The “Arab Spring” reached Syria in March 2011 when Syrian intellectuals, students, and union leaders appeared on the streets to demand greater transparency, political liberalization, and economic reforms. Although they did not participate in the initial series of demonstrations, Syrian Islamists joined the opposition after the regime responded with force to the public display of dissent. As the violence has escalated and taken over 9,000 lives, foreign powers have exploited the carnage to advance their geopolitical interests. The United States and other powers have used the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as a proxy to topple the Syrian Ba’athist regime, which has governed for almost half a century.
Washington’s two primary interests in Syria are to strengthen the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) vis-à-vis Iran and to undermine Russia’s power and influence in the Middle East and Mediterranean. Israel shares the U.S. interest in cutting off Iran and Russia’s reach into the Levant.
However, security considerations surrounding the unknown variables of a post-Assad Syria appear to have created a divide between U.S. and Israeli strategies, as the Netanyahu government has not followed Obama’s course on Syria. The Israeli concerns surrounding the collapse of Syria’s Ba’athist party are legitimate. Washington should also consider the security consequences of Assad’s ouster and avoid intervention in Syria.
U.S. Intentions in Syria
Following Syria’s independence from French colonial rule, relations with the United States have been largely defined by mistrust and conflict of interest. Beginning in 1956, in coordination with Saudi Arabia, the Eisenhower administration sought to covertly overthrow Syria’s left-wing nationalist government. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, through Jordan and Israel, Washington backed the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s armed uprising against the regime of Hafez Assad. Since 1982, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has been in exile (primarily in Spain and Switzerland). However, according to The Washington Post, “after three decades of persecution that virtually eradicated its presence, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has resurrected itself to become the dominant group in the fragmented opposition movement pursuing a 14-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.”
The U.S. alliance with an Islamist organization that espouses anti-Western views may appear strange. However, this relationship is far from historically unprecedented. Syria is only one country where Washington supported Islamists to undermine nationalist and leftist forces. This alliance between the United States and Islamist organizations was widespread throughout the Muslim world during the Cold War, as Washington deemed such forces — Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan, the Mujahideen of Afghanistan, Abu Qurah in Jordan, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — to be reliable partners in the effort to undermine Communism and Arab nationalism. After the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the United States continued to foster alliances with Islamist groups to undermine governments that did not cooperate with the “New World Order.” During the 1990s, Washington covertly provided Iraqi Islamist parties, including the Islamic Call (Al-Dawa) and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, with millions of dollars to strengthen Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein. Today, militant Islamist organizations such as Jundullah and Mujahadeen e-Kalk target Iran. Both organizations, though officially labeled as “terrorist” organizations by the U.S. State Department, receive direct aid from Washington. In other words, Syria is not the only country where militant Islamists have received support from the United States in their campaign to topple a regime opposed to U.S. hegemony.
Present U.S. support for Syrian Islamists is part of a larger proxy war. The United States, Turkey, and the GCC are pushing for Assad’s demise, while Russia, China, Iran, and Hezbollah seek to ensure Assad’s survival. U.S. interest in Assad’s downfall relates to its overall position vis-à-vis Iran and Russia, and by extension China. Washington is skeptical about launching a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. However, by toppling Iran’s closest regional ally, the United States believes that it can undermine the Islamic Republic’s regional influence by striking a blow to the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Hezbollah axis of power from Iran to the Mediterranean, which Jordan’s King Abdullah nervously identified as the “Shia crescent.”
Washington is assuming that the Muslim Brotherhood, the most influential party within the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council, would end the Iran-Syria alliance if it came to power. The organization’s deputy secretary, Mohammed Faruk Tayfur, told The Washington Times on January 18, 2012 that the Muslim Brotherhood rejects Iran’s offers to mediate talks between the Assad regime and the opposition. The deputy secretary defined his ideology and vision for Syria by comparing Turkey and Iran’s versions of political Islam. “Islamic culturally and secular politically, [Turkey] is the model for the Islamic movement … the Iranian, on the other hand, is the worst.” Then there’s the religious dimension. The Assad regime is mainly composed of Syrian Alawites who adhere to a form of Islam derived from the Shiism practiced in Iran. Many orthodox Sunni, who form the majority in Syria, do not consider Alawites to be legitimate Muslims. The Islamic Republic’s attempts to expand Shiism throughout the Arab world, especially in Syria, have fostered intense hatred for Iran within certain conservative Sunni circles that would likely influence the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran and Hezbollah.
