October 5th, 2011
11:00 AM ET

Is the U.S. better off sticking with Syria's Assad?

Editor's Note: Ed Husain is a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The following is reprinted with the permission of the Council on Foreign Relations.

By Ed HusainCFR.org

It is fashionable in Western capitals to call for regime change in Syria, but with what consequences? The two overarching arguments to remove Syrian president Bashar al-Assad are that his regime is a bastion of anti-Americanism and that he is an Iranian proxy. Recent reports of civil war in Syria and opposition demands of a no-fly zone will only lead to more violence from the Assad regime.

I have nothing but profound admiration for the courageous protestors who risk their lives daily in some of Syria’s major cities, organizing protests through networks of local coordination committees. This weekend’s opposition meeting in Istanbul, though fractious and acrimonious, is a sign of attempts at unity among Syrian democracy activists. However, the lesson from Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya is that this generation does not possess the political networks or clout to mobilize the masses after the overthrow of a regime - the revolutionary booty almost always goes to Islamist and salafist movements, at least for now.

Read: Turkish Lessons for U.S. Foreign Policy.

The other evening at Brookings Doha Center, a Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader, Ali al-Bayanouni, blamed the United States for supporting Assad from 2005 onwards, naming former secretary of state Madeleine Albright as a particular backer of Assad.  Interestingly, he also acknowledged that it was in Israel’s interests to keep the Assad regime in power - an observation that, while made with negative intent, is nonetheless valid.

On balance, Assad has been good news for Israel’s security and borders. His anti-American rhetoric is almost always linked to the United States’ unstinting support for Israel. A Syrian population raised without Israel on their school geography maps and accustomed to shouting “amen’’ in response to Friday mosque prayers calling for Israel’s destruction will not be warm towards Israel, either.

No future regime in Syria will be less hostile towards Israel, and therefore the reduction in animosity toward the United States is inconceivable. Bayanouni, a politician, is speaking to that widespread Syrian sentiment against Israel, and by extension, the United States.

It is particularly noteworthy that the grandmaster of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political theology, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, was also in attendance the other night and spoke in support of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qaradawi is a Brotherhood cleric who is banned from entering the United Kingdom and United States for several reasons, not least encouraging Palestinians and others to become suicide bombers. Hamas draws scriptural justification for terrorism from Qaradawi, who argues that all Israelis undertake military service and are therefore legitimate targets, including women and children.

With such figures openly touting themselves as a crucial element of Syria’s opposition movement, can the United States continue to wish for a post-Assad regime that will be any friendlier towards the United States or Israel? And if the opposition is broader than the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamists, can the rest of the Syrian opposition publicly commit to peace with Israel? I doubt it. Without such transparency, who is the U.S. Department of State supporting?

The fall of Assad would not necessarily weaken Iran

The first rule for those observing political developments in the modern Middle East is that nothing is as it seems at first sight. Political calculations that make sense in Washington, DC, London, or Paris do not always translate so well on the ground. From the Balfour Declaration of 1917 to the Suez crisis of 1956 to the Hamas victory in 2006 in Gaza, Westerners often fail to grasp the complicated, counterintuitive reality of life in the Arab world.

Read: Pakistan Is Indispensable to the United States.

And so it is today with predictions that the fall of Assad in Damascus would weaken Iran - after all, Iran is a Shia country and Syria’s ruling elite come from the Shia Alawite sect. A Sunni-led government in Damascus, goes the argument, would not be amenable to ongoing friendship with Iran.

This argument, partly responsible for driving current U.S. policy towards Syria, is flawed for the following reasons:

First, most Shia Muslims, including all Iranian clerics, consider the Syrian Alawite sect to be heretical for the latter’s beliefs in reincarnation, the divinity of Ali (the Prophet Mohamed’s son-in-law), and Alawite rejection of Muslim rituals. As such, it is factually incorrect to argue that Iranian and Syrian political leaders are bonded by a common religious faith - they are not.

Second, a future Sunni government in Damascus can also continue to maintain positive ties with Iran. Their perceived common enemy in the existence of the state of Israel overrides any Sunni-Shia religious disagreements. Evidence of this political calculation is the fact that Shia Iran provides financial and other support for Sunni Hamas.

Third, the United States sacrificed vast amounts of blood and treasure to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial grip, only to be leaving Iraq with a government that is politically, economically, and socially closer to Tehran than Saddam had ever been. Therefore, American support for Syrian opposition today will not necessarily result in distance from Iran tomorrow. The Iraq experience tells us otherwise.

Fourth, Sunni Egypt and Sunni Turkey are also on cordial terms with Iran. In the case of Egypt, post-revolutionary public sentiment views Iran as a regional power and potential trading partner, not an enemy in any way. This, despite alleged Iranian spies causing national controversy in the immediate aftermath of the recent Egyptian revolution.

Read: Something Foul in Cairo.

I could go on, but the point is that many looking at the Middle East from the outside will be mistaken to assume that the Sunni-Shia divide helps predict future political balances. It does sometimes - say, in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 - but not always.

