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Moscow and Washington hold key to Syria's future

Posted: June 11, 2012 - 11:00pm

My recent trip to Lebanon and Qatar made clear a dismal truth about Syria’s future: The regime’s brutality, along with Russian blindness and U.S. hesitation, is pushing Syria toward a disaster no one wants.

Syria is sinking into a sectarian war that will produce a regime controlled by Islamists. It didn’t have to be that way, and that ending could still be avoided. But unless Moscow wakes up, and Washington takes a more active role, that outcome looks all too likely, with dangerous repercussions for the entire Middle East.

To understand why, one must look at opportunities missed in the past and still not seized today.

“What went wrong?” asks Wissam Tarif, a well-known Lebanese human-rights activist who is also a prominent supporter of the Syrian opposition. “At first, the resistance was peaceful,” Tarif told me in Beirut. “But after seven months of killing, torturing ... by August 2011 things changed.”

Indeed, even recently, many Syrian resisters — middle-class bureaucrats, professionals, and students — tried to retain the nonviolent approach that characterized the early resistance.

One of my most poignant conversations in Lebanon was with Omar Shaker, a Syrian student. He is now on the run because he helped document his government’s destruction of an entire quarter of the Syrian city of Homs, called Baba Amr, in February. He uses an alias and changes houses every night lest Syrian agents nab him and send him back to Syria to probable death.

Shaker described how young people trapped under Syrian shelling in Baba Amr gradually banded together to tweet and Skype details of the regime’s mass murder of civilians; they managed to smuggle in a satellite dish to expand their reporting.

This young man, in T-shirt and jeans, looking like an average American college student, told me quietly, “My job was to document people who died of torture.”

Shaker’s message: The revolt in Homs (and elsewhere in Syria) turned violent only after the Syrian military attacked massive, peaceful demonstrations; this ultimately provoked defections from the Syrian army and the formation of the so-called Free Syrian Army to defend civilians under attack.

However, once armed resistance began, Shaker and others say, the main sources of outside funds were Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood, banned in Syria in 1982, had many wealthy exiles living abroad who could contribute. Adds Tarif, “The Gulf states opened the mosques to collect funds for the Brotherhood and the (hard-line Islamist) salafis.”

As popular anger at the killing of civilians grows within Syria, Islamists can find fertile ground for their message — combined with the fact that they have money.

“Now many people grow beards because they want the money (for weapons and survival),” says Shaker. “In Syria people are moderate, but they want to end this regime, and they would take money from the devil.”

The longer the fight goes on, and the longer Islamist groups are the main source of funds, the stronger the growth of these movements inside Syria. And the greater the danger that Syrian rebels may feel compelled to welcome Arab jihadis to join the battle. Even members of al-Qaida in Iraq.

If the West remains indecisive, warns Tarif, “it gives space for Islamists to take part. If (there is going to be) militarization of the opposition, you can’t allow Islamists to take all.” I heard this warning echoed repeatedly by Syrian activists and experts during my trip.

However, the Obama administration has been understandably reluctant to get involved in another Middle East military struggle.

Washington has left it to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey to funnel a (so far) limited amount of weapons to the Syrian opposition. All three of these countries support Salafi or Brotherhood groups.

Of course, an alternative to all-out Syrian war would be a diplomatic solution that forced President Bashar al-Assad to step down in favor of a transitional government, leading to elections.

The slim prospect for such a solution does not rest with former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is still trying to revive a peace plan that is dead.

The sole chance for such an outcome lies with Moscow, Assad’s main backer. But, despite some rhetorical feints, the Kremlin refuses to recognize that Assad is a goner.

“Moscow won’t push for regime change,” I was told by Vitaly Naumkin, director of the prestigious Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Kremlin officials, who fear losing their sole Mideast ally, are convinced the Assad regime will survive.

The Kremlin is mistaken.

The longer the Kremlin sustains the Syrian regime, the more it ensures that what comes next will be Islamist and anti-Moscow.

And if the Obama team wants to see a broad, non-Islamist government emerge after the fall of Assad, it needs to find a way to help fund and organize the secular resistance — now.

• Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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