There is growing frustration among many on the right—many of my colleagues both here on the pages of COMMENTARY and at the American Enterprise Institute included—about President Barack Obama’s incoherent policy and strategy with regard to Syria.
Certainly, the frustration is warranted. Over the past two years, tens of thousands of Syrians have been killed, and almost as many have “disappeared.” It’s a safe bet that those who have gone missing are not going to reemerge. Violence has forced additional hundreds of thousands of Syrians into refugee camps in neighboring countries. Wrong is the realist who claims that this may be an emotional, human rights concern but is not relevant to U.S. national security: When refugees flood into a country, competition for space and resources sends prices up and can further erode popular support for U.S. allies like King Abdullah II in Jordan.
Obama seems to be blind to the strategic implications of Bashar al-Assad’s downfall. The Syrian regime is a long-time terror sponsor responsible for the deaths of dozens of Americans. Wrong are those who say Bashar al-Assad and his father brought quiet to the border with Israel: The Syria-Israel border was quiet, but only because the Assads used Lebanon as their proxy battleground. Syria also provides the crucial link between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon. The fall of the Syrian regime would roll back Iranian influence away from the strategically important Eastern Mediterranean.
That said, arming the Syrian rebels is wrong and would gravely undercut U.S. national security. I travel to Iraq a couple times each year—without the sponsorship, let alone knowledge, of the State Department or Pentagon—and have been in Iraq for the past two weeks or so. I began my trip in Basra and worked my way north through Baghdad to Kirkuk as well as areas controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Syria was a topic of frequent conversation, both among ordinary Iraqis and government officials. The evolution of Iraqi attitudes toward Syria has been interesting. In 2007, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki regularly condemned the Syrian regime for its role facilitating the infiltration of suicide bombers into Iraq. However, when I visited Iraq last October, many Iraqi Shi’ites warned against any support for the Syrian opposition, claiming they were more radical than the Americans realized. Such complaints from Iraqi Shi’ites might be easy to dismiss. After all, sectarianism overshadows the Middle East. Assad’s Alawis represent an offshoot of Shi’ism while the majority of the Syrian opposition is Sunni.
This trip, however, has been a wake-up call: Not only Iraqi Shi’ites, but also Iraqi Christians, Iraqi Kurds, and even many Iraqi Sunnis oppose American provision of arms to the Syrian rebels on the grounds that the Syrian rebels are either more radical than the Americans realize, or that nothing will prevent the so-called moderates whom the United States arms from selling or losing the weaponry to the radicals. There is a real sense of urgency, here, as Iraqis believe they will be the first victims of Sunni radicalism in neighboring Syria. Indeed, while here in Iraq, I have been within earshot of two car bombings, and Iraq has moved past its deadliest month in years. Regardless of ethnicity and sectarian preference, a consensus is emerging in Iraq about the character of the Syrian opposition. With all due respect to congressmen and some advocates for arming the Syrian rebels, those in the region are better able to vet Syrian rebels than U.S. officials 6,000 miles away. As tempting as it may be to think otherwise, and just as it remains with the Mujahedin al-Khalq and the Islamic Republic, the enemy of one’s enemy is not always one’s friend.
Does this mean we should abandon hopes for regime change in Syria? Absolutely not. The United States does maintain strategic interests in Syria: Eliminating WMD stores; preventing smuggling of weaponry to Hezbollah; preventing al-Qaeda groups from utilizing the Syrian vacuum to plan attacks against the West; and preventing both Assad and his opponents from destabilizing neighboring states. An Assad victory would embolden both Tehran and Moscow and ensure the spread of conflict to areas far more important to the United States. Perhaps the safest way to support Assad’s removal, however, is not to give weaponry to the Syrian rebels—a move that would make the “Fast and Furious” scandal seem positively benevolent—but rather to use American air power to prevent any aspect of the conflict perpetrated by either side which could undercut American security.