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News Analysis

The U.S.-Made Islamist Takeover of Syria

Mon, December 24, 2012

by: 
Barry Rubin

In his article, The Revolt of Islam in Syria, Jonathan Spyer, senior fellow at the GLORIA Center, points out compelling information about the new Western-backed leadership in Syria. 

The bottom line: If this is Syria’s new government, then Syria now has an Islamist regime. This is happening with the knowledge and collaboration of the Obama Administration and a number of European governments. It is a catastrophe, and one that's taking place due to the deliberate decisions of President Barack Obama and other Western leaders. Even if one rationalizes the Islamist takeover in Egypt as due to internal events, this one is U.S.-made.

As Spyer points out, U.S. and European policy can be summarized as follows:

“To align with and strengthen Muslim Brotherhood-associated elements, while painting Salafi forces as the sole real Islamist danger.   At the same time, secular forces are ignored or brushed aside.”

The new regime, recognized by the United States and most European countries, as the legitimate leadership of the Syrian people, is the Syrian National Coalition, which has also established a military council.

Spyer’s detailed evidence for these arguments, much of which comes from raw wire service reports -- praise is due to Reuters in this case--is undeniable. And if we know about these things there's no doubt that the highest level of the U.S. government does so as well. 

Why is this happening? Because Obama and others believe that they can moderate the Muslim Brotherhood and it will tame the Salafists, despite massive evidence to the contrary. This is the biggest foreign policy blunder of the last century and the cost for it will be high. It should be stressed that such a strategy is totally unnecessary and the alternatives have been ignored, the real moderates are being betrayed.

Here is some of the proof for these assertions:

--“The founder of the Free Syrian Army, former Syrian Air Force Colonel Riad Asaad, is notably absent [from the leadership].  General Mustafa al-Sheikh, the first of his rank to defect to the rebels, is also not there. Sheikh is known for his fierce opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood.  Hussein Haj Ali, the highest ranking officer to defect so far, was similarly absent.” These men are all anti-Islamists.

--“A Reuters report on the new joint military council calculated that the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies account for about two-thirds of the 263 men who met in Antalya and formed the new body.  Salafi commanders are also there.”  In other words, the Islamists will get the overwhelming share of weapons provided under U.S. sponsorship, Turkish oversight, and Qatari and Saudi financing. And the United States has not objected to the arming of Salafist super-extremists as long as they aren't affiliated to al-Qaida.

--“The new council is headed by Brigadier Selim Idriss, who is described as a non-ideological military man.  But his deputies, Abdel-basset Tawil of Idleb and Abdel-Qader Saleh of Aleppo governate are associated with the Salafi trend.” In other words, there’s a non-Islamist front man for what will be an Islamist-controlled army.

--“The domination by the Muslim Brotherhood of the new military council mirrors the movement’s leading position in the new civilian leadership body – the Syrian National Coalition.  The leader of this coalition is Ahmed Mouaz al-Khatib, former Imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

“Khatib is closely associated with the Damascus Branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.   The leader of the new coalition has a long history of antisemitic, anti-Western and anti-Shia remarks. (He praised Saddam Hussein, for example, for “terrifying the Jews” and wrote an article asking if Facebook was an “American-Israeli intelligence website.”) He is also an admirer of the Qatar-based Muslim Brotherhood preacher Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

--“Within the body headed by Khatib, the Muslim Brotherhood dominated Syrian National Council controls around 27 of the 65 seats on the executive body of the new coalition.  There are also Islamists and fellow travelers among the non-SNC delegates. The Brotherhood is by far the best organized single body within the coalition.  One secular delegate at the first full meeting of the coalition accused the MB of `pushing more of its hawks into the coalition, although it already has half of the seats.’ "

Let me add two other points:'

--The U.S. government backed the previous opposition "leadership," the Syrian National Council, which was formed as a result of American initiative operating through Islamist Turkey. The fact that this council had a Muslim Brotherhood majority in the leadership did not deter the Obama Administration from proclaiming it to be the address for support.

Only when the council had clearly failed--and despite the fact that months earlier several moderates had resigned complaining about Brotherhood domination--did the U.S. government change strategy to organizing a new, also Muslim Brotherhood dominated group.

--American intelligence agents in southern Turkey supervise the handover of weapons to the rebels. They make no attempt to stop arms from going to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists while they make no attempt to funnel the guns to moderates. The only restriction is that they not go to al-Qaida affiliated Salafists. One day those guns will be used to commit unspeakable atrocities against Christians and other minority groups just as they will be used to install an Islamist regime and kill or intimidate its opponents. 

How has the United States handled this threat? Well, it declared one Salafi group off-limits because it is linked to al-Qaida. That’s it.

As Spyer points out, there has been and still is an alternative: The West should back non-Islamist leaders including liberals, Arab nationalists and Kurdish nationalist forces. Such a strategy was not pursued either in Egypt or in Tunisia.

Barry Rubin is a professor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, the Director of the Global Research and International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, and a Senior Fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism. Rubin has written and edited more than 40 books on the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy, with publishers including Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge University Press.