Every time I visit the United States, I find without fail that the public’s awareness of the Middle East reflects a pattern that has two dimensions. The majority, which does not follow events in the region, invariably expresses those images that it absorbs from simplistic media coverage of events, usually with phrases like, “Are they ever going to solve the problems over there?” or, “Are things any quieter now over there?” to which the easiest reply is, “Oh, not really, but we hope for the best.”Those Americans who do follow events in the Middle East, however, tend to focus on only one issue at a time, perhaps because it is easier to see it in terms of single issues isolated in time and political context, rather than view the complexities and nuances of our region as they really are: interconnected, fluid and mostly negotiable, among a range of situations and actors such as Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the March 14 and March 8 alliances in Lebanon, the warring sides in Syria, and Iraq’s fragile condition in the run-up to President Barack Obama’s visit to the Middle East this month.
At the start of my current trip in the U.S. the single question that preoccupies Middle East-watchers there is what to do about Syria, and whether or not the United States should provide military assistance to the opposition groups fighting to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad. The issue is topical given the current trip to the Middle East of Secretary of State John Kerrey, who has met with the head of the main political opposition group in Syria, the Syrian National Coalition. Kerry also announced $60 million in nonlethal aid to help the opposition improve services for citizens in liberated areas.
The big question people ask is whether the U.S. should provide military aid to help the Syrian rebels improve their chances of defeating the Assad family regime. The hesitancy of the Obama administration to do this (beyond the military training that is widely assumed to be under way in Jordan) is a classic example of why American foreign policy in the Middle East is so erratic, often leading to the growth of groups that feed off anti-American sentiments.
The U.S. is reluctant to offer direct military aid to the rebels because it fears weapons might fall into the hands of groups the United States does not like, especially Islamist groups such as the Nusra Front or smaller groups with alleged affinities to Al-Qaeda that have grown rapidly in the past year and now spearhead military advances in parts of Syria. Presumably, that is because the U.S. does not want to arm Islamist or other unfriendly groups who might agitate against the U.S. or its allies, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia or Jordan.
That sounds like a reasonable policy, but in reality it is a total failure. In fact it brings about precisely that outcome that Washington says it wishes to avoid – the rise to prominence, or even dominance, of those Islamist groups the U.S. dislikes. So as the U.S. speaks boldly about bringing down the Assad regime, but does little on the critical military front to help bring this about, Islamist and other rebel groups whom the U.S. dislikes have received plenty of arms and made sustained gains militarily. They have therefore won the confidence of ordinary people across the land, enhancing the likelihood that these groups will dominate the post-Assad system of power.
The wiser policy for the U.S. and other foreign states that oppose the Assad regime is simply to provide plenty of arms and other forms of military assistance (such as satellite intelligence) to groups it is already dealing with, such as the Syrian National Coalition, the Syrian National Council or the Free Syrian Army. If some weapons slip through to other groups, so be it – because withholding U.S. arms is not slowing down the acquisition of weapons by the Islamist and other groups the U.S. dislikes. American aid to the mainstream rebels, in turn, will enhance the likelihood of these groups dominating the post-Assad governance system, and of cordial ties between the U.S. and the new government that will arise in Damascus.
American officials have been naive in withholding arms and criticizing rising Syrian Islamists, while expecting everything to work out for the best in the end. In reality, Washington may wake up to a situation in a post-Assad Syria in which it is ignored, criticized and marginalized for not helping the rebels when they urgently needed military help. This may facilitate the dominance over Syria of Islamists and other “bad guys” in American eyes. It is hard to think of a more simplistic, ineffective and counterproductive policy than the one the U.S. is now pursuing.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. You can follow him on Twitter @RamiKhouri.