My article "Support Assad" has elicited a number of responses, from mildly disapproving to severely and even insultingly so, by Zack Beauchamp in Think Progress, John Allen Gay in The National Interest, Daniel Larison in The American Conservative, Max Read in Gawker, Omid Safi in Religion News Service, and Jonathan Tobin in Commentary. Ah well, the commentariat has been wrong many times before. (April 13, 2013)
Apr. 14, 2013 update: Jacques Neriah begins an analysis titled "Stalemate in the Syrian Civil War" with this observation:
On the second anniversary of the civil war in Syria, it seems that the war is here to stay. Nothing on the horizon foretells a ceasefire, a compromise to end hostilities and stop the bloodshed, or a capitulation by one of the two sides.
This interpretation runs against the prevailing consensus that Assad is losing, but should Neriah be correct, then there is no need to support Assad – which would, of course, be my preference. I advocate helping him only if the Syrian regime is in danger of falling.
Apr. 17, 2013 update: To my surprise, the Obama administration is following my advice. See "U.S. Fears Syria Rebel Victory, for Now."
May 5, 2013 update: The weirdest critique of my column (in Turkish) came two days ago from Adnan Oktar on his A9 television channel: titled "Daniel Pipes Suriye'de çocuk ve kadınların ölmesine göz yummamalı," it features four heavily made-up and silent women listening to Oktar (also known by the pseudonym of Harun Yahya) criticizing me as a bad Christian. May 12, 2013 update: The Sunday Times (London) has some fun with Yahya's babes, Ece Koc, Ceylan Ozbudak, Aylin Kocaman and Ebru Altan, at "'Versace Muslims' stir anger of Turkey's faithful."
One of Adnan Oktar's studio audience listens as he criticized me.
May 11, 2013 update: The Assad regime has found a second wind. If that is so, then I raise the issue of supporting the rebels against it.
Aylin Kocaman, an analyst on Adnan Oktar's A9 channel.
Aylin Kocaman, an analyst on Adnan Oktar's A9 channel.
The good thing about this article, coming out of the Middle East, is its non-venomous tone; the bad, its many inaccuracies. (Quiz: Read my column, then her response and find 10 factual errors. Hint #1: Kocaman writes that "Things are not working out as Pipes prognosticated," yet there is not a single prognostication in my column.) Kocaman's central point is that, were I a Middle Easterner, I could never hold the views that I do:
Let us imagine had Pipes been a Middle Easterner born in the town of Al-Bayda in Syria; if the troops of the communist Baathist regime came spreading terror one day; if his aged parents were dragged from their home and disemboweled; if his sister were raped and savagely murdered before his eyes; if his home, livestock and all his worldly goods were burned, and if the same thing were done to every other home in the village: then what kind of Daniel Pipes would Daniel Pipes be, I wonder?
Strong stuff, but here's what kind of Daniel Pipes a Middle Eastern version of myself, someone with my views, would be: I would despise both the Assad regime and the jihadi rebels even more than I do as an American, for I would have directly suffered at both their hands. The regime would have tormented me since 1970 to further its greedy totalitarianism and the rebels would have turned my life into hell over the past two years in its effort to impose an Islamic state. In this case, I would be even more fervidly hostile to both parties and even more eager (quoting my column) to support the "non-Baathist and non-Islamist elements in Syria, helping them offer a moderate alternative to today's wretched choices and lead to a better future."
May 25, 2013 update: Adnan Oktar, responded to these updates, has admonished me in a 14-minute tirade, "Mr. Daniel Pipes should promote peace." The video of his performance is on the A9 website; as translated by one of his staff, Sinem Tezyapar, the text of his comments is also available.
(1) Mr. Oktar and I agree on wishing to see peace in Syria. I also appreciate his compilation of passages about peace in the Bible and the Koran.
(2) Given the reality of two immoral, cruel, and brutal forces contending for power in Syria, one must think strategically, not piously. Mr Oktar's insistence on reducing the clash of forces in Syria to rights and wrongs has little utility when both sides are repugnant. We must think through what a victory by the Assad regime or by the rebels would mean for Syrians and the rest of the world; and then, I suggest, let's compare those scenarios with the prospect of the two sides continuing to decimate the other. I find that last option less awful than the others. For Mr. Oktar to persuade me otherwise, he needs to offer more than scriptural citations.
(3) "The AKP espouses democracy and human rights and love… It is wrong to mention the AKP in the same breath as them [referring to radical groups]. … if the AKP mentality were in charge in Damascus the place would have become one of milk and honey." As a lawful Islamist himself, Mr. Oktar naturally dislikes my lumping Turkey's Erdoğan in with and Iran's Khamene'I, then calling them two versions of the same radical utopian movement. And while I do not doubt that the AKP in Damascus would do a far better job of governance than the Assads, I also have no doubt about it deploying a satellite Syrian state against the West.
(4) "Allah commands in Torah to make peace between fighting sides" "a Jewish person … should be obeying the command of Allah"; "you should speak as a Jew and as a believer in Allah"; and "Almighty Allah says in the Torah that Moshiach will triumph, not with force, in other words not with tanks and guns, but with the power of Allah." These eccentric formulations can be read two contrary ways:
(a) In keeping with the equivalence of "God" in English and "Allah" in Arabic (which I have documented here and here), Mr. Oktar is just using an Arabic world in Turkish, which his aide keeps in translating to English. His formulations may sound odd but he's not saying anything unusual.
