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Waves of Egyptian fighters and the shape of things to come

The Washington Post reports that “waves of Egyptians” are pouring into Syria to join the fight against the Assad regime and its allies, Hezbollah and Iran. The Egyptians in question are “fired by the virulently sectarian rhetoric of Sunni preachers” who are “call[ing] for jihad.” In other words, the Egyptians pouring into Syria are Islamic jihadists.

Under Hosni Mubarak, the government did all it could to prevent such jihadists from leaving the country to fight in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. And until recently, the current president, Mohammed Morsi tried to keep a lid on the hatred that impels radical Egyptians to fight in Syria. After all, Morsi has been cultivating closer relations with Iran.

But at the end of the day, Morsi is a Muslim Brotherhood man. Thus, under pressure from his hard line Islamist base, he has taken to denouncing Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran.

The lid is now off.

What does this mean? According to Khaled Salah, editor of a secular-minded Egyptian newspaper, it means that “the Middle East is shifting from a region that was dreaming of democracy to a battlefield between Shiite and Sunni.”

That’s exactly right, I think. And this means that, as much as people like me believe in American leadership, there isn’t much of a role for the U.S. to play in the region now. We have no dog in the battle between radical Sunnis and radical Shiites; nor is there much we can do to mitigate the tragic impact of this clash.

We did, with great difficulty and cost, act as a positive force during the Sunni-Shiite clash in one country — Iraq — because we had lots of boots on the ground and a hard-earned understanding of the players. But these conditions no longer obtain in any country in the region, much less across the range of emerging battlefields.

Moreover, as tragic as the Sunni-Shiite clash will be, it probably favors our interests. The hard question in the Middle East has long been: how can Western interests withstand the tidal wave of rampant Islamist fervor on the part of a vast, young, rootless population? The answer now seems to be: by having that wave play out in the form of vicious infighting, rather than in a war against the West.

As for the immediate problem of Syria, the wave of Sunni fighters from Egypt further undercuts the belief that a Sunni victory would lead to an outcome satisfactory, or even acceptable, to U.S. interests. The secular-leaning side of the Syrian rebel movement has already been pushed to the side. With every foreign unit that arrives in Syria, it becomes more clear that radical Islamists will dominate.

There’s also the questions of what will become of weapons the U.S. supplies to rebel forces. Khaled Salah, the aforementioned secular Egyptian newspaper man, predicts that the Egyptian jihadists fighting in Syria will “get weapons and training and one day could come back to fight us.” He may be hoping for a long war in Syria and/or elsewhere.

A long war would have its virtues. At the congressional hearing I attended this week on Iran, there was talk that Syria might become Iran’s Vietnam. That sounds overstated. Still, an Iranian regime bogged down to any significant degree in Syria doesn’t sound like a bad thing.

It would be inhumane, of course, to root for, much less try to promote, a long war. A viable peaceful settlement is the best option in Syria. But if there’s any hope for one, it depends on a military stalemate, it seems to me.

Here we see what I believe is the proper framework for the U.S. role in Syria and in the region generally. As I said, we cannot play a leadership role because we’re unwilling — wisely — to make a large scale military commitment.

But we can operate at the margin to lower the odds of victory for either side. And we can do this most effectively, and with the least risk of arming our adversaries, by military action that levels the playing field (e.g. a no-fly zone) and/or by air strikes against aspects of a party’s military capabilities.

Finally, if there are potentially viable secular forces in a particular trouble spot, we should identify them early and consider backing them. This may (or may not) have been an option in Syria two years ago. I don’t think it is now.

And given the growing sectarian nature of the struggle throughout the region, viable secular forces probably will be very much the exception in battlefields to come.

JOHN adds: We, and other countries, acted in the manner Paul advocates during the Iran-Iraq war, by giving Iraq modest amounts of aid when it appeared that Iran might prevail in the early 1980s. That war was bloodier than anything we are likely to see in the foreseeable future, and ended in a stalemate, which from our perspective was a desirable outcome.

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