Revolutions are a Tricky Thing: Syria Edition

July 11, 2013

The United States’ standing in the Near East and in the world generally would be greatly enhanced by helping to remove the Assad regime — if the new regime is actually an improvement.  The problem is that a revolution is a tricky thing.  Sometimes it’s a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”  Other times, the new boss is even worse than the old boss.  The Obama administration would do well to keep that thought in mind as it embroils itself in the nightmare that is the Syrian civil war.

Of course, the interests of the United States and of the Syrian people would both be served by the rise to power in Damascus of a regime that is less abusive, more democratic, more pluralistic, less closely aligned with Iran and Hezbollah, and more inclined to make peace with Israel.  That is why the U.S. government has looked long and hard before settling on someone to support.  Its guy is General Salim Idris, who was elected in December 2012 as Chief of Staff of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, one of several factions fighting against the Assad regime.  By all accounts, General Idris’ ideological credentials are as good as one could reasonably hope to find.  That is why a few weeks ago the Obama administration decided to start providing him with military aid.

We must hope, however, that before deciding to provide military support to General Idris’ faction, the Obama administration asked its intelligence community and its policy planners two key questions.

First:  Who would we prefer to have running Syria, Bashar al-Assad, or the worst elements of the Syrian opposition?  As long as the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front is in the fight, the answer is probably Bashar al-Assad.  Actually, as a practical matter, however, the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) – a highly effective coalition of eleven different Salafi Islamist groups – is probably more troubling.  The fact that the SIF’s rejection of democracy is somewhat less doctrinaire than that of al Qaeda affiliates should be of little comfort.

Second:  After dispatching Assad, would Idris’ faction be able to defeat the rest of the Syrian opposition if it needed to?  Here the answer may well be “no.”  A March report from the Institute for the Study of War claims that Idris “was not chosen because of his command of significant ground forces or his operational effectiveness, but instead for his ability to serve as a political representative for the council and for his personal relationships to foreign officials, and more importantly, to suppliers.”

Why are these questions so important?  Well, assume that Assad is overthrown.  At that point, there would be a struggle for power among the opposition factions.  Ideally, Washington would want to be sure that its preferred faction could win.  As history has shown, however, all too often the good guys don’t come out on top after a revolution ends an odious regime, even if they played a leading role in the overthrow.  Consider a few cases:

  • The Russian Revolution.  The February Revolution of 1917 soon led to the rise of the relatively moderate Alexander Kerensky.  However, he was swept aside by the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution, fled into exile, and Russia soon became the totalitarian Soviet Union.
  • The Iranian Revolution.  The decidedly immoderate Ayatollah Khomeini was always the leading figure in the 1979 Iranian revolution, but other more moderate factions joined him in opposition to the Shah.  After the Shah fled, a period of consolidation ensued during which every moderate leader and, in fact, anybody who was not an Islamist loyal to Khomeini, was purged.  (Does anybody remember Abolhassan Banisadr?)  The lucky ones made it into exile, while the less fortunate ones were shot and the country descended into a nightmare of oppression.
  • The Egyptian Revolution.  Liberals were the backbone of this dramatic manifestation of the Arab Spring in 2011.  Yet, the Muslim Brotherhood showed greater strength at the ballot box and seized the reins of power in the 2012 elections.  It is still not clear how the situation in Egypt will play out, but it is safe to say that the hopes of the idealistic Egyptians who captured the attention of the world in Tahrir Square have been dashed.

The danger, then, is that Washington’s military aid may provide the margin of victory for the opposition even as General Idris and everyone like him find themselves pushed aside at the finish line by factions even more inimical to American interests.  To add an additional level of complexity, the answers to the two key questions may change over time.  Hopefully, the Obama administration is aware that by deciding to provide assistance to General Idris it has committed itself to a very uncertain game and that it must dynamically calibrate its policy on a continual basis.

If the United States enables the rise to power of a worse regime, not only will this country’s relative power be lessened by the rejuvenation of opposition from Damascus, but it will have wasted a good bit of money, and possibly end up trying to recover sensitive weapons from people distinctly disinclined to give them back.  (This has happened before.)  Worse yet, the United States may find itself facing the question of how to handle the new terror it will have created.


Mark Stout, Ph.D. is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is a Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and is the Historian at the International Spy Museum in Washington.


Photo Credit: James Gordon