Washington has a notoriously short attention span for foreign crises. Last year Syria was displaced in the headlines by fighting in Gaza. Gaza in turn was eclipsed by Ukraine. Then Ukraine became old news with the rise of ISIS. ISIS now takes a back seat to political drama over the Iran nuclear deal.
This wandering focus of attention doesn’t mean the Syrian conflict has gone away. But it does mean that Syria often is seen only in light of the obsessions du jour, namely Iran or the Obama Administration’s non-strategy against ISIS
For example, the suggestion has been made that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the big winner of the nuclear agreement with Iran, and therefore the U.S. should accelerate efforts for “regime change” in Syria, a la Libya and Iraq. Ditto the notion that ISIS can only be eliminated by overthrowing the Assad government, whose forces are fighting ISIS, as well as against kindred foreign-supported jihadist groups like the al-Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda.
But Syria is not a mere sideshow for Iran or ISIS, or just a battlefield for a regional Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict championed respectively by Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Syrian nation is a rich, diverse cultural tapestry with a five-thousand-year-old history. It cannot be reduced to a stick-figure caricature.
Mr. Assad’s imminent demise has been wrongly prophesied for over four years now. Stepped-up efforts to overthrow the Damascus government are likely to remain futile, but they would prolong the conflict, kill more innocent Syrians, and impel even more desperate people to flee to Europe. Such efforts would also further strengthen violent jihadists — including ISIS — supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf States.
Some of our supposed “allies” in the struggle against ISIS are its biggest enablers and financiers. For example, former CIA officer Philip Giraldi has documented that funds are openly raised for ISIS in Istanbul neighborhoods and exports of oil via Turkey are ISIS’ financial lifeline.
The Syrian Arab Army is the main “boots on the ground” force fighting ISIS. (Kurdish militias also opposing ISIS in northern Syria are being bombed by our Turkish “ally.”) As observed by Robert Merry of The National Interest, “if the Islamic State [ISIS] is our enemy, then Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is not.” Why isn’t that obvious to more people in Washington?
Likewise, the survival of the Syrian government cannot be reduced simply to a “win” for Iran. While it is in Iran’s — and America’s — strategic interest that groups like al-Nusra or ISIS not take over Syria, Mr. Assad is not an Iranian puppet. The administration he heads is not a theocracy but a secular, nationalist government relying on the support of members of all of Syria’s communities, including majority Sunnis.
The Syrian government would not last a day without the support of millions of Sunnis in the army, in the security services, in the global diplomatic service, in business, and in national life generally. What kind of “Alawite minority regime” (as it is often mischaracterized) has a Sunni Prime Minister Wael Nader al-Halqi, a Sunni Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, a Sunni Defense Minister Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij — and a Sunni First Lady, Asma al-Assad?
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Some outside powers (notably Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, that well-known paragon of democracy) want Syria’s agony to be seen as a sectarian clash. But for Syrians it is not. To be sure, Alawites, Christians, Shiites and other communities would be eliminated wholesale if the jihadists were to be victorious. But that would be the least of America’s problems if Syriaturns into another failed state like Libya or, as Virginia State Sen. Richard Black has warned, if the black flag of ISIS or al-Qaeda is hoisted over Damascus.
It’s time for U.S. policymakers, as they consider the pluses and minuses of the Iran nuclear deal and how to counter ISIS, to view the Syrian conflict with fresh eyes. The Syrian government is not America’s enemy but the jihadists it is fighting are. There is no such thing as a “moderate” terrorist. It’s time to make a deal with the al-Assad government and pressure our allies to stop supporting the terrorists.
• Mounzer Ahmad is chairman of the Syrian American Will Association (SAWA).