U.S. President Barack Obama’s latest request to Congress to provide $500 million in equipment and training to “appropriately vetted” moderate Syrian opposition forces will provoke lively debate on two issues: on whether this is too little, too late to influence events inside Syria, and on what exactly defines a “moderate” opposition force. These are both valid questions related to how non-Syrian powers work to bolster or topple Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, and also how everyone deals with the growing threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
One of the important recent developments in our region has seen the lingering, and very broadly Saudi-Iranian-led, ideological battle that has defined the Middle East for some years now transform into a single military battleground that stretches from Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and Iran. The Iran-Syria-Hizbullah alliance—aligned with Prime Minister Noori Maliki in Iraq—has emerged victorious in recent years, which is why the Assad government remains firmly in place, if only in about one-third of the country.
That alliance is under pressure today, as Iran’s three partners in Arab Western Asia all face challenging new realities. Assad continues to hold onto power only by bombing and destroying parts of his country, Maliki’s incumbency in Iraq is in deep trouble and unlikely to persist, and Hizbullah is fighting inside Syria and may have to go to the aid of the Iraqi prime minister, creating new logistical and political challenges to a formidable organization that forged its credibility, legitimacy and power by defending Lebanon from Israeli aggression, not by fighting in other Arab countries.
All three of these Arab parties depend heavily on Iran for logistical, financial and political support, and all four of them face new vulnerabilities now that did not exist a year ago—or even three months ago, when considering the challenge to them all by the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
The sudden renewal in the past week of American military assistance to the Iraqi government and the anti-Assad Syrian rebels will do what foreign military interventions in Arab West Asia have done for millennia—they will exacerbate the political equation and intensify military action all around, leaving the region more scarred and brittle than it was before the fighting started, without resolving the underlying problems of incompetent and criminal governance that generated conflict in the first place.
Neither the United States nor Iran and their allies can control foreign lands for very long by relying primarily on military power; and despite their determination and large armies, neither of them can prevent the rise of militant fanatics like ISIS when prevailing governance and living conditions follow the pattern we have seen in recent decades across much of the Arab world. Every power has learned this lesson over and over again, including Syria in Lebanon, and the United States and Iran in Iraq.
The United States, Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and the Iraqi and other Arab governments will now effectively work together militarily to contain and push back ISIS troops, while simultaneously working politically to weaken each other. The weakness in the policies of both regional ideological camps is their misguided conviction that local actors in places like Tripoli, Lebanon, or Deir ez-Zor, Syria, or Fallujah, Iraq define themselves and respond politically to the same impulses that shape identities and interests in places like Qom and Kansas City. When Hizbullah and Iran move quickly to support their friends in Syria, and the United States and its allies move slowly, the result is what we have seen in Syria: Assad regime consolidation, but in ever-smaller territorial parts of the country, along with the birth of new and more dangerous fighting groups such as ISIS. Syria is not a victory that Iran and Hizbullah can brag about very loudly.
The critical criterion for success lays in the second issue I mentioned above, which is, from the United States’ perspective, how to define a “moderate” opposition group to support. This is a truly childish approach to waging ideological and military battle abroad, and guarantees failure, as we have seen in the recent trends in Syria-Iraq during the last three years.
The critical criterion for supporting a foreign group of fighters or politicians is local legitimacy, not “moderation” defined in distant lands. But legitimacy is an issue that the United States, Iran, Arab powers and all foreign armies ignore as they march into battles in foreign lands. This is why they leave behind such ravages and chaos when they march home a few years later, staggered and bewildered at the furies they encountered and the sandstorms and cultural forces that momentarily blinded them.
Moving decisively to bolster legitimate local forces breeds success; moving gingerly to identify people who will friend you on Facebook is really stupid.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global
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