The failure of the Islamists in Egypt in this Op-Ed was meant to indicate an economic rather than a political one.
I have made the change accordingly to clarify this point:
"However, after the economic failure of Islamists in Egypt, many Syrians may refrain from supporting Islamists to rule the country."
Between Scylla and Charybdis: Our Syrian Polylemma
Looking for solutions to the Syrian Problem
By Tawfik Hamid
The American response to the Syrian problem is a classic example of the choice between multiple options that appear to be equally undesirable. It seems to be a matter of figuring out and then choosing the lesser evil. Our response to the violence and cruelty ought to be guided principally by the extent to which our decision will 1) affect U.S. interests in the region, and 2) result in the least possible bloodshed. Basing our decision on criteria such as "respect for human rights" will not work, as neither of the fighting factions care a whit for human rights. Both sides have committed atrocities that have been rightly described as war crimes.
Let's take a look at our options:
Option 1: Support the Rebels
Cumulative evidence shows that the rebels in Syria have been infiltrated by both local and foreign Jihadists and Islamic radicals (many from nearby countries)- and that they are fighting to implement a radical Islamic agenda. They are not the sort of freedom fighters who will establish freedom for the Syrian people if they gain power. Quite the contrary. They will likely establish an inhumane, suppressive, and discriminatory Sharia system.
Many believe that Sunni Islamist control of Syria would create a Sunni belt to resist Shia expansion in the Middle East. This may not be true. History suggests that when faced with a common enemy, Sunnis and Shiites will easily unite. The parasitic nature of Sunni Islamists will allow them to accept U.S. support-right up until they win. Upon gaining control of Syria, they will very likely unite with Iran and Hezbollah against Israel and against U.S. interests in the region. The U.S. needs to distinguish between pro-American Sunnis andanti-American ones. The latter are absolutely not to be trusted. Indeed, they can be relied on always to act against the U.S. and its interests. Perhaps we should learn from our experience with trusting the Jihadists in Afghanistan-including our erstwhile compatriot Osama bin Laden, who later founded Al-Qaeda and attacked us on September 11.
Supporting the rebels ultimately means supporting Islamic radicals. They will turn on us the moment they gain control of Syria.
Option 2: Support (militarize) pro-American rebels
This selective form of support may be rather attractive in principle, but it is very difficult to implement on the ground. Dividing an army that is already united, and then trying to support one faction against all of the others is simply not feasible. Moreover, any such pro-American groups would be regarded as traitors by both the Jihadists and the Al-Assad regime; they would be fought and no doubt destroyed regardless of who emerges victorious. This option, while attractive on the surface, may bring even more division and more bloodshed in Syria.
Option 3: Unite the Opposition
One of the main problems facing the Syrian rebels is that they are not united under one banner. In fact, the opposition to Al-Assad includes both liberals (who are fighting for freedom) and radical Jihadists (who are fighting to implement Sharia and suppress freedom). Strange bedfellows indeed. And while they may be able to work together now to achieve the common goal of removing Al-Assad (on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend), in the end they will fight each other-and one of them will subdue the other by force. At this point it appears virtually certain that if the opposition does manage to defeat Al-Assad, they will turn on each other and civil war will ensue. If it were possible to genuinely unite the opposition, perhaps we could get a sense of what a future government in Syria might look like.However, failing real unification, U.S. support for the rebels will only prolong the conflict in Syria.
Option 4: Support Al-Assad to regain control of Syria
It is fair to say that while Al-Assad was a dictator-as with many other Arab regimes-large scale atrocities were not committed until after the rebels tried to remove him from power. Those same rebels would almost certainly resort to atrocities if anyone were to threaten their control.
Until recently, Al-Assad was able to maintain stability and protect the minorities in Syria. On the other hand, he was a strong ally of both Iran and Hezbollah.
Which begs the question: Can Al-Assad's close relations with Iran and Hezbollah be broken? In other words, could the U.S. use economic and other diplomatic incentives to turn Syria against these two regimes, or at least to neutralize its support?
The Al-Assad regime is secular, which means its relations with Iran and Hezbollah are based more on shared interests than ideology. While it might be difficult to sway Hezbollah from supporting Iran as both are strongly founded on the same religious ideology, the lack of such shared ideological religious convictions between Al-Assad and these two regimes does suggest some potential that economic incentives could be effective in swaying Al-Assad from Iran and Hezbollah.
