U.S. President Barack Obama’s insistence on employing air power to punish Syria even if such a war breaches international law and unleashes major unintended consequences is just the latest chapter in a more than two-year U.S. policy whose calculations have gone wrong in backing jihad against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s dictatorial rule. Military strikes could compound Obama’s policy missteps, including inadvertently strengthening the hands of gun-toting Islamists.
Before an internal insurrection in 2011 turned Syria into a proxy battleground for regional and global powers, the country probably was the most liberal, secular Muslim state in the arc of Islam. Today, it is a broken state — its social fabric in tatters, its physical infrastructure largely wrecked, and its cities pummeled daily by urban warfare, with much of the northern region under the sway of hardline Islamist groups, especially the Al Nusra Front.
As also happened in Afghanistan from the 1980s and more recently in Libya, the spirit of jihad the United States helped instill in Syria to overthrow Assad — along with the supply of petrodollar-funded Western arms through Turkey and Jordan — has spawned hardcore Islamist militants wedded to the al-Qaida ideology. Al Nusra now overshadows the Free Syrian Army, established with help from the U.S. and the region’s old colonial powers, Britain and France.
In another major setback for Obama’s policy, the once-tottering Assad regime has not only survived but consolidated its hold in Damascus and militarily gained the upper hand across much of the central and southern regions, with rebel hold limited to some pockets, including in suburban Damascus.
The setbacks have compelled Obama to fundamentally alter his goals. From aiming to topple the Assad regime — a prospect that seemed so likely until last year that CIA teams in Turkey extended their rebel-support operations to northern Syria before this region came under the sway of the pro-al-Qaida groups — Obama has swung to seeking a military stalemate in Syria.
Obama believes a protracted stalemate, despite its high humanitarian cost, would eventually open up a possible negotiated settlement. Because regime forces currently have the upper hand against the rebels, he wants to level the playing field by degrading their capabilities through concentrated air strikes.
The visceral response to the alleged poison-gas attack — despite the relatively small number of fatalities from it compared with the death toll in the continuing civil war — shows that the chemical-weapon issue is just a fig leaf for Obama’s Mission Stalemate, a scenario that will keep regime and rebel forces at each other’s throats, thereby ensuring the Assad government’s continual bleed and bottling up the independent Islamist groups. Given that Obama’s missteps has left him with only bad options on Syria, he has settled for ensuring a military stalemate where Arabs kill Arabs, with the rebel weapons for killing paid for by Arab sheiks.
The resolve to correct the military balance in Syria by wiping out much of the air capability of the ascendant government forces, however, will exact a heavy price regionally.
The U.S. will not be able to control the developments its attack triggers. Indeed, the larger fallout will likely increase America’s reliance on unsavory Islamist rulers in countries ranging from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. There is also the distinct prospect of an al-Qaida haven stretching across northern Syria and into Iraq.
The spread of Muslim radicalism across large parts of the world has created a fertile ground for greater international terrorism. As an unintended byproduct of U.S. policies in support of or against regimes, al-Qaida type groups have gained ground in the Middle East and North Africa.
The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq created a major opening for al-Qaida, whose affiliates now represent the Sunni struggle against Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government. Grisly bombings have become commonplace.
Regime change in Libya has brought chaos and the rise of al-Qaida, leading to the Benghazi killing of the U.S. ambassador. It has also exacerbated human-rights abuses and humanitarian suffering, imposed a system based on Shariah law, and promoted cross-border movement of weapons and militants to haunt neighbors’ security.
America’s propping up of the regimes in Yemen and Saudi Arabia has contributed to the rise of the group, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Meanwhile, by allowing the Taliban to open a de facto diplomatic mission in Doha, Qatar, Obama has signaled U.S. desperation to cut a deal with this thuggish, Pakistan-backed Afghan militia that enforces medieval Islamic practices in the areas it controls.
So what can be done? The lesson U.S. policymakers must heed is to take the long-range view and not be guided by narrow geopolitical considerations that involuntarily strengthen Islamists.
Unfortunately, U.S. policy’s dalliance with Islamist-leaning rulers has long been guided by the consideration that the cloak of Islam helps to protect the credibility of leaders who might otherwise be seen by their public as foreign puppets.
Washington must now stop condoning the rulers of the oil sheikdoms for their alliance with radical clerics and for exporting militant Islam. It must also cease providing political succor to Islamists elsewhere. Until the military ousted him, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi was America’s man in Cairo.
By supporting Islamist rulers, Washington — even if unintentionally — has promoted a growing conflict between Islamist and secular forces in Muslim countries, best illustrated by Turkey, which was wracked by unprecedented anti-government protests this summer. Obama has mollycoddled Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan by ignoring his heavy-handed efforts to annul secularism and free speech, and turn himself into a 21st-century sultan.
Erdogan, who as Istanbul’s mayor declared that “our only goal is an Islamic state,” has jailed more journalists than any other country, including China, and thrown one in five of Turkey’s generals and half of its admirals in jail since becoming prime minister in 2003. Today, he is Obama’s most hawkish ally against Assad.
Motivated by the larger geopolitical goal of containing Shiite Iran and its regional allies, U.S. policy has myopically embraced Sunni rulers steeped in religious and political bigotry, even though they pose a transnational threat to the values of freedom and secularism. Arab monarchs have continued to fund Muslim extremist groups and madrassas (Islamic schools) in other countries — from the Philippines and India to South Africa and Venezuela.
U.S.-British-French policies in the arc of Islam, even if by accident, are contributing to an internally driven trend evident from the Maghreb to the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt — Muslims killing Muslims. This trend, of course, has been principally aided by the export of Wahhabi Islam by the sheiks in Riyadh, Doha, Abu Dhabi and elsewhere, and by the consequent rise of Islamist groups. These policies have averted the feared clash between civilizations, yet they have been a factor in the ongoing clash within a civilization. The effects of this clash are likely to be destabilizing regionally and counterproductive to the interests of the free world.
Against this background, Obama would do well to heed tea party icon Sarah Palin’s advice on Syria, “Let Allah sort it out” — unless Obama believes Allah has chosen him to do that.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).