It only seems like it was yesterday that I wrote to one of the highest audience The Stubborn Mule has ever seen about a “Paradigm shift” in US Foreign Policy. In all reality it wasn’t that long ago, but in the Middle East, situations have a tendency to shift quickly and erratically; however, if we step back and look at the big picture, everything is connected. It is within our best interest to shift away from the perpetual conflict in the Middle East, and return to the days where a military quagmire wasn’t our best option. Shifting to Asia is within our grasp, but American interests have been threatened across the globe.
The Syrian Civil War has been one of the bloodiest conflicts in recent memory, and by far a defining moment in our generation. Some say we are on the brink of catastrophe while others say the use of the chemical weapons by the current regime would never occur. I side with those who argue we may see a tragedy within the coming weeks, as fighting intensifies in the capitol city of Damascus, where President Bashar Al-Assad resides. Fighting has been spotted only a mile from his headquarters. Experts and critics dissect the intricacies of Assad turning to chemical agents, which the government argues would never be used against Syrians, only external aggressors.
Let’s look at one aspect that history has repeatedly shown us: Desperation and dangerous often go hand in hand.
Like a man, running from police after a botched bank robbery, what else does Assad have to lose? He’s been publicly criticized broadly throughout the international community, and even Russia has distanced themselves from the slowly falling leader. Iran remains Syria’s closest and most loyal ally. They are fighting a pseudo-war in Syria, by providing arms and assistance to government fighters. Although it’s a long-shot, if the Syrian government somehow turned the tide of this conflict without gaining crippling attacks from the international community, Iran would be established as a regional power.
Syria has a multitude of chemical agents in their arsenal including Sarin, which was the gas used by Saddam Hussein to gas thousands of Kurds in Iraq. It has already been reported by US officials that Syria has not only moved the Sarin gas and its binary component that ultimately arms it and loaded it into bombs, signifying that there is indeed an increased possibility of nerve gas attack. Sarin is colorless and odorless, and extremely lethal. Although this recent development brings with it a justifiable anxiety, Assad may be smart enough not to resort to using chemical weapons on rebel forces, because if he did, it would result in swift and immediate action from the international community, ultimately ending his regime.
I think the larger concern about the chemical weapons should be focused on the outcome of this conflict. The rebel opposition contains many factions, but the most highly trained fighters are Islamist jihadists that have honed their fighting skills in the Iraq and Afghanistan war. They influx of radical Islamist fundamentalists into the rebel opposition have resulted in three main things: increased fighting capabilities, overall more success in seizing more government controlled areas, and a hesitant United States watching more closely. This also plays an important role in shaping our concerns about the chemical weapons in Syria. The Al-Nusra Front, an Islamist fighting group in Syria, has been linked to Al-Qaeda, and was recently deemed a terrorist organization by the United States. If Assad does not launch one of his six hundred warheads capable of carrying chemical agents, they could be ascertained by Al-Nusra or smuggled to Hezbollah or Iran. This seems to be a recurring role in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Using Egypt as an example, we can see what I believe, to be a just a tumultuous post-Assad Syria. There have already been reports of fighting between factions in the opposition group. In Egypt, the revolution against Mubarak was not a bloody and brutal incremental conflict, but now we see the strains of a divided opposition movement that was once unified against their common enemy. It’s my fear that we will see the secular versus Islamist struggle for control, and as we seen in Egypt, with the Islamist factions like Al-Nusra, they are generally more organized, structured, and efficient, which makes them prime candidates to seize control after the fall of Assad. Another ramification could be a loosely organized construction of warlord fiefdoms dominated by each faction.
In other news on Syria, Vladimir Putin doubled down on his support of Assad, even after some encouraging signs that he could be changing his position. This doesn’t mean Assad will not fall, this just means one thing: Putin is being Putin. He would rather save face supporting a longtime ally until the very end they be viewed as giving in to Western pressure. President Obama joined a short list of countries recognizing the Syrian Opposition Coalition as Syria’s representative body of the country’s people. This comes as no surprise considering the United States, through the efforts of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, orchestrated the loose organization of factions.
The United States needs to alienate extremist factions by supporting mainstream opposition groups that have favorable views of the United States. By establishing them as “legitimate” rebels, Islamist extremists like Al-Nusra can be marginalized to the point of having a minimal effect on a post-Assad Syria. Failing to do so can result in turbulent situations like what we are seeing in Egypt or simply trading one kind of tyranny for another.