Ed Husain from the Council on Foreign Relations says in The Atlantic Bashar al-Assad may be “our least worst option in Syria.” His argument is a familiar one. The devil we know beats the devil we don’t, and a post-Assad Syria is not only likely to remain hostile to the United States and to Israel, it will turn Islamist.
“On balance,” he argues, “Assad has been good news for Israel’s security and borders.” I hear this in Israel once in a while and it always leaves me scratching my head.
Sure, Assad has kept the Syrian-Israeli border at the Golan Heights quiet, at least until recently, when he started sending human waves across the demilitarized zone and onto the border fence, but he made the Lebanese-Israeli border the hottest and most dangerous frontier in the region. No Arab army—conventional, terrorist, or guerrilla—has ever fought Israel to a draw the way Hezbollah has. And Hezbollah wouldn’t even exist today, at least not as a militarized state-within-a-state, if the Assad regime had disarmed it along with the rest of Lebanon’s militias when it conquered the country at the end of the civil war. Assad doesn’t fight Israel directly because he doesn’t have to. He has terrorist proxies in Gaza and Lebanon who happily do his dirty work for him.
“A Syrian population,” he writes, “raised without Israel on their school geography maps and accustomed to shouting ‘amen’ in response to Friday mosque prayers calling for Israel’s destruction will not be warm towards Israel.” I have little doubt he’s right about that. But what he says next doesn’t necessarily follow. “No future regime in Syria,” he adds, “will be less hostile towards Israel, and therefore the reduction in animosity toward the United States is inconceivable.”
Of course it’s conceivable. Hostility toward Israel and the United States is de rigueur in the Arab world, but there’s hostility and then there’s hostility. Iraq today is hostile to Israel and not exactly a staunch American ally, but it’s not even remotely as hostile to either as it was when Saddam Hussein was in charge. Iraq’s hostility to Israel is entirely passive. It’s no more sinister or dangerous right now than Kuwait’s.
Post-Qaddafi Libya is not even remotely likely to become an Israeli ally any time soon, but the new government, at least in its current form, is a lot friendlier toward the United States than Qaddafi’s was and has at least floated the idea of normalization with Israel.
Regime change is not always bad. It requires a certain poverty of the imagination to assume the current configuration in the Middle East is the best possible one, especially when we’re talking about totalitarian terrorist-sponsoring Syria.
Anyway, let’s assume the worst for Syria and posit that the Muslim Brotherhood takes over, despite the fact Syria’s Christians, Alawites, Druze, and Kurds—not to mention liberal, secular, and moderate Sunnis—wouldn’t put up with it. Even a Muslim Brotherhood government would be better for the U.S. and Israel than the Assad regime.
Sure, the Brothers would support Hamas in Gaza. But Assad already does that. They probably won’t, however, support Hezbollah or Iran’s Islamic Republic regime, as the current government does. Sunni Islamists in the Levant are sectarian creatures like everyone else. I interviewed some senior members of Lebanon’s miniscule Muslim Brotherhood and couldn’t tell if they hate Israel more or less than they hate Hezbollah, which is Shia while they are all Sunnis. The opposition to Assad’s rule has been burning Hezbollah flags in the streets for months now.
Damascus has exported terrorism to every single country on Syria’s borders. The worst case scenario wouldn’t be worse. It would just be more of the same. And there are plenty of reasons to hope and believe even a bad outcome after the fall of Bashar al-Assad would be less bad than the status quo.