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Syria is Going to Become Al Qaedastan (and Three Other Myths About Obama's Syria Foreign Policy)

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

1. Syria Is Going to Become Al Qaedastan

Of all the reasons for the international community’s skittishness about ending the regime of Bashar Al Assad, perhaps the biggest is the fear of a fanatical, Al Qaeda–linked government rising in its place. Voices as ideologically disparate as Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov, former Representative Dennis Kucinich, and Senator Ted Cruz have raised this concern. (Cruz and Kucinich have both said that, with a military strike, the United States would be acting as “Al Qaeda’s air force.”)

These people present a terrifying vision of Syria’s future—but also a false one. The strongest argument against their nightmare scenario is that the threat of Al Qaeda violence is vastly more acute with Assad in control of Damascus. The status quo in Syria has Assad and his allies holding onto a significant chunk of territory, with rebels—including extremist groups, some of which are tied to Al Qaeda—also monopolizing various regions. It’s an ideal situation for unruly terrorist organizations. “Syria is worse if Assad is in power,” says Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Extremists are happy with the situation now. This disorder is how they thrive.”

Similarly, what is attracting extremists to Syria, and giving them moral and material support, is the battle against Assad’s regime. The reason that some Sunni Muslims, who make up a majority in Syria and who generally oppose Assad’s minority Alawite sect, are willing to put up with hard-core Islamists is that Assad is a common enemy. Syria has not historically been a hotbed for radicals; nor is it known as a center for the type of Sunni extremism that has flourished everywhere from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan. Remember that, in Iraq, where Al Qaeda did take over territory after Saddam Hussein’s fall, even conservative Sunni tribes became sickened by the extremists’ fanaticism and turned against them.

There are other structural reasons why the country is unlikely to become the next Somalia or Afghanistan (in its pre-9/11 period). “Syria still has strong urban centers,” says Marc Lynch, director of George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies. “State authority is unlikely to completely vanish.” Meanwhile, unlike in the cases of Afghanistan and Somalia, Syria is a country of enormous strategic importance. It’s true that regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Iran will continue to fund their various proxies if Assad falls. But the idea that an extremist-run Syria is going to be completely ignored by the world is unlikely. Israel is right next door, and would not look kindly on Al Qaeda taking any sort of formal power. Nor would the United States. So while the future of Syria is bleak, don’t expect to see Al Qaeda’s black flag hanging from government buildings in Damascus.

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

2. The Doves Say: We Should Avoid War Because U.S. Foreign Policy Is Hypocritical

You have heard this argument: Why would we go to war in Syria when people are dying in the Congo? Why would we spend money on war when we could give that money to UNICEF? These are good questions if you’re trying to understand U.S. foreign policy priorities. But none of the possible answers argue for inaction in Syria. It’s also worth asking why we splurge on prescription drugs for the elderly when children are going hungry, but this in itself is not a reason to defund Medicare. Don’t change the subject.

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3. The Hawks Say: A Failure to Go to War Will Lead to a Greater Use of Chemical Weapons Worldwide

The last major deployment of chemical weapons was undertaken by Saddam Hussein in 1988, and he went unpunished for it. Perhaps Assad wouldn’t have used similar weapons this summer had the United States acted forcefully 25 years ago, but there is little reason to think it would’ve made any difference in the mind of a leader facing an existential crisis. Thus the only other conclusion: There is a robust taboo that exists against the use of these weapons, and it is clearly not the threat of U.S. military force keeping the taboo in place.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

4. The Media Says: Obama’s Domestic Agenda Will Sink Unless Syria Goes Well

In a typical Washington bit of hyperventilation, Politico reported that the White House would tell Congress that Obama’s presidency “depends” on the success or failure of his Syria policy. The article included no evidence of this claim, but other major news outlets have offered the same theory. “If Congress won’t support him on this, they’ll be much more willing to say no [on other things],” Princeton Professor Julian E. Zelizer told the Los Angeles Times during the fight for war authorization, effectively arguing that momentum plays a bigger role in congressional decision-making than ideology or self-interest. But the truth is that Obama is a second-term president whose major domestic initiatives—immigration reform, lowering carbon emissions, gun restrictions—were already going nowhere in Congress. (Politico has made this point repeatedly.) The reason is that Obama faces implacable opposition from Republicans on his major domestic goals. Syria is not going to change that.

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic.