Sunday, August 17, 2014

Should the U.S. Arm Syria to fight ISIS?

ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is no ordinary group of rebels bent on becoming a new government. ISIS is ultra-violent and ultra-orthodox, and worse still, ultra-competent in both military and economic matters.

Sometimes the least bad choice is the best choice. ISIS is clearly (from our secular, freedom-and-equality oriented American perspective) the worst choice for governance of the Arabic/Islamic nations.

It could be argued that Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally, and that the rulers of Saudi Arabia are as religiously oppressive and dictatorial as ISIS. We believe the U.S. should not be allied with the Saudis, but then again they have grown soft on their oil money and don't represent a regional threat. We should continue to recognize the de facto, if democratically illegitimate, government of Saudi Arabia.

When it come to ISIS we have choices, both short term and long term. In the short term the only realistic choices are supporting the de facto governments of Iraq and Syria.

The Syrian government has long opposed U.S. and Israeli foreign policy, but for good reason. The Arabs have been beat up by European nations and the U.S. for about two centuries now. People are angry, and that anger has now been distilled into ISIS.

The Syrian government is headed by Bashar al-Assad, and in some ways resembles a dictatorship. But opposition parties are allowed to participate in elections, and Assad seems to be genuinely popular among much of Syria's population. In particular, when it comes to religion Assad has been non-sectarian, more so than most U.S. politicians.

ISIS was able to grow in strength in Syria because of the civil war against the Assad regime that broke out after the Arab Spring. That civil war has devastated the country, but it has not lead to the pro-U.S. rebels replacing the current government. At this point in time the pro-U.S. rebels are rapidly being squeezed between ISIS and the government of Syria.

President Obama, in consultation with those few members of Congress who are not suffering from hardening of the brain, should make a dramatic change in U.S. policy.

By giving support to Assad, including both military and economic support, the U.S. could put a stop to ISIS before it gets further out of control. ISIS running Syria, or Iraq, or Syria and Iraq, would be a disaster and would probably lead to an ISIS takeover of Jordan and then Saudi Arabia. With all those resources, global Islamic jihad would certainly be on the agenda.

U.S. support for Assad could be contingent on his government pardoning the pro-U.S. rebels and encouraging them to participate in the next election. The U.S. could give economic aid to compensate for the damage done. U.S. military aid would go a long way towards defeating ISIS. Done right, this might even eventually swing Syria into the U.S. camp, or at least into a tolerant neutrality.

Human rights activists will protest that the Assad regime has committed crimes against humanity. That might be true, but in a civil war it is hard to separate out civilians from resistance fighters. The U.S. failed to make that separation in its wars against Vietnam and the Philippines, and when it dropped firebombs and atomic bombs on the cities of Japan, and many, many other times. When the big fish have been fried, including George W. Bush, perhaps then we can go after the small fry.

If Assad defeats ISIS without U.S. aid, that would be fine, but it would create a long-term dynamic where Syria remains unfriendly to the U.S.

I simply would not bet on Assad' crew beating ISIS. It is too dangerous of a bet.

[Originally published at Mendoday]

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