Smoke billows over Damascus.

Smoke billows over Damascus. AP

Obama’s quagmire: Syria and the Islamist arc

Hammered on leadership, the president struggles for a Middle East policy.

U.S. and Western diplomats are concerned that the longer Bashar al-Assad hangs on to his failing regime in Damascus, the more likely it is that the aftermath of the Syrian rebellion will be dominated by Islamist elements, completing an arc of newly empowered radical groups along the southern half of the Mediterranean from Libya to Syria.

And more and more, the fast-moving events on the ground in Syria may be having an impact on a U.S. presidential election that most analysts thought would once be focused almost entirely on the economy, as Republican nominee Mitt Romney continues his assault on Obama’s Middle East policies. “It’s been over a year since the president said Bashar al-Assad must go,” Dan Senor, a senior Romney adviser on foreign policy, said Friday on CBS’s This Morning. “He’s still in power. America looks impotent in the region. President Romney would look to do more to help the opposition movement on the ground in Syria, working with our allies like the Turks, the Saudis, to get the opposition more training, more resources, more weapons.”

Obama officials, joined by Western diplomats working on the problem, argue that Romney’s approach is absurdly simplistic, in large part because no one knows what kind of regime would follow Assad, nor which “end users” would inherit any Western weaponry supplied to the opposition. As a cautionary tale, they point to the rise of other Islamist political groups, led by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, that have taken power in nations transformed by the Arab Spring. 

According to a senior Western official who recently met with opposition leaders in liberated areas of Syria, the diplomatic arguments between the U.S. and France on one hand, and Russia, a longtime Assad ally, on the other, increasingly focus on this point, especially as the Assad regime grows weaker. Each side draws different conclusions from the massive protests and attacks in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and other countries in recent weeks against U.S. and Western interests that took the lives of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. “The Russians argue that we must stick with Assad to prevent the rise of the Islamists. We say any continuation of Bashar’s policies [the bloody suppression and mass killings] will only cause a more Islamic outcome.”

There may be no getting around such an outcome in any case. “In the last four decades, Islamists brilliantly positioned themselves as the alternative to the failed secular ‘authoritarian bargain,’ " Fawaz Gerges, director of the Mideast Center at the London School of Economics, writes in a new essay, “The Islamist Moment.” “They have already won majorities of parliamentary seats in a number of countries, including Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco, and will likely make further gains in Libya, Jordan, and maybe even in Syria after the dust settles on the raging battlefield there.”

A takeover by such groups in Syria is far from certain. As in Egypt, which recently installed a Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, Syria’s exiled Muslim Brotherhood has long carried with it the political prestige of being the only organized group to have opposed the regime over the decades. Emblazoned in the national memory of Syrians is the massacre in the city of Hama in 1982, when the regime of then-President Hafez Assad ordered the deaths of tens of thousands of Brotherhood loyalists. Today, the Brotherhood controls about one-fourth of the Syrian National Council, the largest Syrian opposition group. At the same time, however, Christian and Alawite minorities make up a much larger portion of Syria’s population than they do in Egypt, along with Bedouin tribes and Kurds that are also less likely to back the Brotherhood.

Even so, the longer the horrific civil war in Syria goes on while the West stands aside, the more the rebels who ultimately inherit power will be prone to anti-American, possibly jihadist, sentiments. The fear is that what began as a largely secular, diverse rebellion could devolve into a struggle between Islamist political groups dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, as occurred in Egypt.

Obama’s Syria headache is yet more evidence that, when it comes to U.S. interests, the nearly 2-year-old Arab Spring has proved to be an inherently ambiguous development, one that virtually dictates an ambivalent response. In effect, Washington has had to trade off U.S.-friendly autocrats like Hosni Mubarak for relatively unfriendly democrats like Morsi. “We can’t support democracy and not support the people who win the elections,” said an Obama official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But that said, we have made clear to these governments they have obligations they need to meet, like maintaining the peace treaty with Israel, upholding minority rights and other progress in transition."

Still, all these ambiguities haven’t stopped Romney from inveighing against Obama’s alleged vacillation, and insisting that the solution would be a tougher U.S. response that Romney says the region has been seeking. “They’ve been calling out for American leadership for a long time,” Senor said on CBS.

That’s nonsense, administration supporters say. “People have this false notion that we’re either arming the [Syrian] rebels or doing nothing. The real truth is we’re actually doing quite a bit,” said the Obama official. “We’re providing a lot of non-lethal resources, including communications equipment, and helping them become more organized. And part of the process is we’re getting to know them better.” Calls for more arms to the rebels or a no-fly zone—which will be a topic of discussion at next week’s annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly—ignore the perils of such policies, especially Western air support, this official says. “The Syrian air defenses are sophisticated. And unlike Libya, it’s not opposition in one part of the country and government troops in another. They’re all kind of mixed in.”  

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to call for tougher action in Syria at the U.N. next week. Even so, Western officials say there is no momentum for a no-fly zone or policy of arming the rebels.

Obama has also sought to leverage U.S. aid in getting Islamist leaders such as Egypt’s Morsi to protect U.S. diplomats and interests in the aftermath of the Libya attacks. “When the rubber hit the road, the president called Morsi and got results,” the official said. But even as Morsi has gingerly acceded to some of Obama’s demands, he has also called for the arrest of the makers of the anti-Islam video that has provoked so much violence across the Muslim world in recent days.

In Syria, of course, Assad has been unfriendly to U.S. interests, and an ally of Iran, so his departure from power might not be of as much concern as Mubarak’s was in Egypt. But U.S. officials fear that the witch’s brew of ethnic and tribal communities that make up Syria could signal a long-term stalemate in which violent extremists feel freer to operate, especially if Assad and his remaining loyalists retreat from Damascus into a rump state controlled by his Alawite minority.