Syria: Losing The Narrative


Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee on July 17, 2013, I was struck by the relatively large number of members, Republicans and Democrats alike, who volunteered variations on the following theme: "Every time the United States sticks its nose into the Middle East it gets bloodied; the battle in Syria is between a brutal regime and a collection of bloody extremists… including al-Qaeda; there is essentially no one there with whom we can work, and if we tried we would likely mess it up anyway; if we were to arm selected rebels and use targeted strikes against the regime’s killing machine, arms would end up being diverted, we would make things worse for civilians, and we would invite the regime and its supporters to escalate, forcing us onto a slippery slope. Therefore, as bad as the situation is, we need to sit this one out and let these people kill one another until they are ready to negotiate a settlement or partition the country, helping where we can with humanitarian assistance for the victims of violence."

What we are witnessing is the apparent victory of the Assad regime in a one-sided war of narratives over the struggle for Syria: the marriage of relentless regime propaganda about the nature of the struggle with a made-in-America, no-can-do attitude, instructed in large measure by long, largely unsatisfactory wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The regime’s narrative from the beginning has been crude, simple, and false: we have no problem with Syrians; our enemies are foreign terrorists controlled and manipulated by outsiders; if you think we are bad, imagine al-Qaeda and their friends taking control of the weapons of mass destruction we guard professionally. We alone can and will protect Christians and other minorities from these fundamentalist barbarians being dispatched and supported by Qataris, Saudis, Kuwaitis, Turks, Americans, and Israelis.

As the regime deliberately converted peaceful protest into armed resistance by using armed units (mainly Alawite in composition) to kill protesters (largely Arab Sunni Muslim in composition), it attracted to Syria al-Qaeda in Iraq (rebranded as the Nusra Front), a band of murderers with which the Assad regime’s intelligence service has had a long and cooperative relationship. The presence of the Nusra Front and like-minded jihadists in Syria is a gift to the Assad regime that keeps on giving. Now the regime’s big lie is only partly false: while there were no foreigners or terrorists when the protests were peaceful, the regime’s brutalization of peaceful protest produced the requisite villains, the prayed-for opposition of choice. As some of these worthies dine on human organs for the benefit of the mass media, the regime and its apologists sigh, "Ah, we told you so." Erased entirely from this narrative is the essential third force: the multi-sectarian, mainstream Syrian nationalist opposition. Elevated to the top is a motley collection of jihadists: people who not only cannot defeat the regime militarily, but who provide an excuse for Hezbollah military intervention on behalf of a regime that points with mock horror to the presence of extremists in Syria.

President Barack Obama’s administration has inadvertently enabled the ascendancy of the regime’s narrative. Having coupled crippling doubt about its ability to do anything at all in Syria with rhetorical excess about red lines and game changers, an Obama administration feeling abruptly obliged to help the mainstream armed opposition (because of actual chemical weapons usage) now reaps what it has sown on Capitol Hill: a pervasive sense of skepticism that the United States can do anything remotely useful or right in Syria. In recent months, President Obama equated Syria with the Congo, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey pronounced himself unsure as to the identity of an opposition worthy of US support.

Now Vice President Biden is being dispatched to Capitol Hill to make a case that should have been closed by the administration a year ago: the regime, along with radicals whose importation it stimulated to give substance to its empty narrative, is armed to the teeth; it is the mainstream Syrian nationalists, led by Major General Selim Idris, who need help. The need for that help in July 2013 is manifest if Idris is to organize an effective armed opposition on the ground in Syria and stabilize a tactical situation tilted by the introduction of Hezbollah fighters in the Homs area. Biden might well make the additional argument that the credibility of the United States is at stake: that statements encouraging Assad to step aside, that Assad’s calculation with respect to peaceful political transition should be changed, that chemical weapons use is game-changing red line, and the red line has been crossed, actually oblige the United States to do more than wring its hands and write generous checks for humanitarian assistance.

