Opinion: Stop Speed-Dating the Enemy

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) meets Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Illustrative. Photo Courtesy of UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe.

The situation in Syria is becoming worse. What began as a government crackdown on peaceful protestors has evolved far beyond a civil war. What’s happening now is nothing short of violent chaos. The Bashar al-Assad regime is fighting rebels and is supported by Lebanese Hezbollah terrorists and Iran. The rebels are being supported by the West and… Al Qaeda terrorists.

The recent controversial taking and releasing of UN peacekeepers by rebel forces only highlights the nightmare that Syria has become. It’s enough to make one wonder if there are any good guys and whether the West should support the rebels at all. It’s time to answer those questions.

The violent outbreak in Egypt and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood has already placed many conservatives in the West and Israel on guard against backing Arab revolutionaries. The shocking attack and murder of an American diplomat in Libya made the Arab Spring even less hopeful.

In light of that, it’s understandable that the Syrian rebels are being viewed not as solutions to the Syrian threat, but as threats in their own right. Even if there is a group of rebels that do in fact support peace in the region and with the West, can they form a stable government in Syria? Or will Syria become a new Afghanistan where the next Osama bin Laden can plan murder and mayhem?

Worse still, like Afghanistan, is the West funding, training and equipping the next bin Laden? The US saw the Soviets as the end-all threat and backed the jihadists in Afghanistan in the Cold War, only to watch their own former partners turn on them later. Is it happening again?

There’s an old saying, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.” Sometimes, an evil person or government is in fact better than the risk of getting something even worse next time. But the current situation in Syria is not one of those times.

Assad is simply that bad. He has shelled his own civilians and now has ample hate and motivation to turn that brutality on the West and his neighbors. After all, they have tried to force him out of power. Syria may have maintained the peace before, but that was before the West tried to get him sent into exile or killed.

What’s more, if there was any more proof that Assad is worth driving out of Syria, one need only look at how hard Iran is working to save him. Hezbollah is reportedly massing its forces in Syria and Iran has reportedly even sent its own people into the war-torn country on behalf of Assad.

The reason for Iran’s support is understandable. Not only is Assad a rare regional ally for Tehran, but he is also the only land-bridge to Lebanon—via porous and messy Iraq—from Iran. Weapons, military experts and human smuggling for training purposes is done easily and often via Syria. Iran even has access to the Syrian airports and seaports—which provide Tehran its only direct access to the Mediterranean Sea and Israel and Europe.

Hezbollah depends heavily on those weapons that reach it from Syria, and Damascus once was a safe haven for a slew of terrorist leaders. In short, Syria has been crucial to Iranian plans of regional hegemony. Knocking Assad and that alliance out of commission is a worthy goal.

Lastly, there are the weapons of mass destruction. Syria has a huge stockpile of chemical weapons and has even done research into nuclear arms in the past. Removing Assad can ultimately shutter those programs or at least give the West more chances to disrupt them.

Of course, those very weapons have been cited as reason enough to not support the Syrian rebels. What if Assad falls and chemical weapons reach Al Qaeda? Then what?

That’s why the West needs to back the Syrian rebels and treat them as prospective enemies at the same time.

Up until now, the West has appeared to treat most of its approach toward enemies like diplomatic speed-dating. In this strange social practice, prospective daters spend a few minutes asking as many relevant questions as they can before moving on to the next prospective date. The idea is to substitute quality of initial relationships with quantity. Surely you can find one person out of a roomful, right? No, not really.

Speed-dating is even worse than a blind-date, since at least a friend is usually vouching for the sight-unseen variety. In speed-dating, a scant few questions and a quick eyeball-test are all that can be used to determine if one’s evening should be given away to a stranger.

For the West, the diplomatic version of speed-dating has been well used. Egypt has an old dictator that the people dislike. Quick, ask if the revolutionaries seem friendly… and one of them has connections to Google, great! They even have their own social media! Yes, support the revolutionaries.

That’s an exaggeration, of course, but the process in Egypt hasn’t proven to be much better than that.

This is nothing new. The old jihadists in Afghanistan seemed to get a similar background check during the Cold War. Even the crazy Iranian regime can thank the US for encouraging the Shah to leave—and thereby setting up the Iranian Islamic revolution. Over and over again, the West has seen a bad guy and said their enemy must be our friend.

It’s not true. But that’s not reason enough to abandon the Syrian rebels.

In short, the West should back the rebels even more and use that as leverage to watch them even closer. Bug the equipment being handed them with surveillance devices. Use the chaos in Syria to secure, remove and even destroy chemical weapons and the manufacturing programs behind them.

Don’t sell advanced weapons to the rebels. Don’t train them in ways that can be easily used against us. Do put spies and double-agents into their midst. Do buy off as many of them as possible.

In short, treat the Syrian rebels in the open as the West’s friends, while in secret as the West’s enemies.

Assad must go. If his regime survives the revolution, the region is in trouble. Even if he ultimately goes, years more of this conflict will create unbearable refugee crises in neighboring nations and dangerous spillover of the violence.

But dear West, please don’t speed-date the rebels and pretend it’s all okay. Nor should you give up hope because they have nasty elements themselves. They may or may not be worse than the devil you know. But the only way to find out is to get to know them.

(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, March 10, 2013)