Bill Clinton criticized President Obama’s inaction on Syria today, joining the chorus of voices like Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) who have clamored in favor of US intervention in the conflict for months (with McCain even meeting rebel leaders).
Bill Clinton told Sen. John McCain he agrees that President Barack Obama should act more forcefully to support anti-Assad rebels in Syria, saying the American public elects presidents and members of Congress “to see down the road” and “to win.”
At another point during a closed-press event Tuesday, Clinton implied that Obama or any president risks looking like “a total fool” if they listen too closely to opinion polls and act too cautiously. He used his own decisions on Kosovo and Bosnia as a point of reference.
It seems that Clinton, driven by the tragic Rwanda debacle he called a "personal failure," has now become a dye-in-the-wool interventionist along the lines of McCain and Graham (I don’t think John McCain has ever seen a conflict in which he didn’t want to intervene). With Obama “leaning closer toward” arming the rebels, these men may well get their way. Unfortunately, it could end up as a case of “be careful what you wish for.”
I’m afraid Clinton’s guilty conscience and McCain/Graham’s activist impulses have directed them toward a grave misunderstanding of the situation in Syria. This civil war does not consist of courageous freedom fighters rising up against a despot. Assad may be a despot, but courageous freedom fighters the rebels are not.
First and foremost, we need to see this conflict for what it is – a religious war between incompatible Islamic sects. As Fareed Zakaria explains, Assad’s Alawite (a fringe sect of Shia Islam considered heretical by most Muslims) monarchy was set up by British and French authorities following World War I. The Alawites make up less than 16 percent of the Syrian population, while Sunnis – almost all of the rebels – are 74 percent.
It isn’t so much that the rebels hate Assad for his tyranny; it’s more that they plain don’t like his religion. The rebels would probably be fine with Assad’s methods if they were used to install their brand of Islam instead of his Alawite variety. In fact, the rebels can be pretty brutal themselves. Just yesterday, they massacred a Shiite village, killing more than 60 men, women, and children – it wasn’t an isolated incident (spoiler alert: al-Qaeda makes an appearance).
And then there are the Christians. At 10% of Syria’s population, they’re one of the largest Christian communities in the Middle East and among the most ancient adherents to the faith (does Road to Damascus ring a bell?). Well, the rebels don’t like Christians any more than they like Alawites – they massacred a Christian village in May. Much of the Christian population is choosing the lesser of two evils and backing Assad. From Christian Freedom International:
Although the Syrian church has historically enjoyed peace and religious freedom under the Assad regime, the Arab Spring has destabilized that peace, as Christians are now typically perceived as supporters of the existing government. With help from fellow Muslims in Saudi Arabia, many Islamic fundamentalists are taking advantage of the opportunity to pursue their agenda in Syria, which has significantly increased the persecution of Christians. Faced with the threat of a full scale civil war and intervention by the international community — factors which may bring about even greater persecution — many Christians are preparing to leave Syria altogether.
The American public has it right; only 11 percent wants to arm the rebels. Here’s hoping the President heeds them instead of Clinton.