By Luke Brinker
As Syria descends further into civil war amid an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, support for military aid to that country’s rebels is being sounded by two of the Senate’s most reliable hawks. Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who along with Sen. Joe Lieberman are the Senate’s leading supporters of neoconservatism in foreign policy, are urging the US government to arm the Syrian opposition. This raises the question of just who the Syrian rebels are.
While there’s no denying that Assad is a vile, brutal dictator, policymakers should be wary of assuming that his opponents are upstanding people simply by virtue of being his opponents. As Peter Oborne writes in the Sunday Telegraph of London, US intelligence confirms that Al-Qaeda is actively plotting against the Syrian regime, and that the terrorist organization was likely behind two Damascus car bombings in which 50 people died. Al-Qaeda, a Sunni group, loathes the minority Alawites who compose the Assad regime, adding a sectarian dimension to the Syrian conflict. While neoconservative ideologues like McCain and Graham may frame Syria’s civil war as a contest between the forces reactionary dictatorship and liberal democracy, there is abundant evidence that Syria is convulsed by a theological, not ideological, war. David Warren of the Ottawa Citzen notes that the Sunni supremacists who dominate the opposition instill tremendous fear among Syrian religious minorities, including Christians. Syrian Christians, Warren writes, don’t necessarily harbor a deep love for Assad, but they’re savvy enough to realize that the collapse of his government may well mean the mass slaughter of non-Sunnis.
In the United States of Amnesia, the sectarian civil war in which Iraq found itself six years ago may be far too distant a memory to resonate with the likes of McCain and Graham. Perhaps, though, they would do well to consider a more recent instance in which the US committed itself to a course of action in the Arab world without truly considering who it was aiding and what the consequences would be. True to form, McCain and Graham were among the chief enthusiasts for the international campaign against Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, despite evidence from the outset that Al-Qaeda constituted a significant element of the Libyan opposition. When rebel forces summarily executed Qaddafi last fall, a gloating McCain hailed the extrajudicial killing, predicting that such other strongmen as Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin could be next. Of course, the real test of the Libyan rebels was never whether they could capture and/or kill Qaddafi, but what would they would establish in his stead. One year after the Libyan uprising began, the verdict does not look good. The Observer of London reports that Amnesty International has condemned the new regime’s use of illegal detention and torture, while the National Transitional Council lags in institution-building and securing its hold on key Libyan territory.
The American mind is often Manichean in its approach to international affairs. Liberal interventionists and neoconservatives go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, rarely pausing to contemplate whether each particular conflict truly consists of a battle between pure good and pure evil. What is needed to correct this profoundly flawed worldview is a fundamentally conservative skepticism about the ability of US force to solve any problem and to establish liberal democratic norms where they have never existed.