What is America’s strategy in the Middle East? That question is more urgent as the Obama administration finally moves to arm the Syrian opposition. The United States needs a framework that connects its policy in Syria with what’s happening in Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and elsewhere in the region.
The administration’s specific rationale for arming the rebels is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons. But crusades against weapons of mass destruction have a bad history in the Middle East, as we remember from Iraq. President Obama’s broader goal should be to support moderate forces — meaning those that are committed to pluralism, freedom of expression and the rule of law. Those were the core themes of his famous June 2009 speech in Cairo, but there’s been too little follow-through.
The administration would make a mistake if it rationalizes its aid to the Syrian rebels simply as a way of undermining Iran, Assad’s chief backer. The United States should oppose all sectarian extremists — Iran-backed Hezbollah militants and al-Qaeda-backed Sunni jihadists alike — who threaten the region.
The administration feels more confident about aiding the Syrian rebels because Gen. Salim Idriss, the rebel military commander, embodies these moderate, pluralist values. But U.S. officials shouldn’t have stars in their eyes: Idriss is weak militarily, and the United States needs to bolster him, urgently, so that he’s a real commander and not just a well-meaning American foil.
Among my Syrian rebel friends, I hear an almost desperate plea for U.S. leadership. “People every day become more sectarian, more filled with anger for revenge-killing and more unlikely to follow Geneva or other rules,” says Louay Sakka, a Syrian Canadian who is close to Idriss. “U.S. lack of leadership is bringing the war to a new low where our job and your job will make little sense.”
Idriss is a good man and a sensible leader. He has told me in multiple interviews that he favors outreach to Syria’s Alawites, Christians and other minorities; that he wants to work with the Syrian army; that he wants to reassure Russia of its future in Syria. But all these fine qualities will be useless if he isn’t a winner on the battlefield.
Wars breed extremism, as America saw in its proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan three decades ago. The United States must make clear that it is supporting Idriss because he’s a moderate. If his forces deviate, they risk losing U.S. support.
A similar commitment to a moderate path that averts the Sunni-Shiite cataclysm should drive U.S. policy in Bahrain. Top U.S. officials just met with Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa. Despite intense sectarian pressures in Bahrain, Salman has continued to call for a national dialogue and reconciliation between the Sunni monarchy and the country’s Shiite majority.
But Salman needs some U.S. diplomatic muscle to assist this reform process; he needs for the United States to push the Shiite ayatollah to renounce violence in exchange for real economic reforms by the Sunni-dominated government that make life better, quickly and visibly, in Shiite neighborhoods.
Egypt should be a third strand of the U.S. policy of backing moderation and reconciliation. The sad fact is that the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi is failing to govern in an effective, pluralistic way. A new poll by Zogby Research Services shows a dramatic decline in support for Morsi. A year ago, 57 percent of Egyptians said his victory was “positive” or “should be respected.” Today, that number is just 28 percent.
Egypt is in the political-economic equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It survives on handouts from Qatar, a U.S. ally that unwisely supports the Muslim Brotherhood. The United States should condition economic assistance from Washington and the International Monetary Fund not on the imposition of austere reform policies (the strategy that was mistakenly adopted last year) but rather on a commitment to pluralism. The fund should require that Morsi get all major Egyptian parties to endorse the aid package, which would foster the national unity that Egypt needs.
This strategy of supporting moderation and resisting sectarianism should extend to Iraq, where the United States spent so much in lives and money. Washington still has leverage there because it supplies weapons and military training. Obama should take a stronger diplomatic stand for Iraqi unity (which means inclusion of isolated Sunnis) and against the violence that is rekindling sectarian war.
A final challenge is Turkey: If Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan opts for Islamist authoritarianism, he should lose Obama’s support.
Calling for moderation in the Middle East can be a fool’s errand. Arming the Syrian rebels should be part of a hard-nosed effort to stand with moderate forces, resist sectarian violence and encourage governments across the region that respect pluralism and the rule of law.