If Al-Assad wins against the rebels, the regime will certainly take revenge upon the opposition and there will be much bloodshed. Of course if the rebels win, they will definitely wreak havoc on Al-Assad and all those who supported him-including the minorities in Syria. And there will be much bloodshed.
Perhaps we could have rationally pursued this option early in the conflict. However, since Al-Assad has committed so many atrocities and since the situation in the country has become so chaotic, support for the regime has become both morally unacceptable and practically unfeasible.
Option 5: Do nothing
Doing nothing simply means the conflict will continue until one of the fighting powers gains military superiority over the other. While not supporting any of these rather unsavory factions may provide some moral satisfaction, we need to be aware that opting to stay out of it may ultimately result in more bloodshed and more instability in the region.
Option 6: Encourage internationally monitored elections:
A scenario modeled on recent events in Yemen, wherein the president was removed, but was replaced by a duly elected successor is another possibility for Syria. As Sunnis represent the majority in Syria, elections would likely result in a Sunni regime. However, after the economic failure of Islamists in Egypt, many Syrians may refrain from supporting Islamists to rule the country.
Additionally, if Islamists were to come to power in Syria, it is very unlikely that the non-Sunni minorities would accept the oppressive Sharia Law that Islamists would try to impose on the country. This simply means that a democratic solution would in no way lessen the level of sectarian polarization in the country. And that disunity will be a very strong element against future stability of the country.
Regardless, the thought of elections in Syria right now is purely academic. There is simply no easy way that elections could actually be held in midst of the reigning chaos.
Option 7: Support a divided Syria
The possibility of a divided Syria is a very real one. Syria could in fact be divided along the following lines:
1- Sunnis75% (under the control of the rebels)
2- Alawites-12% (under the control of the Al-Assad regime)
3- Christians (10%), Kurds (8%), and Druze (less than 3%)
This option could theoretically bring stability to the country, though it is not without potential conflict. And the history and geography of Syria may actually allow such a division to occur. In fact there is precedent: during the French Mandate on Syria (1920-1946), the country was divided into several states.
Syrian minorities who do not want to live under the control of radical Muslims would likely welcome this arrangement; and the Russians might also accept it, as long as they can keep their naval facility at Tartus, in the Alawite part of the country. Alawites might also be amenable, as it would allow them to keep some power instead of losing all of it completely.
Islamic Sunni countries would likely reject this option as they desire a wholly Sunni-controlled Syria. A Sunni-controlled Syria would serve the interests of these Islamic countries and would be a serious threat to the U.S. and its interests in the region. A Sunni Islamist regime in Syria would be anti-American and very hostile to Israel, our only true ally in the region.
Too, a divided Syria could increase frictions with Turkey as it may encourage the Kurds in Turkey to separate and unite with their Kurdish brethren in Iraq, Syria, and Iran. On the other hand, a divided Syria would be good for Israel as the region adjacent to Israel is inhabited by Druze, who are less hostile towards Israel than are the Sunnis.
The U.S. may need to seriously consider this last option and probably ought to support it. All of the other options are either too risky, too impractical, or too anti-Amaerican. Some of them are contrary to our values, or carry known and unknown threats to U.S. interests. To implement a divided Syria may require expanded discussions and negotiations that include not only the leaders of the opposition to the Al-Assad regime, but also the leaders of the minority sectarian groups.
To conclude, with the current levels of political and sectarian polarization in Syria, keeping the country united seems unrealistic. Dividing Syria could be one of the very few remaining options that may bring stability and an end to the bloodshed. This may require a change in our approach to the Syrian problem. Perhaps we should be thinking not so much in terms of the regime vs. the opposition, but rather as a sectarian issue. A model that could be followed in such a case is the division of the former Yugoslavia in 1992 into smaller states after a series of conflicts and political upheavals. To implement such a proposal will require strong oversight and monitoring by the international community. History clearly shows that such divisions can lead to mass internal migration and attempts at ethnic and sectarian cleansing. Nevertheless, such an option appears to be the lesser of all the evil options we face today.