Correction: An earlier version of this column erred in stating that “the Israeli government and the West have happily postponed elections in the West Bank.” The elections have been postponed by the Palestinian Authority.


Syrians gather at the site of a reported barrel-bomb attack by government forces on August 13, 2014, in the rebel-held Qadi Askar neighbourhood in Aleppo. More than 170,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began there in March 2011. (Zein Al-Rifai/AFP/Getty Images)
Fareed Zakaria
Opinion writer August 14

Hillary Clinton was expressing what has become Washington’s new conventional wisdom when she implied, in her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, that “moderates” might have prevented the rise of the Islamic State. In fact, the United States has provided massive and sustained aid to the moderates in the region.

Remember, the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, was created in Iraq and grew out of that country’s internal dynamics. Over the past decade, the United States helped organize Iraq’s “moderates” — the Shiite-dominated government — giving them tens of billions of dollars in aid and supplying and training their army. But, it turned out, the moderates weren’t that moderate. As they became authoritarian and sectarian, Sunni opposition movements grew and jihadi opposition groups such as ISIS gained tacit or active support. This has been a familiar pattern throughout the region.

Fareed Zakaria writes a foreign affairs column for The Post. He is also the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS and editor at large of Time magazine. View Archive

For decades, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has been to support “moderates.” The problem is that there are actually very few of them. The Arab world is going through a bitter, sectarian struggle that is “carrying the Islamic world back to the Dark Ages,” said Turkish President Abdullah Gul. In these circumstances, moderates either become extremists or they lose out in the brutal power struggles of the day. Look at Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya and the Palestinian territories.

The Middle East has been trapped for decades between repressive dictatorships and illiberal opposition groups — between Hosni Mubarak and al-Qaeda — leaving little space in between. The dictators try to shut down all opposition movements, and the ones that survive are vengeful, religious and violent. There was an opening for moderates after the Arab Spring in 2011 and 2012, but it rapidly closed. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood had a chance to govern inclusively, but it refused. Without waiting for vindication at the polls, Egypt’s old dictatorship rose up and banned and jailed the Brotherhood and other opposition forces. In Bahrain, the old ruling class is following the example of the Egyptian regime, while the Saudi monarchy funds the return to repression throughout the region. All of this leads to an underground and violent opposition. “Because of the culture of impunity [from the government], there is a new culture of revenge” on the street, Said Yousif al-Muhafda, head of documentation at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told Al-Monitor, a news and analysis Web site.

In the Palestinian territories, Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, is indeed a moderate. But notice that the Israeli government and the West have happily acquiesced as the Palestinian Authority postponed elections in the West Bank year after year — because they know full well who would win. Moderates don’t do well in an atmosphere of despair and war.

Perhaps the biggest stretch of all is the idea that the moderates could win in Syria. It is one thing to believe that moderates can organize well, make their case and get to the polls. But the Bashar al-Assad regime turned its guns on the opposition from the start. In that circumstance, the groups that are going to gain power are those that will fight back with ferocity. Consider the new head of the Western-backed Syrian opposition, Hadi al-Bahra, who urges more support for moderates like him. A successful businessman of decency and sincerity, he left Syria in 1983. How likely is it that people like him can take over from those on the ground who are fighting and dying?

And who are those people? After the Syrian struggle began, the Associated Press reported that the opposition to the Assad regime could be characterized as “poor, pious and rural.” Describing these people in Aleppo, it said, “They frame the fight in a religious context and speak of martyrdom as something they wish for.” University of Oklahoma scholar Joshua Landis points out that of the four largest and most effective rebel forces in Syria, not one espouses democracy.

In an excellent essay for The Post, George Washington University professor Marc Lynch cites careful historical studies that demonstrate that in a chaotic, violent civil war such as Syria’s — with many outside players funding their favorite groups — U.S. intervention would have had little effect other than to extend and exacerbate the conflict. “Had the plan to arm Syria’s rebels been adopted back in 2012,” Lynch writes, “the most likely scenario is that the war would still be raging and look much as it does today, except that the United States would be far more intimately and deeply involved.”

Asserting that the moderates in Syria could win is not tough foreign policy talk, it is a naive fantasy with dangerous consequences.

Read more from Fareed Zakaria’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.