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. mortimer

    Christians in Syria fear what will become of them if the regime in Syria fails they are quaking in their boots.

    October 21, 2011 at 10:20 am | Reply
    • John

      This is not true. Christians as well as other religious and liberal groups are part of the peaceful demonstrations agianst this dictatorship regime. Remember, the christians and others have lived with the muslims in the middle east for over 1400 years.

      November 8, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Reply
      • nowhereman

        Exactly this is NOT about religion and for God's sake it is not about the U.S.A. or any other country It is about human beings being oppressed tortured and unarmed people being murdered why is this ok or acceptqble????

        November 20, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  2. mouhamad

    no one can beack the willing of people and chistians are very fools if they chose assad . they have to choose there nighbeer they lived with them peasfuly for more than 1400 ys

    October 21, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Reply
  3. mary

    civil war in syria is the best scenario for the US. as long as the syrians are fighting amongst themselves (and the lybians, iraqis, pakistanis, iranians for that matter) they are not going to unite against israel.

    October 26, 2011 at 7:09 am | Reply
    • John

      You are brainwashed to hate Arabs/Muslims. This is the mintality of zionists who justify killing people for their own purposes.

      November 8, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Reply
  4. ikusei sukra

    all this screeching at each other by arabs from different countries and different tribes and different muslim sects, each loudly claiming to have the truth about things.......jeez

    October 26, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Reply
  5. truth2betold

    I have read people speaking about this with much passion. It is a complicated situation no doubt. The only over riding truth is the whole free world feels sympathy when oppressed, unarmed civilians are butchered by a ruling government with vastly suppior force. As a free nation the cries for help are almost irresistable like giving a drowning man an arm up to higher ground. Like the question, for whom does the bell toll? "It tolls for thee"!

    October 29, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  6. Mark

    Assad must go. the writer of this article has hidden sympathies crouched in what he is making appear as critical debate. Assad represses and murders people who protest for freedom and democracy – he must go, no questions asked. let the people be free and elect whoever they wish to have represent, irrespective whether such person is islamic extremist or western supporting moderate. it is not our decision to make, it is that of the syrian people, but we should support their yearning for freedom. the end.

    October 29, 2011 at 8:36 pm | Reply
    • Liberal87

      @Mark True. This shouldn't even be a debate. The Syrian regime has tortured children, for Christ's sake. How can you even take this government seriously if they are willing to commit the sickest, most sadistic crimes, to stay in power? This article tells us alot about the person who wrote it.... I.E. he is a regime apologist, and must be benefiting from the Syrian regime one way or another, or he probably has family members who are regime supporters.

      October 30, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Reply
  7. stanley

    This is morally outrageous. The Syrian government is using live ammunition on protesters, capturing them, and cutting off the genitals of children, and here on CNN we're worrying about whether Assad is good for American interests? Are the Syrian people supposed to be mere pawns in a game? Do they not have the right to basic dignity, regardless of their political beliefs?

    October 31, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Reply
  8. Free Syria

    This article cannot be any farther from truth. It is in the best interest of the US to get rid of assad brutal regime. Syrian people are not the enemy of US on the contrary. And best of all as soon as assad is eliminated so any relation with Iran, Iranian will be swiped out of Syria the same night and forever Syrian relation with all terrorists will be cut immediately especially hezbollah of Lebanon which will be will be Syrian enemy number ONE way ahead of Israel. Hezbollah terrorists are helping the regime kill innocent Syrian every day they are not killing Israelies they are killing Syrians so whos is the Syrians enemy?

    November 1, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Reply
  9. Justin

    Our fears of potential near term threats to US and Isreal causes this type of policy approach. This literally just kicks the can down the road. The keep the dictator in power scheme to alleviate perceived threats doesn't resolve anything and has often lead to worse problems down the road. Syria has to sort itself out based on the will of the people. More short-sighted policy is not in our long term best interests for the US and the world.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Reply
  10. Rick A

    Listening to everyone's commments I am convinced more than ever that the best thing America can do is leave the entire Middle East alone and let them sort it out. When and if they ever coagulate their fecal matter (which I strongly doubt), we can talk to them then. Until then, let them continue to brutalize each other in the name of Allah, God, Kohmeni, Assad, Khadafi, Mubarak, Netanyahu, Al Queda, and the rest of the idiot thugs that dominate that part of the world. What a waste! The birthplace of civilization will end up being the graveyard of civilzation. Let Americans spend their time, money, and effort on imroving America for all Americans. The resulting benefits as usual will help the rest of the world. All except the middle east where their intense hatred of everything and everyone is all they will ever know. What a waste and what a shame!

    November 3, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Reply
  11. MATTY13

    Is the U.S. better off sticking with Assad? What? Who would ask that question? The die has been cast. It's too late for that question. The current administration has already stated pubilicy that it is time for Assad to step down. That's it. You don't take that back.

