Ed Husain

The Arab Street

Husain examines politics, society, and radicalism in the greater Middle East.

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Tread Carefully in Syria

by Ed Husain
October 3, 2011

Members of the Syrian opposition fronts argue among themselves during a meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2, 2011 (Stringer Turkey/Courtesy Reuters).

It is fashionable in Western capitals to call for regime change in Syria, but with what consequences? The two overarching arguments to remove Syrian president Bashar al-Assad are that his regime is a bastion of anti-Americanism and that he is an Iranian proxy. Recent reports of civil war in Syria and opposition demands of a no-fly zone will only lead to more violence from the Assad regime.

I have nothing but profound admiration for the courageous protestors who risk their lives daily in some of Syria’s major cities, organizing protests through networks of local coordination committees. This weekend’s opposition meeting in Istanbul, though fractious and acrimonious, is a sign of attempts at unity among Syrian democracy activists. However, the lesson from Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya is that this generation does not possess the political networks or clout to mobilize the masses after the overthrow of a regime—the revolutionary booty almost always goes to Islamist and salafist movements, at least for now.

Yesterday evening at Brookings Doha Center, a Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader, Ali al-Bayanouni, blamed the United States for supporting Assad from 2005 onwards, naming former secretary of state Madeleine Albright as a particular backer of Assad.  Interestingly, he also acknowledged that it was in Israel’s interests to keep the Assad regime in power—an observation that, while made with negative intent, is nonetheless valid.

On balance, Assad has been good news for Israel’s security and borders. His anti-American rhetoric is almost always linked to the United States’ unstinting support for Israel. A Syrian population raised without Israel on their school geography maps and accustomed to shouting “amen’’ in response to Friday mosque prayers calling for Israel’s destruction will not be warm towards Israel, either.

No future regime in Syria will be less hostile towards Israel, and therefore the reduction in animosity toward the United States is inconceivable. Bayanouni, a politician, is speaking to that widespread Syrian sentiment against Israel, and by extension, the United States.

It is particularly noteworthy that the grandmaster of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political theology, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, was also in attendance last night and spoke in support of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qaradawi is a Brotherhood cleric who is banned from entering the United Kingdom and United States for several reasons, not least encouraging Palestinians and others to become suicide bombers. Hamas draws scriptural justification for terrorism from Qaradawi, who argues that all Israelis undertake military service and are therefore legitimate targets, including women and children.

With such figures openly touting themselves as a crucial element of Syria’s opposition movement, can the United States continue to wish for a post-Assad regime that will be any friendlier towards the United States or Israel? And if the opposition is broader than the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamists, can the rest of the Syrian opposition publicly commit to peace with Israel? I doubt it. Without such transparency, who is the U.S. Department of State supporting?

As I argued in my Financial Times op-ed last month, Assad, however distasteful, still remains our least worst option in Syria.

Tomorrow, I will address the argument that a new regime in Syria will be inherently less friendly towards Iran.


  • Posted by Damascus Syria

    So in your opinion, a few more thousand syrians killed is a reasonable price to keep you happy?

  • Posted by Ed Husain

    Hi Damascus Syria — the number of Syrians being killed currently (on both sides, the military and the protestors) will pale in comparison to what can happen in Syria if a civil war breaks out. Just as in Lebanon, the sectarian divides in Syria and the socio-political bitterness harbored by various communities is a recipe for potential disaster. We should all think twice before we contemplate a Syria in which Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Israel, and others start to back different groups in a proxy war for regional control.

  • Posted by Atarabic

    This artilcle is a simple replication of an idea advertised in many other articles in US and Israel during the last months.
    Is it to say: Syrians! you should fight against your regime, which is the best available rule for your ennemy?
    Or to say: Syrians! you cannot remove your regime because it’s supported by the strongest power in the region.
    Sorry for telling -with respect- that the author (who I personally don’t know) is a “Shabbih of the Pen” as Rana Qabani wrote one day.

  • Posted by Al Dorman

    The US sticks with every fascist power it can prop up — that is until it’s too late. Why should Assad be any different.

  • Posted by Fawaz H Alfawaz

    I am not sure of the implications of the article , Syria is too small to a point where it cannot afford ” strategy” .it can keep the desire for the Golan and maybe some trapping of Arab/islamic claims to legitmacy , ultimately it is that .But to jump and say or imply the change of regime is not going to bring a relieve to the quest for peace and tranquality in the region is simply misleading and inncorrect .
    For one criminal doestic acts will stop , supporting terrorism will cease , the links with the regional ” more normal countries ” will foster a much better political/dipolmatic climate.
    It seems to em you are missing a key point : the syrians been there so to speak , they are not ready to be horse traded for onther wanna be Sultan like the Assad clan.

    Fawaz H. Alfawaz

    Riyadh based columnist.

  • Posted by Karmen Ross

    There was a way to express your concerns for Syria’s future without sounding like an apologist for Assad. Suggesting that we support a regime that had committed egregious human rights abuses because they are better than what might be coming down the line smacks of misguided 20th century political expediency and I wonder if you would have the courage to say as much to the face of someone who limped out of one of his torture chambers.

  • Posted by JMU

    My friends, what a great discourse and I thank Mr. Husain for this article. What this article is referring to highlights many valuable points and I believe many of you are not understanding what is key here. As a Syrian with family actively involved in the opposition, it isn’t ridiculous to consider this point. We have seen, throughout the history of the modern Middle East, the involvement of outside powers in Arab affairs. I for one do not think it is beyond the scope of things to say that the American administration is worried about regime change in Syria because of the inherent nationalism in all Syrian citizens non-arab included. a facet of This nationalism reflects the dispossession of the Palestinian people and there plight. So whether secular or Islamist antagonism towards Israel is strong on the Syrian streets, therefore why is it hard to believe that American support for protests in Syria has an alternative purpose.