Every time I visit the United States, I find without fail that the public’s awareness of the Middle East always reflects a pattern that has two dimensions. The majority that does not follow events in the region invariably expresses those images that it absorbs from the mass media’s simplistic coverage of events, usually with phrases like, “are they ever going to solve the problems over there?”, or, “are things any quieter now over there?” — to which the easiest reply is, “oh, not really, but we hope for the best.”
Those Americans who do follow events in the Middle East, however, tend to focus on only one issue at a time, perhaps because it is easier to see our region in terms of single issues that are isolated in time and political context, rather than view the complexities and nuances of our region as they really are: interconnected, fluid, and mostly negotiable, among a range of actors and situations such as Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the March 14 and March 8 alliances in Lebanon, the warring sides in Syria, Iraq’s fragile condition, and domestic American politics in the run-up to President Barack Obama’s visit to the Middle East this month.
At the start of my current trip in the United States, the single question that dominates Mideast-watchers here in the New World is what to do about Syria, and whether or not the United States should provide military assistance to the opposition groups fighting to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad. The issue is more topical with the current trip in the Middle East of the new Secretary of State, John Kerrey, who has met with the head of the main political opposition group in Syria, the Syrian National Coalition. He also announced another $60 million in non-lethal assistance to help the opposition improve its service delivery to citizens in liberated areas.
The big question people here ask is whether the United States should provide military aid to help the Syrian rebels improve their chances of defeating and overthrowing the Assad family regime. The hesitance of the Obama administration to do this (beyond the military training that is widely assumed to be underway in Jordan) is a classic example of why American foreign policy in the Middle East is so erratic, often leading to the growth of groups that feed off anti-American sentiments.
The United States is reluctant to offer direct military aid to the rebels because it fears that weapons might fall into the hands of groups that the U.S. does not like, especially Islamist groups like the Nusra Front or smaller militant groups with alleged affinities to Al-Qaeda, that have grown rapidly in the past year and now spearhead military advances in some parts of the country. Presumably this is because the United States does not want to arm Islamist or other unfriendly groups who could in future agitate against the U.S. or its allies in the region, like Israel, Saudi Arabia or Jordan.
That sounds like a reasonable policy, but in reality it is a total failure. In fact it brings about precisely that outcome that Washington says it wishes to avoid — the rise to prominence, or even dominance, of those Islamist groups the United States dislikes. So as the U.S. speaks boldly about bringing down the Assad regime, but does little on the critical military front to help bring that about, the Islamist and other rebel groups whom the United States dislikes are receiving plenty of arms and making sustained gains in the two areas that really matter: militarily, and in terms of winning the confidence of ordinary people across the land, which enhances the likelihood that these groups will dominate the post-Assad system of power.
The wiser policy for the United States and other foreign countries that oppose the Assad regime is simply to provide plenty of arms and other military assistance (like satellite intelligence) to those groups it is already dealing with, such as the coalition, the Syrian National Council or the Free Syrian Army. If some weapons slip through to other groups, so be it — because withholding U.S. arms is not slowing down the acquisition of weapons by the Islamist and other groups the United States dislikes. American aid to the mainstream rebels will enhance the likelihood of these groups dominating the post-Assad governance system, and of cordial ties between the U.S. and the new government that will arise in Damascus.
American officials naively withhold arms and criticize rising Syrian Islamists, and expect everything to work out for the best in the end, while in reality Washington may wake up to a situation in a post-Assad Syria in which it is ignored, criticized and marginalized for not helping the rebels when they urgently needed military help, and Islamists and other “bad guys” in American eyes dominate the government. It is hard to think of a more simplistic, ineffective and counter-productive policy on Syria than the policy the United States is now pursuing.
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. You can follow him @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global