Washington What is America doing in the Middle East? I hear that question being asked increasingly as the Obama administration finally moves toward military support for the Syrian opposition. People are rightly looking for a strategy that connects U.S. policy in Syria with what’s happening in Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and elsewhere in the region.
The administration’s goal should be to support moderate forces — meaning those that are committed to pluralism, freedom of expression and the rule of law. Those were the core themes of President Obama’s famous June 2009 speech in Cairo, but there’s been too little follow through.
Aiding the Syrian rebels mainly to undermine Iran, the chief backer of President Bashar al-Assad, would be a mistake, I think. The U.S. should oppose all sectarian extremists — Iranian-backed Hezbollah or al-Qaida-backed Sunni jihadists, alike — who threaten the region.
The administration feels more confident about aiding the Syrian rebels because Gen. Salim Idriss, the rebel military commander, embodies these moderate, pluralist values. But U.S. officials shouldn’t have stars in their eyes: Idriss is weak militarily, and the U.S. needs to bolster him, urgently, so that he’s a real commander and not just a well-meaning American foil.
Among my Syrian rebel friends, I hear an almost desperate plea for U.S. leadership. “People every day become more sectarian, more filled with anger for revenge killing and more unlikely to follow Geneva or other rules,” says Louay Sakka, a Syrian-Canadian who is close to Idriss. “U.S. lack of leadership is bringing the war to a new low where our job and your job will make little sense.”
Idriss is a good man and a sensible leader. He has told me in multiple interviews that he favors outreach to Syria’s Alawites, Christians and other minorities; he wants to work with the Syrian army; he wants to reassure Russia of its future in Syria. But all these fine qualities will be useless if he isn’t a winner on the battlefield.
Wars breed extremism, as America saw in its proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan three decades ago. The U.S. must make clear that it’s supporting Idriss because he’s a moderate. If his forces deviate, they risk losing U.S. support.
A similar commitment to a moderate path that averts the Sunni-Shiite cataclysm should drive U.S. policy in Bahrain. Top U.S. officials just met with Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa. Despite intense sectarian pressures in Bahrain, Salman has continued to call for a national dialogue and reconciliation between the Sunni monarchy and the country’s Shiite majority.
But Salman needs some U.S. diplomatic muscle to assist this reform process; he needs for the U.S. to push the Shiite ayatollah to renounce violence in exchange for real economic reforms by the Sunni-dominated government that makes life better, quickly and visibly, in Shiite neighborhoods.
Egypt should be a third strand of the U.S. policy of backing moderation and reconciliation. The sad fact is that the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi is failing to govern in an effective, pluralistic way. A new poll by Zogby Research Services shows a dramatic decline in support for Morsi. A year ago, 57 percent of Egyptians said his victory was “positive” or “should be respected.” Today that’s just 28 percent.
Egypt is in the political-economic equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It survives on handouts from Qatar, a U.S. ally that unwisely supports the Muslim Brotherhood. The U.S. should condition economic assistance from Washington and the IMF not on the imposition of austere reform policies (the strategy that was mistakenly adopted last year) but on a commitment to pluralism. The IMF should require that Morsi get all major Egyptian parties to endorse the aid package — which would foster the national unity that Egypt needs.
This strategy of supporting moderation and resisting sectarianism should extend to Iraq, where the U.S. spent so much in lives and money. The U.S. still has leverage there because it supplies weapons and military training; Obama should take a stronger diplomatic stand for Iraqi unity (which means inclusion of isolated Sunnis) and against the violence that is rekindling sectarian war there.
A final challenge is Turkey: if Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan opts for Islamist authoritarianism, he should lose Obama’s support.
Calling for moderation in the Middle East can be a fool’s errand. Arming the Syrian rebels should be part of a hard-nosed effort to stand with moderate forces, resist sectarian violence and encourage governments across the region that respect pluralism and rule of law.