April 09

The Syria Paradox

Syrian rebels

Syrian rebels

As the Syrian Civil War continues, there is still much speculation regarding potential outcomes of the conflict, and which outcomes will be most beneficial to both the Syrian people and the international community. As of right now, an Assad victory seems the most likely outcome; something the international community has made clear they do not want. However, when one compares the insurgency (which has been largely hijacked by those with a radical sectarian agenda) with the Assad government, an Assad victory might not be so bad. After all, while Assad placed political freedom at the bottom of his list for national priorities, he was known for promoting religious tolerance in Syria; something which is quite rare in the region. Assad also worked closely with the U.S. following 9/11 to combat terrorism; providing key intelligence on terrorist plots and participating in the U.S. extraordinary rendition program. While the reasons for this may have been rather self-serving (Assad viewing militant Islamists as a threat to his power base), his cooperation in the war on terror has been invaluable. Should Assad get overthrown, it will most likely result in a drastic reduction in regional stability, widespread human rights violations against religious minorities within Syria, and an expansion of anti-western Salafist ideology throughout the region. According to Emile Hokayem (2013): “The militarization and radicalization of many rebel groups, and the lack of decisive political control over their activities, bodes ill for a smooth transition to inclusive civil rule.”

Should Assad lose this struggle, the consequences for both the Syrian people and the region could prove catastrophic as it will allow those with a very radical sectarian ideology to continue expanding their influence throughout the region; an ideology that does not tolerate those of different beliefs and espouses a complete rejection of western principles.

Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, sectarian violence has become rampant and attacks against Shiites, Alawites, Christians, Druze, etc. by the opposition, have become regular occurrences. When this is considered in conjunction with the fact that many of the opposition groups are being funded by various entities throughout the region as a means to accomplish strategic ends, the nature of the insurgency becomes all the more disturbing.
It is no mystery that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are funding proxy elements to counter what they believe to be the expansion of Shia influence throughout the region. For instance Qatar continues to fund radical elements of the Syrian opposition, such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, whom it views as pawns in its struggle to counter U.S. and Iran backed elements of the opposition. Qatar continues to provide both weapons and cash assistance to these groups, despite western criticism over the legitimacy of funding such radical elements of the opposition. Saudi Arabia is also another major supporter of the opposition and although they aim to support “moderate” elements of the insurgency, they also continue to provide support which has raised concerns in Washington. According to Ellen Knickmeyer and Adam Entous (2014):

Americans for three years refused to approve the proposed Saudi transfer of antiaircraft artillery and other heavy weapons to rebels, citing the presence in insurgent ranks of al Qaeda-influenced fighters who could get their hands on the arms. Saudi officials have complained bitterly about the U.S. constraints (.

Given the radical composition of the insurgency, it makes one wonder if providing any support at all to the Syrian insurgency is a good idea.

The recent acquisition of U.S. TOW ITAS missile systems by the Syrian opposition also serves as evidence of a potential shift in U.S. policy on the issue of providing man-portable air-defense systems (manpads) and anti-tank systems to the rebels. While the U.S. still criticizes the Gulf States for providing heavy weapons to the opposition, this recent acquisition serves as possible evidence that the U.S., while officially denouncing such support, is covertly providing such weaponry through third-party participants.

With the insurgency having been hijacked by radical Islamists, western nations should seriously begin to rethink their support of the Syrian opposition. While Bashar al-Assad may have monopolized political power within Syria, he was a rational actor that promoted a secular government. While he favored certain ethno-religious groups when it came to positions within the regime, he was quite tolerant of others and they enjoyed freedom to exercise their beliefs openly under his rule. In addition, the caches of chemical weapons throughout Syria, should they fall into the wrong hands, will destabilize the entire region and will put millions of lives at risk.

While many criticize Syria’s relationship with Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, when we look at the direction in which Tehran has begun to move, we see the potential for positive change. Compare this against the radical ideology heavily entrenched in the Syrian opposition and the choices become clear; A: support the Syrian opposition and welcome in a radical regime which will destabilize the entire region; B: allow Assad to remain in power and stability will once again return to the region. While the Gulf States do not welcome the latter outcome, an expansion of the Shia crescent will help balance the spread of Salafism throughout the region which has been largely supported by the Gulf States and which continues to promote instability throughout the Middle East and the Levant.

Hokayem, E. (2013). Syria’s Uprsing and the Fracturing of the Levant. London: Routledge.
Knickmyer, E., & Entous, A. (2014, February 9). Saudi Arabia Replaces Key Official in Effort to Arm Syria Rebels. Retrieved from The Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303775504579392942097203608?mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB10001424052702303775504579392942097203608.html