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The Consequences of Misunderstanding the Middle East

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"There was a certain amount of naiveté rooted perhaps in the mistaken idea that hope and change -- so effective in getting the president elected -- were somehow relevant to the world of Middle Eastern politics," writes Aaron David Miller.

What’s worse for the United States -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or the Islamic State (IS)? Even before the reports this week of the beheading of a third American, Peter Kassig, my money's on IS. But recent reports suggest that that there are some in the administration who may think otherwise; and a recent policy review is allegedly pushing the view that to really get at IS you need to fundamentally weaken Assad.

On paper that may well be true. But in reality, trying to get getting rid of Assad right now will almost certainly make the situation in Syria worse, boosting IS's standing and recruitment capacity, while embroiling Washington in further battles with Iran and Russia that it can't possibly win. Such a shift would also reflect the fact that some of U.S. President Barack Obama's advisors have learned very little about the Middle East these past several years and almost nothing about the consequences of their own actions.

The fact is that the Obama administration has consistently overestimated the receptivity of this region to positive change as well as their own capacity to do much about it. Being on the right side of history doesn't always mean you're on the smart or winning side. Look at what's happened in the past several years. The Obama administration has gone down some pretty perilous paths. Hosni Mubarak's fall from power in the aftermath of Egypt's eruption in 2011 was probably inevitable and the administration had little choice but to get out of the way. But the notion that bad dictators would somehow be replaced by better governance was a fundamental misreading of the region's political landscape.

Too many within the Obama administration assumed that the secular, liberal, and progressive forces would prevail against the Islamists and the military and that the United States could significantly help make this happen. There was a certain amount of naiveté rooted perhaps in the mistaken idea that hope and change -- so effective in getting the president elected -- were somehow relevant to the world of Middle Eastern politics. It all ended with the administration alienating much of the Egyptian political spectrum.

The administration's hope that the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi were somehow fitting partners in this new world shattered pretty quickly. As did the idea that Washington could use its leverage to get the Egyptian military and General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to create a new Egypt based on democratic values. In Libya, the administration assumed that getting rid of the "evil" and odd Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi would somehow magically make things better on the ground; In Iraq, that packing up and leaving would have few consequential results; and on the peace process the belief that Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas were just waiting for an American offer they couldn't refuse. Ditto on the Iranian nuclear issue.

There's a pattern here. Either through inattention, bad analysis, or both, Washington has demonstrated that there's much about this region it just doesn't understand. First and foremost is that there are no comprehensive solutions to any issue right now. There are only interim outcomes, certainly not neat Hollywood endings where clarity and finality trump uncertainty and confusion. And the choices here aren't between good and bad, but largely between bad and worse. Bad would be no democracy in Egypt; worse would be Egypt controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood or just plain unstable and out of control.

All is not right in large parts of Arabdom, or to paraphrase The Bard, something's pretty rotten there. It's a region of many failed and failing states -- with rampant dysfunction, decentralization, sectarian war, and bad governance. Our notion that we can fix things -- that we are the single driving force in seeking change at the top; the ones who create a moderate center; who can foster confessional harmony, delegitimize the jihadi narrative, get Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds to play nicely with one another -- not only just doesn't add up, it's delusional. If these happy outcomes were to come about, they need real ownership on the part of the locals driven by local interests and timetables not by U.S. slogans or policies.

The latest flawed assumption of the can-do enterprise -- apparently tossed about in the most recent review of Syria policy -- appears to be the notion that if we can just get rid of Bashar al-Assad our Syrian policy will be functional and the war against IS more successful. The logic here is that Assad's murderous campaign against the Sunnis just empowers IS by alienating them; gives rise to the view in the region that Washington is masterminding some kind of anti-Sunni campaign conspiracy by leaving Assad in place and cozying up to Shiite Iran; and that our Sunni Arab coalition is fraying because we won't do more to deal with the Assad problem.

The desire to take Assad and the regime out really isn't all that new. Hawks on this issue, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have long wanted a tougher approach to Bashar, not to mention the Saudis, the Turks, the Qataris, and most of the so-called moderates we're training. The logic is unless you can end the civil war -- and making Assad disappear is the sine qua non on that one -- IS will continue to feed on sectarian hatred and bad, or non-existent, governance. But if we think that's going to fix things, we really haven't learned much. Indeed, it will only make matters worse, much like getting rid of Qaddafi and Mubarak fixed very little, and even made things worse. And here's why.

The vacuum: The notion that if we could just get Bashar out, so much of the mess that is Syria could be fixed just doesn't add up.
For all practical purposes Bashar is the regime, and it's highly arguable that a real "regime" even exists anymore.The regime is a much diluted version of what it used to be -- an extended mob family with military, economic, and intelligence assets to deploy. Some of our friends in the region (see Saudi Arabia) would like to convince Washington that there are other Alawites who can be persuaded to fill the vacuum if Bashar goes: cut local deals and ceasefires, and somehow engineer a transition to the new Syria -- whatever that means.

