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. John

    I dont know why we would seek regime change but at this point it looks like it can happen. Sure you can paint Syria as an Iran proxy that is extremely anti-Israel. Thats true, but its also a country that is secular, anti-muslim politics, peaceful, anti-al Qaeda, and for the most part would probably accept Israel if they could get the Golan Heights back. Its a pretty simple nugget to solve and besides its the only place in the Middle East where Arab Christians are safe.

    Assad is a horrible leader but he is Western educated, secular and probably a lot like us as far compare to leaders of Iran or other countries. Instead of spending years undermining him we should have pushed him to reform with carrots. Now we'll probably end up with someone crazy replacing him. There are three choices in the middle east – bad dictator, ok dictator and democracy. If you are getting rid of OK you should have a plan not to replace with bad.

    November 16, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Reply
  2. dpur

    USA should just get out of the way and let the chips fall where they may with Syria. USA pretty much likes anybody that likes us, and if u dont, its nothing new and we know how to deal with that.

    November 16, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Reply
  3. mary

    the point is not to bring in a government that is friendly with israel, the point is to tear the middle east apart, with chaos and havoc all over the place, israel and the US are free to do as they choose.

    November 17, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Reply
  4. nik green

    "Sticking with Assad"? Probably. The US' history of supporting and coddling evil, vicious dictators is long and colorful. Assad would be just another US thug puppet.

    November 18, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  5. ahmetdidat

    Lets stopping being Hypocrates! ..... we all knew all these years, Money and Power Only can never solved the world'$ Peace!... Stop acting like children / curb your Ego and start living in Peace !....

    November 18, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  6. ahmetdidat

    Do we really need to leave in a free dom society?..
    first we must answer these questions!......
    who wrote Das Capital?....
    Who sunked a USS Liberty?...
    WHY we celebrate the Christmas on the 25th of December?.....

    November 18, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Reply
  7. AlexA

    How is this even a discussion? The leadership of Syria has chosen an unworkable path forward. The people of Syria will decide how this ends. Suggesting the US run against its long standing mandate to encourage democracy around the world is not helpful to most stakeholders. So far democracy has resulted in better (not always great) nations meaning they are accountable to their citizens. Let’s continue to support democracy for all people and not suggest that certain nations cannot be trusted with their own fate.

    November 19, 2011 at 7:55 am | Reply
  8. syiran chick

    LISTEN REALLY WELL TO WHAT I'M GOING TO SAY , YOU ONLY HEAR THE STORY FROM THE ONE POINT OF VIEW , YOU LISTEN TO AL JAZEERA AND BBC AND ALL THE OTHER CHANLES THAT WOULD LOVE TO GET RID OF THE SYRIAN REGIME , LISTEN TO THE SYRIAN CHANEL, THERE ARE ARMED GANGS IN SYRIA THEY ARE KILLING PEOPLE , CAN ANYONE TELL ME HOW THE SECURITY AND ARMY ARE GETTING KILLED AND SHOT AT ?? OR ARE THESE NOT HUMAN BEINGS , THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX , AL ASSAD WILL NEVER EVER KILL ANY OF HIS PEOPLE , AND PS : ASSAD WILL NOT LEAVE , EVERYONE IN SYRIA LOVES HIM ,

    November 19, 2011 at 9:54 am | Reply
    • nowhereman

      you need to stop drinking and taking acid the armed gangs ARE assads thugs please stop lying people are losing their lives

      November 20, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Reply
    • david wehbe

      Syrian chick, you obviously have puppy love for Assad either from baath financial gain, or because you are blind folded by the regimes propaganda machine. Assad killed and tortured for decades. The Lebanese have suffered more at the hands of the barabaric syrian army than the 1982 israeli invasion where syria watched lebanon burn as Assad watched lebanon burn again in 2006 israeli invasion without lifting a finger. Assad and his Hizbolah mafia killed Hariri PM and many other politicians and bystanders in most brutal car bombs. Read some hisory off the internet rather than Baathist panphlets, please. Wake up and support freedom rather be an accomplice to crime.

      November 22, 2011 at 6:00 pm | Reply
  9. syrian chick

    and nobody want the muslim brotherhood to rule in syria , syria will then be like saudi arabia , they are stupid people , ISLAM SHOULD NOT POLITICISED !!!!!!! ANYONE AGREE ?

    November 19, 2011 at 9:59 am | Reply
  10. Ilya

    voice of reason. At last!

    November 20, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Reply
  11. JNdluli

    An interesting article. But to understand the complexity of the Arab situation, you have a look at the main 'players'. Check out: Yusuf al-Qaradawi on Wikipedia.

    November 20, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Reply
  12. david hurst

    Normally my comments post as dave6969, but this one posted with my full name and disappeared....

    November 20, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  13. dave6969

    please do not post my full name.

    November 20, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Reply
  14. dave6969

    Interesting situation. People are fed up with generic totalitarianism (the great love of Libyans for Quadaffi), yet there is no alternative. Indeed in Africa, it is seen that domestic oppression is tolerated over foreign interference. Perhaps it is best for the world to see the outright shift in overt political power in Iran to the military in the next few years, for them to wish for fundamentalist religious dictatorship under a convoluted pretense of electoral responsibility. Indeed, the fractious nature of most democracies in times of stress sows division, note sectarian violence in Bagdad, and Alewife’s driven back into the hills. Military dictatorship as in China and many countries to bring cohesion, protect minorities perhaps, or, are people ready for freedom, before they fight for perceived group injustice – either way, the promise is in further generations. It seems that people are not able to separate the dictators from a tribal or religious mentality in the case of Syria.

    November 20, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Reply
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