The United States must immediately end all—and I mean all—support for the Syrian rebels. It should abandon them to their fate, whatever that might be. It should avoid getting involved, just as it abandoned Eastern European anti-Soviet rebellions in 1956 and 1968, just as it cut off Kurdish anti-Saddam separatists in the early 1970s and Shiite anti-Saddam rebels in 1991. And just as it didn’t intervene, thank goodness, in the 2009 Green Movement uprising in Iran.
What’s happening in Syria has transformed, inch by inch, from an Arab Spring–type rebellion against an autocrat, à la Tunisia and Egypt, into a full-fledged civil war. In that war, one side is amply backed by Iran, Russia and, it now appears, Iraq. And the other side is supported by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Arab Persian Gulf kleptocracies.
Note any pattern? Yes, Sunni vs. Shiite. The United States is now engaged nearly completely in a sectarian, region-wide conflict pitting anti-American, Shiite powers and their allies against a Sunni bloc, including the Muslim Brotherhood. In Syria, the opposition is heavily influenced by, if not dominated by, the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni militants, including a smattering of Al Qaeda types. And it’s now getting the full-throated support of the Egyptian president, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, too.
As David Ignatius points out , the war in Syria is nearly identical to the 1980s US-backed jihad against the Soviet-backed government, and we know how that turned out: a thirty-years’ war, 1 million dead and a shattered nation that won’t recover for a generation or two. Among the points that Ignatius makes, correctly, in “Syria’s eerie parallel to 1980s Afghanistan” are: that CIA stations outside the country are funneling aid to rebels, that Saudi Arabia and its intelligence service are orchestrating and funding the revolt, and more:
The parallels are spooky. In Syria, as in Afghanistan, CIA officers are operating at the borders (in this case, mostly in Jordan and Turkey), helping Sunni insurgents improve their command and control and engaging in other activities. Weapons are coming from third parties (in Afghanistan, they came mostly from China and Egypt; in Syria, they’re mainly bought on the black market). And finally, a major financier for both insurgencies has been Saudi Arabia.
There’s even a colorful figure who links the two campaigns: Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who as Saudi ambassador to Washington in the 1980s worked to finance and support the CIA in Afghanistan and who now, as chief of Saudi intelligence, is encouraging operations in Syria.
And, Ignatius warns : “The United States should be cautious about embracing the Sunni-vs.-Shiite dynamic of the Syrian war.”
That’s spot on. Already, the United States is stupidly turning the screws on Baghdad, whose sectarian Shiite government, already close to Iran, is allowing what US officials say are daily flights to Damascus across Iraqi airspace from Tehran. Reports Michael R. Gordon of the New York Times :
“It’s something we’ve raised with the Iraqis in great detail,” said Patrick Ventrell, the deputy State Department spokesman, referring to the flights. The simplest solution, he added, would be for the Iraqis “to require these aircraft to land and be inspected in Iraqi territory.”
So far, Prime Minister Maliki has ignored US demands about the flights, including directly in a meeting with the Senate’s Holy Hawkish Trinity, Joe Lieberman, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who, Gordon reports , “also sought to reinforce the administration’s case in a closed-door meeting with Mr. Maliki in Baghdad on Tuesday.”
More and more, the Syrian rebellion is being reinforced by a flow of militants from Sunni Iraq, including its most radical Islamist elements who, in 2006–07, led the Al Qaeda–type Islamic Emirate of Iraq. Does the United States really want to get embroiled in a region-wide Sunni-Shiite war? Hawks and armchair geopoliticians in the Obama administration apparently believe that toppling the government of President Assad in Syria will deal a severe blow to Iran, and they’re right. And Iran knows it. But that will only box Iran in more rightly, reinforce Iranian hawks and wreck negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
The New York Times carries an important piece today  about Muwafaq Mahadin and other Arab intellectuals who initially backed the revolt in Syria, in 2011, but who’ve now come to oppose it because it has developed into a worldwide battle over Syria involving the US-Saudi coalition of the willing. Reports Aida Alami:
Over the years he spent in Damascus, Mr. Mahadin built strong ties with the Syrian opposition. He says the revolt in Syria was initially a spontaneous uprising of the street but was later hijacked by international powers. Mr. Mahadin is just one of a number of leftist, anti-imperialist intellectuals who believe that the Syrian rebellion is being led by Islamists aligned with the West, manipulated by Gulf states including Qatar and Saudi Arabia on the behalf of the United States and Israel, in order to gain dominance in the region.
A group of 230 influential figures have signed an open letter in the press demanding that Jordan stand with Syria in the face of a global conspiracy.
Assad is hardly an anti-imperialist hero, and his regime is brutal. But so were the Soviet-backed governments in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, in Iraq in 1975 and 1991 and in Iran in 2009.
Meanwhile, President Morsi of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood–led regime in Cairo is doubling down on his anti-Assad comments , which he highlighted in his recent speech in Tehran during the Nonaligned Movement meeting, signaling to the entire regional Brotherhood, including those in Syria, that Egypt will back the revolution. As McClatchy reports :
Morsi shocked his Iranian hosts by addressing the Syria situation in a speech to NAN delegates. He called the Government of Bashar al-Assad an “oppressive regime.” Iran is a major backer of Assad.
Are Americans so uninvolved in foreign policy these days that they’ll ignore or, worse, support, another American-led intervention overseas, after debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq? Seems so.
If the United States wants to speak out on behalf of the Syrian rebels, as it did with the Green Movement in Iran in 2009, fine. But otherwise, hands off.