Today, let's step through the looking glass for a moment and imagine what the reaction of the United States to the ongoing crisis in Syria might look like if the regime of Bashar al-Assad were an ally of the United States, rather than an opponent closely linked to our enemy du jour, Iran. Perhaps the media coverage might look something like this:
(NNC) – The Syrian army today staged a daring counterstrike against anti-regime rebels in a pitched battle for control over the country's economic hub, Aleppo. The Syrian offensive came just days after the army was able to successfully repel a drive by Islamist-backed militias to seize the capital, Damascus, which began with a suicide bomb assassination attempt directed against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and top ranking members of his cabinet. The 17-month old insurgency has gained strength in recent months as the rebels have begun to receive aid from al-Qaeda linked militias, and started to use advanced improvised explosive devices (IEDs) like those previously used by al-Qaeda against US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan...
Of course this isn't how the conflict is being reported. The US government has set up a simple dichotomy, which has been largely echoed by major US media outlets in their coverage: The Assad regime is bad, therefore those who are opposing it are good and are deserving of our support. It may make for an easy-to-understand framework in which to drop the events taking place in Syria, but sadly real-life is seldom as black-and-white as this, especially in the Middle East.
This isn't to say that the Assad regime is not deserving of criticism; there is compelling evidence that it has been brutal in response to those who would oppose it, perhaps its responses should even be considered as crimes against humanity. Nor is this to say that those opposing the regime under the banner of the Free Syrian Army do not wish for a brighter future for their country; though the FSA has some troubling allies and has employed some very questionable tactics in their struggle against the Assad regime.
Looking at the latter first; the United States, in both government policy and media coverage, has accepted the Free Syria Army as the legitimate expression of the will of the Syrian people and as a better alternative than the Assad regime. Here, the US is following the playbook laid down in Libya, when the National Transitional Council was backed in their drive to depose Moammar Gadhafi, another long-standing member of the US enemies list. The US backed the NTC without really knowing who they were (at the time one US senator claimed that the NTC's website said they were good guys, which was apparently proof enough for him).
The loosely-organized FSA is equally as shadowy. While the FSA's ranks surely include individuals who suffered either personally under the brutal state security apparatus of the Assad regime, along with those displaced from their homes by the fighting during the 17-month Syrian uprising, the FSA has some troubling friends as well. On their website, Time published this report outlining the FSA's links to two Islamist groups with possible ties to al-Qaeda: Jabhat al-Nusra li Ahl Ash-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham. This allegation is bolstered by accounts from both The Guardian and Russia Today about Islamist involvement in the Syrian conflict: in Russia Today, photojournalist Jeroen Oerlemans, who was held captive by an unnamed Islamist group before being handed over to the FSA, said that he saw many foreign fighters within the Islamists' ranks, some of them speaking in British accents; The Guardian, meanwhile, reports that the Islamists' ranks have been bolstered by veteran jihadis from the conflict in Iraq.
All the reports indicate that the recent success of the FSA is due to the Islamists, who have brought military tactics to the otherwise disorganized FSA along with familiar jihadi weapons like car bombs and IEDs. For example, according to The Guardian, Islamists forged a link with one FSA militia by providing them with a truck bomb the FSA used to eliminate a Syrian army outpost in the town of Mohassen. While many in the FSA aren't happy with their new Islamist partners, they see them as necessary for the FSA's success; the Islamists though seem to be planning for the day after the fall of Assad when they can ditch their ineffective FSA partners and establish a fundamentalist Islamic state in Syria.
Speaking of Assad, as stated earlier, it would be false to argue that he (and his father before him) did not run an oppressive state noted for the brutality with which it treated dissenters. For the United States to now stand against Assad for this reason though smacks of hypocrisy, though hypocrisy has long been a hallmark of US relations within the MENA/Persian Gulf region. The United States may have cheered on uprisings against geopolitical foes like Bashar al-Assad and Moammar Gadhafi; but the reaction was different when the Arab Spring threatened to roll into the tiny Gulf state of Bahrain – long a US ally and host to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet. When the Bahrani royal family brutally put down pro-democracy protests, including the use of live ammunition against unarmed protesters and the arrest of doctors who then tried to treat the wounded, the US offered only the meekest of public rebukes. It didn't hurt the Bahrani royals cause that they are closely allied with the Saudi royal family (renowned autocrats in their own right) and that the pro-democracy protesters were overwhelmingly from Bahrain's Shi'ite population. In short, the United States cannot plausibly argue that merely being a Mid-East autocrat is reason to earn American support an uprising within your country.
So why is the United States so whole-heartedly supporting the uprising in Syria as it did those in Libya and (belatedly) Egypt, even though in the latter two this has helped to pave the way for Islamist factions to become part of the ruling structure of the country, a pattern that will likely repeat in Syria? This article from The New Republic of Russian views of the US and the Arab Spring offers some interesting insights. The Russian opinion is basically that the United States has a naïve belief in the power of democracy, especially when attempts are made to bring this system of governance to the Mid-East.
In a sense, this isn't surprising. Three centuries ago the citizens of what would become the United States rose up against what they considered to be an oppressive power and things have turned out pretty well for us. Perhaps it is that innate American sense of optimism (rather than the Russian interpretation of American naivety) that makes Americans believe these uprisings will have a similar positive outcome. This belief colors American media coverage of the uprisings, which in turn affects political views of the events, which feeds back into shaping the media coverage, helping to create the simplistic struggle of good versus evil narrative.
Reality though is far more nuanced and complex and the old saw about relations in the Mid-East: the enemy of my enemy is my friend, isn't a good foundation on which to build a foreign policy. The recent record of United States interventions within the Islamic world is not good – Iraq and Afghanistan have failed to become the functioning representative democracies we were promised (in fairness, it is too early still to pass judgment on Libya). Yet as of the writing of this essay, the news is breaking about a covert operation by the US government to support and supply the FSA, evidence that when it comes to the Mid-East, the United States will continue to pursue some questionable strategies.
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Human Rights, Libya, Syria, Terrorism, US Foreign Policy, Bashar al-Assad