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Why The U.S. Shouldn't Let The Syrian Rebels Win

By Glenn E. Robinson

December 13, 2012 "
Chicago Tribune" --  It may well be true, as recent news reports tell us, that Bashar al-Assad's regime in Damascus, increasingly desperate in the face of an unrelenting rebel onslaught, is prepared to use chemical weapons against its own citizens. The Syrian leader himself, all the main power brokers in his government, and virtually all of the country's military officer corps come from a long-persecuted minority that legitimately fears that this war is a matter of "kill or be killed" for the Alawites, who make up around 12 percent of Syria's population. The Alawites left what is now Iraq a millennium ago and settled in the dusty hills of northwest Syria overlooking the Mediterranean. A doubly heretical sect in the eyes of orthodox Sunni Muslims -- as an offshoot of Shiite Islam -- the Alawites lived an isolated existence for centuries as their religion evolved to reflect various folk traditions.

The Alawites have few defenders in the Arab world, both because of the unorthodox nature of their religion and because of the horrible nature of the Baathist regime they have controlled since the 1960s. Nor does it help that they are widely seen as pawns of Iranian interests in the region. The regime's fall -- which is still far from certain -- will not be widely mourned in the Arab world, outside of Tehran and in Hezbollah circles.

The fall of the House of Assad will likely be celebrated by many in the West. But banking on the well-heeled Syrian expatriate community to come to power for any length of time is a losing bet. The exiles may have won the support of the Obama administration and others, but have little chance of holding power in Syria for any length of time, barring international occupation of the country. And nobody thinks the United States has any appetite to occupy another Arab country militarily, even for a relatively short period of time.

In other words, forget about the ex-pats. The people that will ultimately take power in Syria are the armed men who control the country's streets, villages and towns right now. They do not speak with a single voice, and are often people just looking to protect their families and communities from the Assads' onslaught. As for the rebel "Free Syrian Army," it is no army at all in the sense of having any kind of command and control over its constituent units.

What about the budding terrorist groups we hear so often about? The specter of foreign jihadis -- al-Qaida and its fellow travellers -- infiltrating the Syrian opposition and coming to power in Damascus is a silly, unrealistic notion promoted by those overeager to send in the U.S. Marines to Latakia. There is little evidence that foreign jihadis represent anything more than a sliver of those fighting the Assad regime.

But Syria does not need foreign jihadis and radical Islamists -- it has more than enough of the home-grown variety. This is where people so often miss the nature of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, easily the most coherent political force in Syria's opposition today. It is an organization stuck in a time warp from 1982, when it lost the last round of Syria's long civil war, and has been waiting for its chance at revenge. Syria's Muslim Brotherhood is not like its analogues in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan or Morocco; it has not been part of the political process for decades, "tamed" by having to get its hands dirty in the everyday stuff of politics. It has been a capital offense to be a member or give any support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria for three decades. As a result, the organization is secretive and opaque, and it's not clear how much its cadres inside the country interact with its exiled leadership.

Many of the fighters currently battling the Syrian regime honed their guerrilla skills in Iraq, learning urban combat techniques fighting Americans in Iraq from 2003 to 2007. Those who were not killed in Iraq made their way back to Syria (the largest entry point for foreign jihadis entering Iraq during that war), and have taken up arms against their own regime. Their ability to kill a large number of regime forces from the outset of this current round of civil war is indicative of the skill set they already possessed 19 months ago. The body count of 4:1 during the early months of this civil war -- that is, four opponents killed for every soldier killed -- is quite good for unorganized insurgent groups.

In fact, the insurgents might be too good. Neither Syria nor the region would be well served by a decisive victory by either the Assad regime or by the opposition. Breathless supporters of Syria's revolution need to be careful what they wish for. The most powerful elements of Syria's armed opposition would almost certainly be no friend of liberal democracy were they to seize power for themselves. Consider this: The dissidents who brought down autocratic governments in Egypt and Tunisia, even the political Islamists among them, were far more politically liberal than what we see in Syria. And look at those countries now.

What, then? It is not fashionable to say so, but a negotiated outcome remains the best solution to end the killing and prevent the worst elements from either side ruling Syria. An outright opposition victory would likely produce a momentary air of euphoria before the steep decline toward autocracy and darkness begin.

Robinson is associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. This article is adapted from his essay "Syria's Long Civil War," in the December 2012 of Current History.

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