Syria: Extremism as a Force for Good

Karl Rove, onetime senior advisor to President George W. Bush, reportedly told an interviewer, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Substitute the word “speak” for “act” and one has the reality-creating corollary of the Obama administration. Rather than describing the recent rout of the Free Syrian Army and the confiscation of US-supplied equipment from its warehouses by elements of the Islamic Front as a setback, Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken recently asserted that the radicalization of Syria’s conflict was not all bad; that it has “begun to concentrate the minds of critical actors outside of Syria,” actors such as Russia, which has “a profound interest in avoiding the emergence of an extremist Syria, a haven for extremist groups.” According to Blinken, the rise of radicalism in Syria has brought about a “convergence of interests” that may well produce a critical international mass for the removal of Bashar al-Assad.

The validity of the Blinken thesis, however, depends on whether Russia and Iran in particular accept as true the proposition that the Assad regime is indeed the catalyst for jihadist extremism in Syria. These are the parties keeping the regime alive. Do they see their client as stimulating extremism? Or do they see the regime as the antidote for Islamic radicalism? Moscow is pouring arms into the regime’s inventory. Tehran is raising and deploying militiamen to relieve exhausted regime combat units. If they see Assad as part of the problem, they are acting as if he is the essence of the solution.

Convincing Iran and Russia to reverse course and spring the trap door under the regime is, to say the least, a worthy diplomatic objective. Indeed, it is true that the Assad regime has actively facilitated the arrivals of al-Qaeda and foreign fighters to Syria. It has done so deliberately, to crowd out any semblance of a non-sectarian, nationalist opposition. The regime used its longstanding security and intelligence contacts with al-Qaeda in Iraq to open the door, and it took full advantage of the gullibility and crass, hate-filled sectarianism of Gulf donors to get them to pay for al-Qaeda’s Syrian upkeep.

Presumably these facts are known to Russia and Iran. Yet Tehran and Moscow remain unstinting in their support of the regime. Could it be they are fully aware of the regime’s risky survival strategy and either tolerate or endorse it? Is it possible that the Assad regime’s slavish support of Lebanon’s Hezbollah means more to Iran than its client’s connection to and practical collaboration with al-Qaeda? Is Russia’s Putin more interested in defeating an alleged Western regime change scheme than he is in helping to remove a client who is drawing Chechens and others to Syria for combat seasoning? Or do Russia and Iran truly believe that their client has been ruthlessly and unjustly victimized by that un-holiest of trios: the United States, Israel, and al-Qaeda? That has been Assad’s story from the beginning, and he is sticking with it.

Blinken referred to the upcoming Geneva conference as a “test.” The administration hopes to test precisely what Blinken asserted: the supposed convergence of interests brought about by the advent of Islamist radicalism in Syria. If the Syrian opposition—with vital input from the Islamic Front—puts on the table a credible roster of names of those who should rule Syria on an interim basis, will Moscow and Iran signal their readiness to work for the removal of the criminal clan they have consistently supported?

Getting the opposition to propose a transitional governing body top-heavy in people Moscow and Tehran could hypothetically deem attractive will be no easy task. As the only opposition military structure of any weight these days, the Islamic Front would have to sign off on the roster and either show up in Switzerland to present it or authorize the Syrian National Coalition to do it. No doubt US officials will meet with Islamic Front contacts to try to persuade them to do the politically sophisticated, but counter-intuitive thing. What the United States may lack in terms of credibility with the Front might be compensated for by the influence of Saudi Arabia, if the Kingdom is at all inclined to view the conference as a test of Iranian-Russian readiness to dump Assad. One would expect that the administration is spending quality time with key Saudi royals these days.

Making something useful of the Geneva-Montreux conference will require heavy diplomatic lifting and a healthy serving of good luck. Russia and Iran are easily capable of rejecting the most forthcoming of transition personnel lists, making the opposition look naive for having proposed it. Or they can simply say the list looks fine, but that it is entirely up to Syrians to negotiate the composition of the transitional governing body, thereby leaving the veto with their client. Even if they process matters fully in accordance with the Blinken thesis, which is highly unlikely in the absence of full-court persuasion, what exactly would they do? When would they do it? Surely all of this must be arranged ahead of time. International conferences are not good venues for spontaneity.

Syria today is the sum total of unintended consequences, most of which are negative. The administration can point with pride to a chemical weapons agreement that is working on time (or better) and under budget, and taking these munitions out of the hands of the Assad regime is no mean feat. Yet the daily slaughter of Syrian civilians continues, mainly by a regime that now feels free to do as it wishes so long as it does so without chemicals. And the rise of radicalism abetted by the sectarian survival tactics of the regime has presented, in tandem with the regime itself, profound consequences for 23 million Syrians and all of their neighbors. The hesitant, half-hearted, and insufficient aid provided by the United States to lightly armed Syrian nationalists gave them, in the mean streets of Syria, the worst of all worlds: the bull’s-eye of an American brand painted on their backs, with little of value to show for it. And although the Islamic Front is not al-Qaeda, surely its call for theocratic rule in a country with Syria’s rich diversity is patently inappropriate and unacceptable.

There are no silver bullets or magic formulas that will undo past errors or save Syrians anytime soon from the relentless, merciless savagery they face. Yet this administration has served neither itself nor the world well with verbal gymnastics and rhetorical flourishes. The catastrophe that is Syria is not fixable with clever formulations and wishful thinking. The growth of extremism in Syria is an unmitigated disaster. The administration should be reviewing and adjusting its policies—thinking operationally, in terms of objectives and strategy—rather than making the latest setback sound like a good news story and praying for a diplomatic outcome whose advent has not been prepared.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Syrian rebel army patrol an area near Homs, March 2012. (Photo: Flickr/Freedom House/CC license)