The situation in Syria is complex. Taking too simplistic a view on the rebel cause could result in difficulties along the line.
Bill Clinton last week expressed some disappointment with the policy in the United States in Syria. This follows recent statements by John McCain, who described the President’s perceived abandonment of the rebels as ‘Feckless’.
Former President Clinton has now joined the wave of opposition and stated that China, Russia and Hezbollah were doing everything possible to prop up the Assad regime. According to Clinton et al, the US should be doing more to save the rebel forces from oblivion.
Now, Clinton is admittedly a liberal interventionist. His time in office made that very clear with the interventions in Kosovo and Hati. Liberal interventionism is at the very heart of the Democratic Party and is a mantra that was willingly used by the neo-conservatives during the presidency of George W Bush.
Liberal intervention is an admireable policy in the breach of clear human rights violation. The genocide in Rwanda in particular forced many advanced nations to consider whether they should do more when minorities are being targeted and slaughtered.
In this respect it is an admirable approach to foreign policy and should be applauded, and if this were the case in Syria then the Obama administration’s reluctance to act with more forcefulness should be criticised.
However, Syria is not a simple black and white case of human rights violations. It cannot be doubted that Bashar Al Assad has all the tendencies of a brutal dictator, but the rebel opposition he is fighting do not seem to be the kind of freedom fighters to whom America should freely be giving aid.
The Syrian rebels have shown violent Islamist qualities that are more reminiscent of Al Qaeda than a pro western force for democracy.
And while we should not advocate that western nations should dictate what ideologies other states should follow, they should also not fund organisations that are actively hostile to them.
It seems that President Clinton and Senator McCain are harking back to a time where it was the norm for the US to fund opposition regimes. But this is a different time, and the enemy is not so clear anymore. Beating the Russians should not be the focus of US foreign policy as it was in the 1980’s.
And while the human rights breaches by the Assad regime are clear, the rebel forces have also been accused of similar abuses. Assad is not a friend to the US or to the west’s strongest ally in the Middle East, Israel; the enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend.
The replacement of Assad with an Islamist government backed with significant funds from the US and its allies would not, in the long run, be a positive development for Western security or for Israel. The devil you know is sometimes better than the devil you don’t.
Assad, despite his faults, is also at heart a secularist and while he has limited the political freedom of all his citizens, their religious liberty has been guaranteed under his regime.
In rebel controlled regions, Syrian Christians in particular have been targeted. Two orthodox bishops were kidnapped recently and reports of violence against them by Islamist forces are a common occurrence. The rebels would likely impose a strict Islamic regime in Syria that would be to the detriment of religious minorities in the country.
One only has to look at Egypt to see how perilous it can be replacing a long standing regime with a populist movement.
Do we really want the headache of an extremist regime in Syria with strong links to Al Qaeda?
The fact that the current administration is hesitant over Syria is an indication that the gloss has been lost from the Arab Spring. The movement did not produce the results that commentators in the west had hoped for. What had seemed like spring was, for many countries, the continuation of winter.
Liberal democracy is still an alien concept in much of the Middle East and those arguing for greater involvement in Syria must honestly ask themselves if the rebel government would be much better than Assad. If the answer is no then all US funding will do is prolong the bloodshed.