Commentary Magazine

Killing a Crocodile

Last week the United States military conducted a raid inside Syria and killed Al Qaeda leader Abu Ghadiya in a shootout in the village of Sukariyeh. Syria’s government raged against the violation of its sovereignty and staged a massive anti-American protest in downtown Damascus. But, according to the Times of London, the Syrian government itself may have quietly green-lighted the raid in advance.

No one should be surprised if that turns out to be true. It makes perfect sense.

“Syria’s interest is to see the invaders defeated in Iraq,” Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara said in 2003. And so, for years, Bashar Assad’s government supported the flow of Al Qaeda terrorists into Iraq. The reason should be apparent enough. Syria is a state sponsor of terrorism and does not want to be “next.” The last thing either the Syrian or Iranian governments have wanted to see was a quick, easy, successful, and locally welcomed regime change in Iraq. The Iraqi insurgency was their life-insurance policy. It kept American troops busy somewhere else and hollowed out any potential American appetite for the demolition of another belligerent dictatorship in the Middle East.

Assad’s support for Al Qaeda is mostly cynical, though. He hardly shares the group’s ultimate goals. Another reason he helps them make their way to Iraq is because, in all likelihood, he’s delighted to watch them impale themselves on American forces.

Syria’s ruling Baath Party is a secular nationalist regime made up overwhelmingly of minority Alawites, whom the likes of Al Qaeda would like to see murdered en masse. Alawites are one of the Middle East’s relatively obscure religious minorities–like the Arabic Druze and the Kurdish Yezidis–who exist well outside the theological mainstream of the region. They’re a secretive and heretical offshoot of Twelver Shiism, and their beliefs are fused with Christian and pagan elements. Some of their rituals resemble those of the indigenous and ancient Phoenicians. They drink wine in a rite that resembles communion. They believe women do not have souls. Unlike Christians and Muslims, Alawites do not proselytize. Outsiders are not even allowed to convert. They make up around ten percent of Syria’s population, and can only rule the country through the brute force of an oppressive police state.

They aren’t at all well-liked by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, which considers them “infidels.” Stirring up sectarian tensions is, not surprisingly, a serious crime inside Syria. The last thing Assad wants is Lebanonization or Iraqification inside his own country. Those kinds of political problems are strictly for export.

Bashar Assad’s late father and even more ruthless former president Hafez Assad found himself facing an insurgency by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s. In 1982 he furiously bombarded the city of Hama where they were headquartered. As many as 10,000 people were killed. Assad even encouraged citizens to go there themselves so they could see what would happen if they dared to rise up again. Syria hasn’t faced anything like an insurgency since, but the Assad clan has never felt safe from radical Sunnis. What better way to be rid of them than to send them off to die in Iraq? And what better way to curry some kind of favor with regional radical Sunnis than to help even non-Syrian Sunnis blow up Americans?

In September, though, somebody exploded a car bomb at a Shia shrine in Damascus and killed 17 people. Alawites are related to Shias, and Al Qaeda thinks of Shias as cockroaches. Unless Assad himself planned this one for obscure and nefarious reasons, you can bet your bottom dollar he’s spooked.

No matter how much Assad helps the likes of Al Qaeda, he eventually will be targeted like everyone else, and for the usual reasons. Assad is a state sponsor of terrorists, but in some ways he is also an appeaser of terrorists. Winston Churchill wisely pointed out that “an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” Alawites have always lived in fear of the regional Sunni majority, which is why secular Arab Nationalism that stresses ethnicity over religion appeals so much to them. But sectarianism and Islamism exist uneasily alongside Arab Nationalism, and Assad feels pressure to feed the crocodiles and keep them occupied elsewhere. He’s been doing it for years, and he is far too politically savvy and street-smart to think his radical Islamist allies are really his friends.

Maybe the recent car bomb wasn’t set off by Al Qaeda. Perhaps Assad didn’t green-light the American raid after all, and this is all just elaborate psy-ops. But no one should be surprised if he is secretly pleased that Americans killed a crocodile that chewed off its leash. He has to protest if he does not wish to be eaten.

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