More likely, if the Bashar Assad regime collapses, those Alawites who remain will either flee if possible or prepare for sectarian civil war. To quote Samuel Adams on the patriots' predicament: we can either hang together or hang separately. If the last several years of watching Syria has taught us anything, it's that life out there is short, cruel, and breaks down brutishly along sectarian lines. Given the Assad regime's crimes against Sunnis, the odds favor killing, ethnic cleansing, and more killing of Alawites, not reconciliation. And this was likely the case even before IS's rise.

The consequences: That of course brings us to the question of who or what would emerge if Assad were to go. It stretches credulity to the breaking point to conclude that anyone other than the Islamists, particularly IS, wouldn't take over now and for the foreseeable future. Look at the other possibilities. The Free Syrian Army? U.S.-trained rebels? Any one of the 1,000 militias that have emerged? Syria's Arab and Turkish neighbors? You're kidding, right?

And then where would we be? Listen to Joshua Landis's assessment (as he described it when I spoke to him on Nov. 15), probably America's top expert on matters Syrian:

"If the militias overran Syria's regime-controlled cities, a new major wave of refugees would set out for Lebanon and Jordan to spread the conflict into the rest of the Middle East. This is exactly what the United States does not want. It hopes to contain the violence inside Syria. The regime still controls some 65 percent of the Syrian people. Many regime-controlled cities have not been involved in war directly, such as Hama, much of Damascus, Latakia, Suwayda, Jableh, Tartus, Baniyas. For hundreds of militia men to overrun them would mean wide-scale looting and revenge against those who have fought in the Syrian army or are seen to be collaborators."

Caliph Ibrahim would love to take Damascus, the seat of the 8th-century Umayyad Caliphate, and claim the first truly major Arab city as his own. Sure, Assad would no longer be killing and alienating Sunnis -- but can you imagine the recruitment drive IS would launch and the success it would have. The taking of Damascus would draw thousands more Sunni jihadi to its ranks. Alawite and Christian Damascus refugee flows to Lebanon might prove overwhelming, and the United States might find itself not just with several thousands Yazidis trapped on a mountaintop but facing massive killings of Syrian minorities.

Indeed, as Landis told me:

"The Islamic Front is also strong in the Damascus region and its Damascene leader, Zahran Alloush, has called for the ethnic cleansing of all Shiites in order to build an Islamic state along the lines of the Umayyads. This would also mean that Syria's Christians would be subjected to the jizya (poll tax) and treated as second class citizens. The Alawites and Druze, who are considered to be pagans in Muslim theology, could well be treated as the Yazidis were in Iraq, asked to convert or be killed."

The rivals: And who exactly is going to help America in this enterprise? The Saudis and the Turks want Assad gone and would love to suck Washington into a war against the Syrian dictator. But what are they going to do when it comes to taking responsibility for building the new Syria, or more likely holding the dam against more IS gains in the old one? The only thing that will get the Saudis really motivated against IS is jihadi attacks in the kingdom.

One thing is certain: a U.S. war against IS will only complicate matters. Dealing with Assad's air defenses likely won't be much of an obstacle. But Iran will react, perhaps with additional support on the ground for Assad and by making trouble for the United States in Iraq. Given our wonderful relations with Vladimir Putin, the Russians will do what they can to make trouble, too. And with the al-Qaeda-linked jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra sitting far too close to the Golan Heights, the Israelis will be scratching their heads trying to figure out why we're creating more opportunities for these radicals to spread their influence without thinking through who will fill the vacuum if Assad goes.

The options: U.S. policy toward Syria is laced with anomalies and contradictions. The folks we're training to deploy against IS see Assad as the main threat; the allies in our coalition do too. And an anti-Assad policy runs headlong into Iran's own regional objectives of promoting Shiites and Alawites throughout the region.

Throughout all the noise and the cacophony of confusion and muddle, we need to keep focused on what our main interest against IS really is: it's a counterterrorism mission, not a nation-building one. It's a policy designed to preempt and prevent attacks on the homeland and against our interests and allies in the region.

A full court press to get rid of Assad may be morally correct and have strategic advantages at some point, but certainly not now. If we want to change anything it ought to be to intensify our attacks against IS in Syria and Iraq. The Council on Foreign Relations' Max Boot has some useful suggestions on what more we can do against IS kinetically in a recent Washington Post piece. And, as my FP colleague James Traub allows, while U.N. proposals to cut local deals and ceasefire arrangements with regime elements is dealing with the devil, it's far more sensible then plunging down a path that could turn Syria into a jihadi state.

Sure, our Syria policy is a mess. But it can get a whole lot worse. Let's at least make sure that we aren't the ones who make it so.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author. 

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy. 

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Aaron David Miller

Global Fellow
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more