Why the U.S. Still Can’t Ignore the Crisis in Syria

March 13 2019

Both Presidents Obama and Trump have warmed to the idea of American disengagement from the Middle East, an option that seems to have no small degree of public support. In an interview with Robert Nicholson, Frederic Hof argues that the Syrian civil war demonstrates precisely why such a policy is unfeasible:

If Syria followed Las Vegas rules—what happens there stays there—withdrawal from the Middle East might be a realistic [proposition]. But nothing that’s happened there has stayed inside the country. Friends and allies of the U.S. have been flooded with refugees. A 2015 mass migratory crisis—60 percent Syrian—washed over Western Europe and changed politics there in ways Russian President Vladimir Putin applauded.

Mass civilian homicide and the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime may have set new standards for ensuring the survival of brutal regimes around the world. And the U.S. intelligence community believes that Islamic State and al-Qaeda—both beneficiaries of Bashar al-Assad’s misrule—present security threats to the American homeland, as do Assad’s supporters Iran and Hizballah.

To Nicholson’s question about the often heard but highly debatable claim that Assad is the great protector of Syrian Christians, Hof responds:

Many Syrian Christians—including some of my closest Syrian friends—continue to support the Assad regime. Do they support mass murder? No. Do they support detention facilities featuring Nazi-like methods? No. Do they support starvation and medical deprivation sieges? No. Do they support chronic incompetence and pervasive corruption? No. But here is the key question: have they seen an attractive alternative to Assad? No.

Some regional powers took advantage of an uprising that was initially entirely non-sectarian and pro-Syria to support Islamists; these regional powers wanted stooges and employees. They ended up helping Assad enormously by all but erasing respectable alternatives to his rule, by helping Assad militarize the conflict, and by helping the dregs of Syrian society become the key actors on both sides. Assad has been the big beneficiary. His behavior has contradicted every element of the Christian Gospel. But it is understandable that many Syrian Christians, fearing jihadist alternatives, have continued to back the devil they know.

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More about: Bashar al-Assad, Middle East Christianity, Politics & Current Affairs, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy

What Egypt’s Withdrawal from the “Arab NATO” Signifies for U.S. Strategy

A few weeks ago, Egypt quietly announced its withdrawal from the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), a coalition—which also includes Jordan, the Gulf states, and the U.S.—founded at President Trump’s urging to serve as an “Arab NATO” that could work to contain Iran. Jonathan Ariel notes three major factors that most likely contributed to Egyptian President Sisi’s abandonment of MESA: his distrust of Donald Trump (and concern that Trump might lose the 2020 election) and of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; Cairo’s perception that Iran does not pose a major threat to its security; and the current situation in Gaza:

Gaza . . . is ruled by Hamas, defined by its covenant as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.” Sisi has ruthlessly persecuted the Brotherhood in Egypt. [But] Egypt, despite its dependence on Saudi largesse, has continued to maintain its ties with Qatar, which is under Saudi blockade over its unwillingness to toe the Saudi line regarding Iran. . . . Qatar is also supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, . . . and of course Hamas.

[Qatar’s ruler] Sheikh Tamim is one of the key “go-to guys” when the situation in Gaza gets out of hand. Qatar has provided the cash that keeps Hamas solvent, and therefore at least somewhat restrained. . . . In return, Hamas listens to Qatar, which does not want it to help the Islamic State-affiliated factions involved in an armed insurrection against Egyptian forces in northern Sinai. Egypt’s military is having a hard enough time coping with the insurgency as it is. The last thing it needs is for Hamas to be given a green light to cooperate with Islamic State forces in Sinai. . . .

Over the past decade, ever since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, Israel has also been gradually placing more and more chips in its still covert but growing alliance with Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s decision to pull out of MESA should give it cause to reconsider. Without Egypt, MESA has zero viability unless it is to include either U.S. forces or Israeli ones. [But] one’s chances of winning the lottery seem infinitely higher than those of MESA’s including the IDF. . . . Given that Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest and militarily most powerful state and its traditional leader, has clearly indicated its lack of confidence in the Saudi leadership, Israel should urgently reexamine its strategy in this regard.

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More about: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy