Cliff May

It was not until eight months after the anti-Assad protests broke out in January 2011 that President Obama called for the dictator to step down. Obama willed the ends but not the means. It was left to private groups to supply even the communications technology necessary for dissenters to organize against (and escape from) Assad’s forces. Today, the administration is assisting some rebel groups with communications but other responsibilities – the provision of weapons for example – have been outsourced to Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Those three nations agree that Assad must go. But they want him replaced by Islamists of some stripe, and so it is Islamist groups that they have been backing with what amounts to Washington’s tacit approval. As a result, Islamists have become dominant on the battlefield and within the newly established Syrian National Coalition of Revolution and Opposition Forces (SNCROF) that Obama recently said he will recognize.

Meanwhile, lacking money and weapons, moderate groups have been left in the lurch. Is it too late to begin assisting them now? Once again the answer is both yes and no: Yes, it’s too late to make them the driving force of the Syrian Revolution. But providing support would be consistent with both America’s values and interests.

As to values, Americans should always support those fighting for freedom, no matter how small a minority they may be. If we do not, no one else will – not Europeans, most of whom have become indifferent to tyranny, and certainly not the UN which de facto sides with authoritarians and autocrats. As to interests: With help, freedom fighters may be able to damage and weaken our common enemies. (Without help they can do nothing but capitulate or die.)

Even after Assad’s departure, peace is unlikely to break out in Syria. Instead, expect revenge killings and sectarian fighting, with Iran fueling the fires. An election may be attempted but odds are not high that such an attempt will succeed. Currently, different groups and factions hold sway in different parts of the country. Many will not relinquish their power easily – and it’s not obvious that they should.

Syria’s most important ethno-religious minorities – Kurds, Druze, Christians, Alawites (Assad’s people), Shiites and tribal groups with long and strong traditions – will certainly not want to be ruled by Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham, the two Salafi/jihadists groups that have played an increasingly effective role in the fighting over recent months. They also may not want to submit to Muslim Brothers who, though less thirsty for violence, are Arabs, Sunnis and Islamists eager to impose their version of a sharia state.

If we provide support to anti-Islamist groups will they at least be able to defend themselves, achieving a measure of autonomy within the boundaries of their home turfs? There is no guarantee. Without our support, however, it’s hard to see how they can avoid being crushed under Islamist boots.

One post-Assad outcome seems clear and positive: It will be a long time before Syria is again a threat to Lebanon or Israel – assuming, of course, that Assad’s chemical weapons can be eliminated from the equation. That those weapons of mass destruction have been allowed to stay in the dictator’s hands all these years represents yet one more failure of the so-called international community. I say that as someone with a “trained analytical mind who dresses with cunning understatement."

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.