The collapse of the Assad regime would almost inevitably decrease Russian power in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Syria has hosted Russia’s naval base in Tartus for several decades and, since 1971, Syria has been Moscow’s closest Arab ally. Syria is the largest Arab purchaser of Russian weapons and is seen by Moscow as Russia’s doorstep into the Middle East and Mediterranean. The Muslim Brotherhood has condemned Russia and China for providing Assad with weapons and diplomatic support throughout 2011 and 2012. On February 6, 2012 the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s spokesman, Zouheir Salem, stated that his organization “consider[s] Russia, China and Iran as direct accomplices to the horrible massacre being carried out against our people.” By supplying the Syrian government with weapons and/or diplomatic backing, the three countries were “directly participating in the massacre of [Syria’s] defenseless people.” If the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood removed Syria from Moscow and Tehran’s spheres of influence and aligned Damascus with Washington, Ankara, Riyadh, and Doha, the regional balance of power would shift in favor of the United States.
Israel would welcome the decline of Iranian influence in the Levant, as Iran is Israel’s gravest threat, according to Israeli leaders. However, Israel is not proactively seeking to weaken Iran by supporting Assad’s opposition. Alia Brahimi and George Joffe summarize Israel’s Syria dilemma:
The one state that is directly implicated by the events in Syria, but which still has taken no public position is Israel. This is almost certainly because the Israeli Prime Minister would, on balance, prefer the Assad regime to continue; it is a known quantity and any new regime could severely destabilise the effective balance-of-power between two uneasy neighbours … The hawks in Israel will see the need to determine which poses more of a threat: the “Islamic fundamentalist” Shia state, or the “Islamic fundamentalist” Sunni groups who are sure to gain a foothold in Syria if Assad’s regime suddenly caves in.
Whether or not Israel would be in a stronger position with Assad or Sunni Islamists in power is the center of debate amongst geopolitical analysts. Nonetheless, Israel’s reluctance to support Syria’s opposition likely indicates its calculation that Assad’s survival is in Israel’s interest, at least for now.
Israel is not interested in the Assad regime maintaining power because of any friendship between the two states. Syria fought Israel directly in October 1973 and via proxy in Lebanon between 1982 and 2000. Since 2000, Syria has continued to support Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Without question, Syria remains the most, and arguably only, confrontational Arab state in the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, Israel understands that the Assad regime will not attempt to repossess the Golan Heights by military force and will meet with Israeli leaders to negotiate for peace, which occurred in 1991, 1995-1996, 1999-2001, and 2008. How a post-Assad Syria would conduct foreign relations vis-à-vis Israel-Palestine remains a gamble.
Regarding the Muslim Brotherhood’s position on Israel, Thomas Pierret writes, “[the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood] seeks to ‘counter the Zionist project [the state of Israel] in its different aspects’ — a position unlikely to change before an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. The group has also traditionally supported Hamas.” Any Syrian regime (Islamist or secular, democratic or authoritarian) will lose legitimacy if it surrenders the Golan Heights to Israel or fails to support the Palestinian struggle for statehood, as Syria has historically been the center of Arab nationalism. Regardless of which sect, ethnicity, or ideological party governs in Damascus, Syria will seek to repossess the Golan Heights, defend its sovereignty, expand trade relations, maintain deterrence capacity over Israel, and retain influence in Lebanon and the greater Arab world. Therefore, Israel is not convinced that Assad’s downfall could advance its geopolitical interests.
Explaining Israel’s Reluctance
Even if the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood would not take power in a post-Assad Syria, or even if it would not change Syrian foreign policy vis-à-vis Israel-Palestine once empowered, Israel may have national interests in Assad staying in power for four other reasons.
First of all, Assad’s fall could lead to a disintegration of the Syrian state. Efraim Inbar, Director of its Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies, believes that “in the event that the Syrian regime collapses, Syria’s advanced arsenal, including chemical weapons, shore-to-ship missiles, air defense systems, and ballistic missiles of all types could end up in the hands of … radical elements.” The growing presence of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQI) in Syria has been evident since the turmoil began in 2011, and the potential for AQI, or other militant groups like Hezbollah, to acquire such weapons could create new dilemmas for Israel.
