Dan Simpson: Switch sides in Syria

The opposition is now our enemy, whom we no longer should support

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It’s time for America to change sides in Syria. The Bashar Assad regime remains brutal and unjust, but the Syrian opposition includes among the worst of America’s enemies and isn’t going to win in any case.

I realize that it isn’t like switching from supporting the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Cleveland Browns, but there is an adage from Ralph Waldo Emerson that catches it well, I think.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. Speak what you think today in words as hard as cannon balls, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks, in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.”

In the case of U.S. policy toward Syria, it could be put more simply as, “America should learn from experience.”

I can see how we got to where we are now. But I also think it is time to adjust course radically to reflect the realities of the current situation.

The first reason to change course draws to mind another line: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The fact of the matter is that, unspeakable though its methods may be, the Assad regime is now fighting terrorists (and radical anti-Americanism to boot) as it opposes the major fighting elements in the Syrian opposition.

Whether the geniuses in Washington should have figured this out before we signed on to the Syrian opposition is hard to say. They probably could have. Radicals in Saudi Arabia, the Salafists, who are among the most enthusiastic and generous of the Syrian opposition supporters, were also the fathers and godfathers of the 9/​11 attackers on the United States. (That little slip-up never cost the Saudis anything as far as I can see.)

Ironically enough, the beastly Assad regime, as well as the ayatollahs and the Revolutionary Guard in Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon for that matter, are resolutely opposed to the Sunni Islamist extremists who seem to be the only militarily effective part of the armed opposition in Syria. Like the dog chasing the car and catching it, if the side the United States supports in Syria were to win and get rid of the Assad regime, this probably would be the worst thing that’s happened to the United States — and Israel — in the Middle East since the Ottoman Empire folded.

Apart from the vicious, depraved elements in the armed Syrian opposition, there also is a sharp division between the ones blazing away and shouting “Allahu akbar!” in Syria and the ones in Geneva, who, in principle, define the positions that the alleged opposition takes to the table for negotiations with Assad crowd.

Let’s suppose that the exile Syrians were able to make a proposal that the Syrian government representatives, under the guidance of chief negotiator Lakhdar Brahimi, an old fox if there ever was one, found acceptable, is there any reason whatsoever to believe that the gunmen in the ruins of Aleppo would find it acceptable and stop shooting?

If it were possible, it would be nice for America to walk away from the mess in Syria. That, however, would be hard, given the words that President Barack Obama and the travel that Secretary of State John Kerry have devoted to the matter. Also, Americans — to their credit — do not tolerate well the ever-more-horrible suffering of innocent civilians that turns up in our media every day. Finally, even though the Saudis and the Persian Gulf emirs could probably turn on a dime in their positions on the Syrian conflict if they saw an advantage, some of their leaders would not take well to a major change of allegiance on Washington’s part.

Another adage would probably cross their minds, John Donne’s “… never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

They might conclude, for example, that the Americans quickly dumped Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, changed sides in the Syrian conflict without much strain and, thus, if the wolf were at their doors, the Americans might equally easily lock themselves in the bathroom and not defend them. That very thought might be in the heads of Bahrain’s Sunni rulers at this very moment, as the country’s majority Shiites once again take to the streets to demand a better deal. Bahrain is the headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet.

In other words, a shift in U.S. position at this point would have to be undertaken very carefully. It would require close consultation with the Saudis and the Gulf emirs in order to retain their confidence. It would require close coordination with Vladimir Putin and the Russians. He and Mr. Obama should probably meet in person, on neutral ground, after the Olympics. Or Mr. Obama could pay a quick visit to Sochi to talk with Mr. Putin.

The Syrian government would have to complete its pledge to get rid of all its chemical weapons, though, to provide Mr. Obama political cover. Mr. Putin probably would be very ready to push Bashar Assad around to get that if he saw that the Americans were pirouetting on Syria.

The long and short of it is that it is very much to America’s (and Israel’s) advantage to have peace and stability in Syria. That has been shown clearly to be unobtainable through regime change or unending conflict. So it is time to change direction. Our current course, even if it were to succeed — which it won’t — gets us absolutely nothing.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).

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