    November 5, 2011 at 6:17 am | Reply
    • Sharp

      There is also the greater question of what America stands for, what sort of people we are.

      November 5, 2011 at 11:04 pm | Reply
  12. Sharp

    America can NEVER afford to back a tyrant for some perceived short term gain. This sort of thing is why America is no longer trusted in the world. America is strong enough that we don't have to play that game. Libya is an example of how we should be. Now if the rebels cause more tyranny we aren't stuck backing them.

    November 5, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Reply
  13. John

    The arguments of the article are flawed. They are either incoccect or twisted. It looks there is a hidden agenda here to convence the public to side with the dictators, no matter how many people are killed.

    November 8, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Reply
  14. Israel 1234

    Wow Ed Husain, you know what you are talking about.....
    There is an Israeli, Name Moshe Kidar (originally from Iraq, like me, or you can say "Mosa") which gives good interpertation like you (unlike Fareed and his "Arab Spring to Demoracy").
    ofcourse he writes in Hebrew. For a smart person like you, and with the excellent Middle East analyst in Israel (usually form Iraqi backround, like Tzvi Yeheskel) contacting them is really will be interesting for you.

    November 9, 2011 at 8:56 pm | Reply
  15. PPJ

    In the long term, sticking with dictatorial regimes never pays. They may appear they offer stability, some may be even friendly to USA. It's illusory. It's just not gonna last. And the longer we wait to support truly democratic movement (assume there *is* one), the more country becomes polarized, eventually opposition becomes either ultra-left or ultra-religious, and then the country is lost to us. Remember Shah of Iran.

    In case of Syria, there are some concerns that the opposition is even worse than the current regime, that they are quite intolerant bunch of radical Muslims. I don't know but I think USA should do whatever it can to help true democratic and pluralistic forces (hope there are some) that oppose Assad.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Reply
  16. Hello

    Of course it is in the best interest of the US to not have a muslim brotherhood in power, like the mullahs in Iran.

    November 11, 2011 at 11:36 am | Reply
  17. dr saad- calgary- alberta- syria must go

    WE MUST ATTACK SYRIA NOW , Syria and Hezbollah are the evil hands of Iran we must cut them down and make it easy for USA to finish Iran and keep the world safe. we will fight with you if you just start all the resistance will get red of those idiots alwaies and shiia thugs.

    November 12, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Reply
  18. I demand syrian freedom

    Since when was America on bushars side. First you have to check the facts look whats happening in Syria. I am Syrian so I know . Innocent people are being tortured, or murdered . Plus you just said in the other video that you will support Syria's freedom.

    November 12, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Reply
  19. mark o. david

    Ed, when you repeat the mantra"The U;S; sacrificed alot of Blood and treasure to liberate Iraq" please remind your readers that Saddam H. was a C.I.A. agent from 1954 till 19 months before the Iraq invasion of Kuwait.Without the support of the Americans He would have NEVER have come to power in the first place.Search:history of Saddam Hussein.Please stop Bull_hiting the public and start writing history

    November 12, 2011 at 8:37 pm | Reply
  20. ArabExpert

    Ed Husain – I commend you in pinpointing the obvious which has escaped many people. First and foremost, I am totally appalled at any Arab regime that uses violence against its people. Having said that, ALL Arab regimes are guilty of this charge and Syria is most certainly not the only one. Saudi Arabia leads the pack in oppressing its people and uses any means necessary to put down any unrest. The point that you made is a perfect example Ed. Today, Iraq is closer to Iran politically, socially and economically. Removing Saddam was the best gift Iran could have possible received from the US. People are underestimating the fact that Iraq "abstained" from voting to suspend Syria. Common sense (which never applies in the middle east) leads us to believe that after the west in general and the US in particular removed Saddam, the new government of Iraq and the people would be more inline with western democratic values. The truth of the matter is that Iraq revolves in the sphere of Iran. Hence the no vote.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  21. james

    For better or worse Israel is is a party in everything going on in the middle east. To us in the USA, a moderate Israeli government willing to deal with Palestine issues is essential. Try a regime change in ISRAEL first. Everything else will follow it's natural course.

    November 14, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Reply
    • ^^^think outside the box

      thumbs up

      November 14, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  22. anonymous

    Democracy in the Middle East? What a bloody joke. Is it plausible that the Arabs will change their ancient ways of thousands of years (e.g., culture, values, religion) and embrace western democracy? Never. They're going back to the seventh century. And for a simple but powerful reason: Islamic democracy is an oxymoron. For instance, look at Tunis, Egypt, and Libya, where are they going? They want the fiendish Sharia Law: polygamy, amputations, lashings, denial of religious freedoms for their outclassed minorities and women. The Arabs haven't the slightest idea of what democracy means. Don't expect mush from this "Arab Spring," a will-o-the-wisp.

    Once the Arabs dwell in the seventh century for another thousand years, they just might realize that no one else is still left here on earth but themselves.

    November 16, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Reply
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