Therefore, the assumption that a Syrian regime without Assad and the Alawites at the helm would mean an isolated Iran is wishful thinking at best, and uncertain at worse. Amid such unpredictability, how wise is it to unleash civil war between Alawites, Druze, Catholics, Shia, Orthodox Christian, varied Sunnis, Kurds, and others in Syria?

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Ed Husain.

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Topics: Iran • Syria

soundoff (195 Responses)
  1. tony

    ASSAD supporting ALAWITE and some supporting christians whose hearts are full with hatered has lost syria forever.
    Look at syria it is filled with garbage and corrupted Alawite. We want freedom in syria we want to be like any advanced nation on earth. Assad supporter... be ashamed of your self. Any person who supports and deffends killers he is one of them ...the history will teach you a lesson that you will never forget. It is time to clean syria from those thugs.
    Look what ASSAD army did in lebanon.. in Zehli, Damoor and Ashrafia. They humilated and killed christians in lebanon.

    November 23, 2011 at 9:57 am | Reply
  2. tony

    Any christian who support Assad regime is a traitor. It is ironic that some of those who defend the criminal Bashar Al Assad are blinded christian. I want to ask you a question ?..why you are here in USA and definding him ...why you are not in syria enjoying his company and freedom that he has offered you. You donot speak for the majority... be ashamed of your self. Free advanced syria is further better than chanty syria now.

    November 23, 2011 at 10:20 am | Reply
  3. I'm speaking the truth

    Lets be real here.
    The US and NATO did not go into Libya for "freedom"...they went into Libya because Libya upset the balance of the oil trading nations and Qaddafi wanted to introduce trading in oil with only gold, thereby weakening the dollar and the euro and the global economy. A pleasant byproduct may be that this crazy loon is gone....but they didn't go to help the people...they were helping themselves.
    The US didn't go into Iraq for "freedom" either...they went in because Saddam did much the same, flouting the OPEC nations and attempting to control the price of oil and the region.
    The US and NATO could give a damn about thousands dying anywhere. They only superficially care about Israel for the very fact that it gives them one of their only allies in the region and an excuse to control the other nations surrounding it to accomplish their endgame which is... again....to control the price of oil.
    Much of this regions political problems are due to the fact that it is so oil rich and this makes the world go round. You don't see this kind of world political passion play in any of the African nations which have been for years plagued by dictators and injustice and civil wars. Why? Because no one cares.
    Its sad....because innocent people are dying. And a large number of them children. But who cares....its Black Friday and Black Saturday and I need to eat my turkey and go fight someone at Wal-Mart over a toy car. Enough said.

    November 26, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Reply
  4. jo_smith456

    Assad, FOR MANY YEARS during the Bush2 administration, offered to help US in its war against terror, to which security advisers of Bush, said no.

    Syria (more exactly Assad) is extremely disliked by Is ra el due to Syria's CONTINUED CLAIMS to the Golan Heights. IT IS NO SURPRISE that Israeli-loyalist security advisers of Obama and dual-loyalist members of congress, continue to influence US foreign policy in ME with one end objective of changing regime in Syria.
    IT IS BETTER for US to work and be engaged with Assad.

    November 28, 2011 at 8:34 pm | Reply
    • Liberal87

      It is better for us to engage with him, while he tortures children? Heck no. Uh, uh. this is the most un-American thing ever!!!! Down with Assad the child murderer.

      December 13, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  5. HB

    Democracy will promote social liberty and the right of people to speak openly on matters related to their daily lives which may be forbidden to them under the actual regime. Democracy will make them active player in what their lives should be. Then the world will know what sort of values they are bringing to humanity. They should remember it is politics which defines their daily lives and it is politics which defined what they are today.
    The only thing they have is the image of an imaginary phantom to hate and to blame which is daily seeded by the regime to enforce the loop. You can just watch the news on any Arabic TV! This explains why it is so irrationally intense that it grazes the insanity. I think democracy will dilute this hate because people will start to treat more tangible problems to improve their lives rather than be sickened by feeding on the same daily menu.

    December 2, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Reply
  6. Tayoune

    Sticking with Assad,are you kidding me? the west should not be discouraged if here and there Islamist parties are emerging, like big changes in big companies " children decease" are inherent to the change; through trials and error they adjust .Bottom line within 10 years Islamist parties won't be popular anymore and will disappear gradually.

    December 12, 2011 at 1:19 am | Reply
  7. jgogek

    The survival of Assad in Syria would benefit Israel, because Assad would not risk his regime by attacking Israel or doing too much to aggravate Israel. There is an assumption that whatever is in Israel's best interests is also in the US best interests. I do not share that assumption.

    December 12, 2011 at 9:53 pm | Reply
  8. Antonio

    NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER,NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER,NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER,NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER,NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER,NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER,NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER,NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, the new generation of Arabs are more educated (the majority) so we can not fool them anylonger, we must and should listen the the popular outcry and have them to our side, having the whole population siding with America is much more fruitful to the American and America than having one dictator here, a tyrant there, and a ¨Noriega¨ overthere, this is should be the principal guidelines for Leon Panetta our secretary of defense and to our lady Clinton who is managing our foreign affairs.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:10 pm | Reply
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