At this point, almost a year into the Syrian revolt, we know this much: President Barack Obama is unwilling to tip the scales, with American heft, against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Obama doesn’t even seem inclined to unleash covert action that may aid the Syrians fighting their dictator. The American administration is handling Syria no differently from how it processed the changes in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen: give it time, allow others to take the lead, and see whichever way the chips may fall. However, on Syria, neither the Gulf monarchies, nor Turkey, nor Israel, or either France and Britain, are willing to take one step in any meaningful and tangible direction without American leadership, and it should be clear by now that this leadership is not forthcoming; Syrian revolutionaries are on their own.
So what happens next?
The Syrian revolt has regressed into the Syrian insurgency, and that is exactly where the Assad regime wants in to be. The regime was nonplussed by internet-savvy peaceful protestors, chanting democratic and non-sectarian slogans; it had never prepared itself for such an unprecedented challenge. The regime is on much firmer footing—they trained for and experienced such things in the past—when it is confronted by an insurgency.
The news gets better for the regime should the insurgency drift from what it is now—a clumsy and uncoordinated pushback by military defectors, into the realms of a fundamentalist jihad.
The regime shall finally get the enemy it always claimed it was fighting. Then, Assad will recline back into his inherited throne, all smug and vindicated, at least in the eyes of his minority of supporters, as well as those of Syria’s majority of fence sitters.
Are we there yet? Has the insurgency gone jihadist?
We are not there yet, but we’re well on our way. Four months ago, an Iraqi Salafist apparatchik, who had been involved in the Iraqi insurgency, told me that Salafists and jihadists who had flocked to Syria had been turned back by local constituencies, and denied the means, or authority, to strike at the regime. They were rejected and dejected. Last month, however, we had a very different conversation: the Salafist told me that his ilk are back in business in Syria, and much welcomed.
The foot soldiers of the Salafist internationale, as well as their bankrollers in the Persian Gulf, have been emboldened by the success of their brand of religious extremism in recently-transformed places such as Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. They see another, grander opportunity in Syria. Military defectors do not necessarily know how to wage insurgencies, and as it is, the Free Syrian Army is mostly composed of armed civilians. Jihadists, fresh out of the Iraqi insurgency, bring with them know-how, funding, access to arms, and unabashed sectarian mobilization; all the components that worked for them in Iraq, and may succeed in Syria. It is only natural that they will steer the trajectory of a Syrian insurgency that needs them towards their own purposes.
And the topography of where the rebellion has lasted, in the environs of Idlib, Jisr al-Shughour, Rankous and Zabadani, was tailor made by nature for guerrilla warriors.
The jihadists are a hard and dangerous enemy, but the Syrian regime does not mind getting a bloody nose, as long as it does not totter over. The regime will tolerate pockets of jihadist insurgencies, even for years, since the prospect of multiple Waziristan-like havens in the Levant would likely export violence and instability to Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, as well as provide training grounds for Gulf nationals, which would further bolster the “we told you so” meme of the regime. The regime may even marshal its military might against more secular insurgents, destroying them while leaving jihadism to fester. After forty years, we know that the Assad regime is very cynical, and quite deft at playing the long game.
For now, Washington is busy finding excuses for doing nothing. Their favorite excuse seems to be that the Syrian opposition is an unknown. One hears much futile agonizing over the “chastity and unity” of Assad’s foes. This is nonsense. If a serious policy was in the offing, the United States would cajole its allies into throwing their support behind the least odious and audacious of the Syrian factions—and there’s a wide and reasonably legitimate variety to choose from—to get the job of overthrowing Assad done. But when grasping for excuses, all sorts of wrongs and flaws can be found in Syria’s revolutionaries. There are willing, and likely to be grateful, fighters on the ground right now. Give them the technological means to take out Assad’s doddering, outdated tanks. If not, they will seek help from wherever it may come. This is where the jihadists take their cue.
Western inaction will likely lead to lebensraum for jihad; it is at that time that Western capitals will rue an opportunity lost. And will consequently end up having to get much more embroiled to fix a future Syria.
Nibras Kazimi is a Visiting Fellow at the Hudson Institute, Washington, D.C. and a contributor to the Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order, Hoover Institution
This post is part of The Caravan, a periodic discussion on the contemporary dilemmas of the Greater Middle East. Other commentary in this symposium on Syria is provided by Charles Hill, Itamar Rabinovich, Habib Malik, Russell Berman, Nibras Kazimi, Abbas Milani, Joel Rayburn, Josh Teitelbaum, Reuel Gerecht, Asli Aydintasbas, Camille Pecastaing, and Fouad Ajami.