Syria, Secularism, and U.S. Policy

Syrians demonstrate for Syria and Assad in the center of The Hague, Holland on May 19, 2012. Photo by jankranendonk / 123RF.

In a groundbreaking article, one of our more respected experts on Middle East affairs has proposed that our policy should pivot to outright cooperation with Assad’s regime in Syria, the better to campaign more effectively against our mutual enemy, the Islamic State, or ISIS.

This idea is a tough one for most Americans to accept, given the Assad regime’s past record on human rights and its relations with Hezbollah and Iran. But when you think about it, it makes sense. Back when we were fighting Nazi Germany we made a command decision that although the Soviet Union was not to our liking, the Nazis were worse, and posed more of an immediate threat to U.S. interests. We mixed our ideals with our interests, swallowed, and made the right decision.

I subscribe to the principle that we keep our idealism intact but reserve it mainly for determining long-term strategy. In the nearer term, on the tactical level, idealism should bend to pragmatic needs. Bend, but not so far that it breaks. We shouldn’t act so pragmatically that we forget who we are. But where do we draw the line? In the present case, is there nothing in the Assad regime that can dilute our antagonism enough to let us agree that ISIS is worse than it is?

Assad’s regime is dominated by the Alawite community, a tough bunch of hill people in Syria’s northern coastal region who have their own religion historically associated with the much larger Shi’a community. The present leadership evolved out of the Ba’ath party, a product of the ferment of Arab nationalism that emerged after the Second World War. The Ba’ath were always strongly secular, and included Christians and other minority religious groups that together constituted a substantial minority of Syria’s population. The Assad regime maintains that secularity and still stands as the protector of religious minorities.

Our opposition to the Assad regime is based partly on the perception that it is an oppressive dictatorship. But look at some of our friends! It’s hard to argue that the Sisi regime in Cairo is all that much more democratic. And how about our Saudi friends? Surely the secularism of Assad should count as a plus in that kind of reverse beauty contest.

The pragmatic concerns are serious. One result of the proposed pivot would be to strengthen Hezbollah and Iran, the arch-foes of Israel. But they are also the arch-foes of ISIS. Which foe is worse in terms of our interests? (And Israel’s?) To put it differently, what’s better, that we join an effective coalition against ISIS and use our new access to reduce regional tensions, or that we continue to battle ineffectually against ISIS while also trying to upset Assad, a pretty solid secular player also fighting ISIS on our flank?

If we really see ISIS as an emerging major threat to our interests in the region, both ideological and strategic, then joining forces with Assad’s battle-tested soldiers makes a lot of sense. Our generals agree that we won’t win a war against ISIS without “putting boots on the ground.” And I think I speak for almost all Americans when I express strong opposition to putting our own soldiers into those boots. Recent events suggest that it will be a long time before we can rely on Iraqi soldiers to do the job. On the Syrian side the FSA (Free Syrian Army) is much too small and disjointed to do it either. This leaves us no workable option beyond partnering with the regular Syrian armed forces. At least those are the hard choices President Obama faces at this time.

Once again we find ourselves tangled up in a complex situation not of our own making. Once again our public debate is passionate but confused, as we debate how best to reconcile our interests with our principles. The problems will remain, but we will find it easier to see our way out if we keep in mind that the most important thing is to hang onto the principles that define us as a nation. Freedom of religion is certainly one of those principles. For present purposes, it translates into favoring secular societies as opposed to theocratic ones.

Secularism is not the only principle at work as we seek a way out of the conundrums posed by the ISIS phenomenon, but it is relevant, and directly applicable as we try to decide what is right and what is wrong.

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