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 Husain, CFR.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.
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.
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.
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.