Hillary Clinton recently reignited the who-lost-Syria debate when she suggested that President Barack Obama made a mistake in not intervening more forcefully early in the Syrian civil war by arming the pro-democracy rebels. I’ve been skeptical about such an intervention — skeptical that there were enough of these “mainstream insurgents,” skeptical that they could ever defeat President Bashar Assad’s army and the Islamists and govern Syria. So if people try to sell you on it, ask them these questions before you decide if you are with Ms. Clinton or Mr. Obama:
1. Can they name the current leader of the Syrian National Coalition, the secular, moderate opposition, and the first three principles of its political platform? Extra credit if they can name the last year that the leader of the SNC resided in Syria. Hint: It’s several decades ago.
2. Can they explain why Israel — a country next door to Syria that has better intelligence on Syria than anyone and could be as affected by the outcome there as anyone — has chosen not to bet on the secular, moderate Syrian rebels or arm them enough to topple Assad?
3. The United States invaded Iraq with more than 100,000 troops, replaced its government with a new one, suppressed its Islamist extremists and trained a “moderate” Iraqi army, but, the minute we left, Iraq’s “moderate” prime minister turned sectarian. Yet, in Syria, Iraq’s twin, we’re supposed to believe that the moderate insurgents could have toppled Assad and governed Syria without any U.S. boots on the ground, only arming the good rebels. Really?
4. How could the good Syrian rebels have triumphed in Syria when the main funders of so many rebel groups there — Qatar and Saudi Arabia — are Sunni fundamentalist monarchies that oppose the very sort of democratic, pluralistic politics in their own countries that the decent Syrian rebels aspire to build in Syria?
5. Even if we had armed Syrian moderates, how could they have defeated a coalition of the Syrian Alawite army and gangs, backed by Russia, backed by Iran, backed by Hezbollah — all of whom play by “Hama Rules,” which are no rules at all — without the United States having to get involved?
6. How is it that some 15,000 Muslim men, from across the Muslim world, have traveled to Syria to fight for jihadism and none have walked there to fight for pluralism, yet the Syrian moderates would not only have been able to defeat the Assad regime — had we only armed them properly — but also this entire jihadist foreign legion?
The notion that the only reason that the Islamist militias emerged in Syria is because we created a vacuum by not adequately arming the secular rebels is laughable nonsense. Syria has long had its own Sunni fundamentalist underground. In 1982, when then-President Hafez al-Assad perpetrated the Hama massacre, it was in an effort to wipe out those Syrian Islamists. So, yes, there are cultural roots for pluralism in Syria — a country with many Christian and secular Muslims — but there’s also the opposite. Do not kid yourself.
That is why on a brief visit to Darkush, Syria, in December 2012, I was told by the local Free Syrian Army commander, Muatasim Bila Abul Fida, that even after Assad’s regime is toppled there would be another war in Syria: “It will take five or six years,” he added, because the Islamist parties “want Shariah, and we want democracy.” There were always going to be two civil wars there: The liberals and jihadists against Assad and the liberals and jihadists against each other.
Don’t get me wrong. My heart is with the brave Syrian liberals who dared to take to the streets and demand regime change — unarmed. These are decent, good people, the kind you would like to see running Syria. But it would take a lot more than better arms for them to defeat Assad and the jihadists.
Here Iraq is instructive. You need to go back to the 2010 elections there when Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, who ran with Sunnis, Shiites and Christians on a moderate, pluralistic platform — like Syria’s moderates — actually won more seats than his main competitor, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
What enabled that? I’ll tell you: The United States decapitated Saddam’s regime, then helped to midwife an Iraqi constitution and elections, while U.S. (and Iraqi) special forces either arrested or killed the worst Sunni and Shiite extremists. We took out both extremes without reading them their Miranda rights. That is what gave Iraq’s moderate center the space, confidence and ability to back multi-sectarian parties, which is what many Iraqis wanted. When our troops left, though, that center couldn’t hold.
I don’t want U.S. troops in Syria any more than anyone else, but I have no respect for the argument that just arming some pro-democracy rebels would have gotten the job done. Yes, there has been a price for President Obama’s inaction. But there is a price for effective action as well, which the critics have to be honest about. It’s called an international force. We are dealing not only with states that have disintegrated but with whole societies — and rebuilding them is the mother of all nation-building projects. Will the ends, will the means. Otherwise, you’re not being serious.
Thomas L. Friedman is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.