In a July 17, 2013 Politico op-ed, Senator Rand Paul, citing bipartisan support from Senators Tom Udall, Mike Lee, and Chris Murphy, summed up the marriage of regime narrative and American hesitancy as follows:

Any attempt to aid the Syrian rebels would be complicated and dangerous, precisely because we don’t know who these people are. To the degree that we do know who they are, we know that significant numbers of them are associated with Al Qaeda — as many as 10,000 fighters, by some estimates.

If the United States wants to choose a side in Syria, there is no clear moral choice. More important, there is no clear U.S. national interest in Syria.

There is also the question of what happens to Syria’s 2 million Christians. As a minority, these Christians have generally been protected by Assad’s regime, but have been targeted by some of the rebel groups. Imagine if the United States delivered weapons to extremists who, in turn, used them against Christians. Imagine the tragic irony of aiding the same Islamic radicals we have asked American soldiers to fight in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Note the methodology: assert that the US government has no idea who it wishes to support, airbrushing Major General Idris, the Supreme Military Council, and Free Syrian Army elements being attacked by the regime and jihadists alike; conflate the opposition writ large with al-Qaeda; posit moral equivalence between the regime and those who oppose it; ignore the plights of allies and friends neighboring Syria in denying the existence of a US national interest in Syria; accept, uncritically, the regime’s assertion that it protects Christians in Syria; create the specter of the United States providing arms to people it fought in Iraq and continues to fight in Afghanistan.

It is understandable that responsible US officials would approach the Syrian maelstrom cautiously and with a sense of modesty: the United States will not, in any event, be able to micromanage an end-state in Syria, a country which the Assad regime has already gone to great lengths to destroy. There is no way anyone can guarantee that 100 percent of everything supplied will get to intended, non-jihadist recipients, although a solid track record has been established in providing non-lethal assistance to vetted opposition military elements. Yet caution and modesty need not entail inadvertent acceptance of a narrative that is maliciously mendacious, one accompanied by a self-crippling and self-fulfilling sense of powerlessness.

Senator Paul and his colleagues have at least one thing absolutely right: the administration needs to brief Capitol Hill on its Syria-related objectives and strategy. It needs to bring Congress on board with respect to potential military measures aimed at supporting the mainstream opposition and degrading the Assad regime’s ability to mass artillery and aerial bombardments on civilian populations—a practice that is sending refugees surging across international borders. Congress needs to be persuaded that the commander-in-chief has in mind a way forward that maximizes the ability of the United States and its partners to influence Syria’s trajectory in positive ways, starting with the impact of regime terror tactics inside Syria on its neighbors, which include American allies and friends. Perhaps Vice President Biden has already been effective in his missionary work. Yet, if the United States is to move effectively beyond rhetorical fireworks, nonlethal assistance, and humanitarian aid, President Obama would do well to ensure that the American people—not just their representatives in Congress—understand the stakes, the goals, and the actions he proposes to take.

Give the Assad regime credit. It started with a narrative free of fact. It then created the requisite facts to substantiate that narrative in the minds of those predisposed, for whatever reason, to believe it: Iran, aiming to sustain its Hezbollah militia in Lebanon; Russia, eager to show the world that it stands by its clients; senior US military officers, desiring to avoid commitments in Syria potentially made open-ended by civilian leaders; and members of Congress, burned by Iraq, doubtful of executive branch competence, and burdened by fiscal constraints and other priorities. One entity that might have stopped cold the regime’s narrative campaign—the mainstream Syrian National Coalition—was and is AWOL from the battle, declining to this day to make a coherent case to Syrians and friends of Syria alike. Another, the Obama administration, was (and is) slow to operationalize and explain steps to be taken consistent with actual facts on the ground and American interests deriving from them. Although the regime’s chutzpah and discipline earn it high marks, the old adage about "you can’t beat something with nothing" has once again stood the test of time.

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

Photo: Bertilvidet

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