The collapse of the Syrian regime would also further isolate Iran in the Middle East and potentially provide it with an additional rationale to develop a nuclear weapon. As Syria has provided Iran with the capacity to transform Hezbollah into a force that the Israeli military cannot defeat, the loss of Syria may likely mean a weaker Hezbollah, thus decreasing Iran’s ability to deter Israel from attacking its nuclear facilities. The Islamic Republic also took note of the NATO campaign against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. The lesson learned was that if a state disbands its WMD program with the intentions of improving ties with the West, it will be vulnerable to a foreign invasion. In sum, the Libyan case has arguably pushed the Islamic Republic toward developing a nuclear weapon — and its further isolation, which would come with Assad’s demise, may accelerate Tehran down that path. Such an outcome would deprive Israel of its monopoly on nuclear weapons in the region.
The emergence of a regime in Damascus that bears more legitimacy than Assad’s may also permit the Syrian military to channel more resources toward external threats (primarily Israel). Currently, the Syrian military is focused on suppressing the domestic opposition and dealing with potential coup d’etats and armed uprisings. Clearly, the possibility of a future regime coming to power in Damascus with more legitimacy may be an overly optimistic prospect (from the Syrian perspective). However, the Israelis would benefit from the Syrian military continuing to be bogged down in domestic affairs.
Finally, although the Muslim Brotherhood has become increasingly moderate in the last 30 years, the other radical Islamist elements in the region, such as the Salafists or even al-Qaeda, could gain influence in Syria if a power vacuum forms following prolonged violence and widespread human rights violations. Although the significance of radical Islamist forces within Syria remains a hotly debated topic, a consensus has emerged that radical Islam has gained influence in Syria over the last decade. David W. Lesch, professor of Middle East History at Trinity University, argues that
What would emerge after the dust settles down could very well be a polity that is Islamic extremist, one on the border with Israel and one that could make common cause with like-minded elements in Iraq and Lebanon. This is certainly not in anyone’s interest … Many in Syria, including Bashar, see the regime, more specifically the Baath party, as the last bastion of secularity against a seething rising tide of radical Islamic in Syria … The more radical Salafists in Syria are certainly a force to be reckoned with, more so than the Muslim Brotherhood.
In 2005 Lucy Ashton of The Financial Times reported on a growing trend of radical Islam in Syria:
Conservative Islam is a relatively recent phenomenon in Aleppo, known for centuries as a cosmopolitan trading city whose merchants “could sell a dead donkey skin to a king”, according to a local proverb. Now, however, it is becoming a centre of Islamic radicalism, known more for its bombers than its carpet bazaar and textile weavers … On the streets of Aleppo, secular dress was ubiquitous only a decade ago. Now, more and more children recite Koranic verses in the streets on their way to madrassahs [Islamic schools], and women are tented completely in black.
The Obama administration should consider these potential security dilemmas that have led Israel to avoid aiding Assad’s opponents. The Syrian military’s weapons falling into non-state actors’ hands, the increased probability that Iran would develop a nuclear weapon to counter its growing isolation, and the possibility of radical Syrian Islamists with an anti-Western agenda rising to power would undermine U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Two U.S. senators, John McCain (R-AZ) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), visited the Syrian-Turkish border during April 2012 and demanded that the United States take military action against Assad to remove him from power. These were the same two voices that lobbied the Clinton and Bush administrations to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. When the United States did exactly as these senators advocated, countless unintended negative consequences ensued. Such outcomes could be expected if U.S. military action is taken against Assad. Obama would be wise to follow Israel’s lead on Syria, and not the advice of McCain and Lieberman.
Instead of heeding the advice of these two hawkish senators, the Obama administration should pursue a more realist foreign policy vis-à-vis Syria that prioritizes stability. Unquestionably, the headaches that this regime has caused many U.S. administrations explain the political motivations behind Obama’s direct and indirect support for Syria’s Islamist opposition. However, the lessons of blowback should be remembered, for the United States armed radical forces on many occasions to advance larger geopolitical interests only to regret such alliances later.
Preventing the Syrian state from collapsing and protecting the region from the chaos that could result should be Washington’s top priority. This does not mean ignoring the human rights abuses of the Assad regime or the armed Syrian opposition. Rather, Washington should continue to work with regional actors such as Turkey and Iran along with Russia and China to find a political solution that holds all actors responsible for the lives lost and identifies a political solution that brings about peace, stability, and justice. The Middle East doesn’t need another Iraq War or post-war crisis.