U.S. President Barack Obama’s latest request to Congress to provide $500 million in equipment and training to “appropriately vetted” moderate Syrian opposition forces will provoke lively debate on two issues: First, on whether this is too little, too late to influence events inside Syria; and second, what exactly defines a “moderate” opposition force.
These are valid questions related to both how non-Syrian powers are working to bolster or topple President Bashar Assad’s regime, and how everyone is dealing with the growing threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
One of the important recent developments in our region has seen the lingering, and very broadly Saudi-Iranian-led, ideological battle that has defined the Middle East for some years now being transformed into a single military battleground that stretches from Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and Iran. The Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance, aligned with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq, had emerged victorious in recent years, which is why the Assad government remains firmly in place, if only in about one-third of the country.
That alliance is under pressure today, as Iran’s three partners in Arab Western Asia all face challenging new realities. Assad continues to hold onto power only by bombing and destroying parts of his country, Maliki’s incumbency in Iraq is in deep trouble and he is unlikely to stay in power, while Hezbollah is fighting inside Syria and may have to go to the aid of the Iraqi prime minister. This creates new logistical and political challenges for a formidable organization that forged its credibility, legitimacy and power by defending Lebanon from Israeli aggression, not by fighting in other Arab countries.
All three of these Arab parties depend heavily on Iran for logistical, financial and political support, and Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Iran face new vulnerabilities that did not exist a year ago, or even three months ago, when considering the challenge that ISIS has posed to them all.
The sudden renewal in the past week of American military assistance to the Iraqi government and the anti-Assad Syrian rebels will do what foreign military interventions in Arab West Asia have done for millennia: exacerbate the political equation and intensify military action all around, leaving the region more scarred and brittle than it was before the fighting started, without resolving the underlying problems of incompetent and criminal governance that generated conflict in the first place.
Neither the United Statesnor Iran and their allies can control foreign lands for very long by relying primarily on military power. And despite their determination and large armies, neither of them can prevent the rise of militant fanatics such as ISIS when prevailing governance and living conditions follow the pattern we have seen in recent decades across much of the Arab world. Every power has learned this lesson over and over again, including Syria in Lebanon, and the U.S. and Iran in Iraq.
The U.S., Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and the Iraqi and other Arab governments will now effectively work together to militarily contain and push back ISIS troops, while simultaneously working politically to weaken each other. The weakness in the policies of both regional ideological camps is their misguided conviction that local actors in places such as Tripoli, Lebanon; Deir al-Zor, Syria; or Fallujah, Iraq define themselves and respond politically to the same impulses that shape identities and interests in places such as Qom and Kansas City.
When Hezbollah and Iran move quickly to support their friends in Syria, and the U.S. and its allies move slowly, the result is what we have seen in Syria: the consolidation of the Assad regime, but in ever-smaller parts of the country, along with the birth of new and more dangerous fighting groups such as ISIS. Syria is not a victory that Iran and Hezbollah can brag about.
The critical criterion for success lies in the second issue I mentioned above, which is, from the U.S. perspective, how to define a “moderate” opposition group to support. This is a truly childish approach to waging ideological and military battle abroad, and guarantees failure, as we have seen in the recent trends in Syria and Iraq during the last three years.
The critical criterion for supporting a foreign group of fighters or politicians is local legitimacy, not “moderation” defined in distant lands. But legitimacy is an issue that the U.S., Iran, Arab powers and all foreign armies ignore as they march into battle in foreign lands. That is why they leave behind such ravages and chaos when they march home a few years later, staggered and bewildered at the furies they released and encountered and the sandstorms and cultural forces that momentarily blinded them.
Moving decisively to bolster legitimate local forces breeds success. Moving gingerly to identify people who will friend you on Facebook is really stupid.