l November 29, 2016

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The Civil War in Syria is now in its fifth bloody, messy, destructive year – with no conclusion in sight. For months, the media has been trumpeting claims that ISIS is being rolled back on several fronts, including in the fierce battle for Mosul. However, Daesh forces have bounced back several times before, making the predictions of the Islamic State’s imminent collapse somewhat premature. Having broken out in 2011 as part of the so-called “Arab Spring,” the war has escalated from a local to an international crisis – first spilling over into neighboring Iraq in 2014, and then provoking a deluge of Middle Eastern and North African Muslim refugees pouring into Europe and North America starting in 2015 – largely as a result of the Obama administration’s inability or unwillingness to eliminate the self-proclaimed ISIS Caliphate in what has become known as “Syraq.” But why is Team Obama so reluctant to defeat the savage Islamist fanatics whom it has given two years to consolidate their rule in Mesopotamia?

The “Assad must go” crowd – which occupies both the liberal and neoconservative sides of the political spectrum (including establishment Republican leaders, such as Senator John McCain) – has learned virtually nothing from this history. Viewing Syria through a Manichean lens, this group assumes that Assad is the main obstacle to peace and stability, and, therefore, deposing him must be the main priority.

That is why it was so refreshing to hear then-candidate Donald Trump pull Jeb Bush down to earth during the Republican primary debates: “You fight ISIS first. Right now you have Russia, you have Iran, you have them with Assad and you have them with Syria. You have to knock out ISIS. (…) You can’t fight two wars at one time.”

It is infantile and simplistic to see Syria – and other Near Eastern conflicts, including Libya and Yemen – as struggles between dictatorship and democracy, tyranny and freedom, “bad guys” vs. “good guys.”

The reality is that the war in Syria is a fight between a lesser (Assad) and a greater evil (ISIS), i.e. between grey and black. It is a contest between, on the one hand, a secularist Arab national-socialist (Ba’athist) regime whose ambitions are limited to retaining power in Syria (and, at most, also wielding influence in neighboring Lebanon) and, on the other hand, a terroristic horde of Islamists with a universalist ideology and global pretensions who enjoy decapitating hostages, raping sex slaves, and burning people in cages. The probability of “taming” and liberalizing the Assad regime is simply much more realistic than the prospects of a deradicalized ISIS Caliphate (e.g. the Khomeinist regime has been in power in Iran since 1979, but it remains hostile and militant). There are very few angels in the region to ally with – and Assad is certainly no angel – but ISIS Jihadists are undoubtedly devils whose utter defeat should be first and foremost on the agenda.

Moreover, a key dimension of the Syraq war (like the conflict in Yemen) is a sectarian clash between the two main branches of Islam, in addition to such layers of conflict as the Islamist assault on non-Muslim minorities (esp. Christians and Yazidis) and the Arab-Sunni supremacist (and Turkish-supported!) onslaught against the Kurds (who are Indo-Europeans of the Iranic branch, not Semitic Arabs). ISIS fighters, and quite a few of the (technically) non-ISIS third-party “rebels,” are not fighting against the Assad regime because it is not democratic and liberal, but rather because it is dominated by the Alawites (a branch of Shia Islam, albeit with syncretistic elements) and has protected Christians.

The influence of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood has been prominent in all of the “Arab Spring”-inspired insurrections. In the case of Syria, the Brotherhood took advantage of popular discontent against the Assad regime to essentially renew the fight it waged during the late 70s and early 80s against Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad. In 1982, a Brotherhood-led revolt in the Syrian city of Hama was brutally crushed by the besieging regime forces; thousands perished, including civilians. Thirty years later, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and its sympathizers and fellow-travelers seek revenge for Hama, and they would surely love to fight their vendetta with our hands.

Apart from the loss of life and destruction, one of the tragedies of the Syraq war is that the Obama-led U.S. has pulled into the conflict on the side of the Sunni supremacists and Brotherhood-affiliates posing as freedom fighters. In this case, we must learn to think in terms of sober Realpolitik, and to acknowledge that ISIS toppling Assad is not in the U.S. interest. Assorted third-party “rebels” – quixotically attempting to fight Assad and ISIS simultaneously – are not a reliable or viable alternative by themselves. Finally, allowing the Islamic State ulcer to fester by merely nibbling around its edges is definitely in nobody’s interest, except for Islamists and the International Muslim Brotherhood (not to mention the leaders of states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, who exploited the war-generated refugee crisis to populate Europe with additional Muslims, mostly Sunnis).

Ideologically-blinded Westerners who despise the West more than they fear Islamist terrorists (a word President Obama consistently refuses to utter) consistently refused to recognize that their attitude impacts not only other Westerners (by exposing them to terrorism, e.g.) but also millions of Middle Easterners forced to suffer war and the ISIS yoke. Now that a new administration is about to take charge on January 20, there is finally a glimmer of hope for a war-ravaged part of the world.


Paweł Styrna is a Ph.D student in Russian history at a DC area university. He holds two MA degrees, one in modern European and Russian history (University of Illinois at Chicago) and another in statecraft international affairs (Institute of World Politics in Washington DC). Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.