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The dilemma in Syria

The Washington Post reports that the Syrian army is weakening and that the rebels are making gains. I don’t dispute either proposition. However, we’ve seen variations on this story for more than a year, and Bashar Assad’s regime still hasn’t fallen.

Maybe the end is near, now that the rebels have gained the ability to counter the regime’s air power by shooting down its helicopters and planes with shoulder-fired missiles. However, the Post acknowledges that that the fighting is likely to continue for months, if not years.

Assad’s supporters have good reason to persevere. They represent a religious minority, the Alawites, that justifiably worries about being “cleansed” if Assad falls. (Christians also have grounds for a similar fear). Moreover, the regime enjoys the valuable support of Russia and Iran, both of whom have a stake in Assad’s survival.

The most interesting question, perhaps, is whether the fall of Assad would be preferable to the present stalemate, from the perspective of the United States. Writing in the December issue of Current History, Glenn Robinson, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, argues that stalemate is preferable. A rebel victory, he maintains, would likely bring to power, or major influence, jihadist elements. The problem, according to Robinson, is not just the foreign jihadists who have entered Syria during the fight, but even more so the homegrown ones who gained experience fighting in Iraq. This includes Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, which Robinson says is more militant than its counterparts elsewhere in the Middle East.

The current stalemate creates a humanitarian disaster, of course. But so might a rebel victory, given the likelihood of revenge-taking against the Alawite minority population.

Accordingly, Robinson argues that the Obama administration is wise not to intervene militarily on behalf of the rebels. Robinson may be right. However, we cannot be confident that the stalemate will persist. And meanwhile, as the Post’s report acknowledges, the jihadists are becoming the dominant rebel faction because they are the best armed. Foremost among them is Jabhat al-Nusra which, says the Post, is thought to be linked with al Qaeda.

This means that President Obama’s hands-off policy will play into the hands of the jihadists if Assad falls. Arming the non-jihadist, secular factions would, by contrast, give them a fighting chance in a post-Assad Syria. But doing so would probably also hasten the end of the stalemate, with all of the uncertainty that entails.

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