(b) By applying the Muslim name for God to Jews and Judaism, he is both reminding Muslim listeners that Islam claims to be the original religion and asserting its superiority.
I hear (b) much more than (a) in these statements. And this makes me cautious about Mr. Oktar's many declarations of good will toward non-Muslims.
May 27, 2013 update: (1) In a reply to my May 21 comments, Aylin Kocaman advocates an Islamic Union and then notes that "The idea of an 'Islamic Union' may seem frightening at first to a Westerner, especially to those who may harbor prejudices towards Islam." I don't harbor prejudices toward Islam but, frankly, I am frightened by the idea of such a union, which is just a different way of saying "caliphate." No, the era of a single Muslim ruler over Dar al-Islam ended over twelve hundred years ago and has no place in the modern state order.
(2) In a reply to my May 25 comments, Adnan Oktar spoke again about me on his television station (video and text both available in Turkish and English). Perhaps most noteworthy is his indicating that, in response to my point (4) above, he really does mean (a) rather than (b), that he "would never say; we are superior, you are inferior. I respect [the Christian and Jewish] faiths." I am glad to hear that, even if my suspicions of Islamic supremacism do still linger.
June 5, 2013 update: Bret Stephens disagrees with my position on Syria at "The Muslim Civil War: Standing by while the Sunnis and Shiites fight it out invites disaster" and I reply to him today at "When Sunni and Shiite Extremists Make War."
Aug. 28, 2013 update: Nahum Barnea of Yediot Ahronot lays out the argument about stalemate being the best option:
If wars in the Middle East were a zero-sum game, Israel could have enjoyed the short-term benefits of the civil war in Syria. First, the capability of Syria and its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon to launch an attack on Israel has diminished dramatically. Second, the threat of an Iranian victory in Syria has pushed regional actors such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries into each other's arms and closer to Israel as a bridge to Washington and a reliable defender of common interests.
He then goes on to refute this argument:
But wars in the Middle East are never zero-sum games. In Syria, any outcome could be dangerous for the stability of the region and for Israel's security. A victory for Bashar al-Assad, facilitated by Iran, would accelerate the Iranian race toward the bomb; a rebel victory by jihadis would allow the nesting of Al Qaeda along the Syrian-Israeli border.
Wait, where's the refutation? Granted, "any outcome could be dangerous for the stability of the region and for Israel's security," but he does not establish that stalemate is worse than an Assad or a jihadi victory. Indeed, he seems to be indicating that stalemate is preferable to either of those outcomes.
Sep. 12, 2013 update: According to Judi Rudoren of the New York Times, when it comes to Israeli opinion about Syria,
There is a stark divide here over whether Mr. Assad's continued rule is preferable to a victory by Syrian rebel groups, some of whom are allied with Islamic extremists seen as even bigger threats. There is a growing sense that a continuation of the bloody battles may be the best outcome for now.
Oct. 27, 2013 update: Abdulrahman al-Rashed of Al-Arabiya, a brave thinker whose work I have long admired, disagrees today with my "let them both lose" argument for Syria in "Getting rid of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah" (original Arabic here). After summarizing my argument as "it's better for the fighting to continue until Hezbollah and al-Qaeda destroy each other so the U.S. can get rid of two fierce enemies," he explains that this is wrong because these are ideological groups:
There is a huge difference between intellectual wars – religiously motivated in the Syrian case – and gang wars that occur in South America or even in Los Angeles' suburbs. Al-Qaeda is a religious ideological organization, and so is Hezbollah. Both organizations, whose mentality and actions are similar, grew up and developed through different conflicts and confrontations. Al-Qaeda has lost most of its top ranking members who had been with the organization since the 1990s. Despite the pursuit and elimination of its members, the organization has expanded. It did not expand because it was winning militarily, but because it used both its defeats and victories to market extremist ideas.
The biggest mistake is to leave Syria an open battlefield. This simply facilitates the growth of extremist groups. … The tragedy in Syria has increased the number of recruits to the huge number we see today. It is what enabled al-Qaeda to return to the Islamic street while raising the slogan of defending the persecuted Syrian people. … Hezbollah too has gained a new military and political role in Syria, which it is being financially rewarded for. Hezbollah knows that it can compensate its victims even if it loses thousands of its fighters.
To which, I have several responses:
- Rashed rightly distinguishes between greedy thugs and motivated ideologues. The latter is far more agile and can take advantage of situations. That said, they cannot defy gravity and failure harms them no less than it does other organizations. I like to contrast the well known 9/11 with the more obscure 11/9, namely Nov. 9, 2001, when the first Taliban-held city fell to Western forces. It had a devastating impact on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
- Reviewing the historical record, including the Nazi-Soviet war and the Iraq-Iran war, both confirm that these ideological battles left all the extremists weakened. Why should the result this time be different? Indeed, fighting in Syria has already weakened the Islamists in Lebanon, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
- To be sure, protracted conflict in Syria inspires jihadis to go fight there but many are chewed up in the maw of the conflict there, lessening the danger to the rest of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
For these reasons, I stand my ground and hope the Turkish-backed Sunni jihadis long do battle with the Iranian-backed Shi'ite jihadis.
Nov. 20, 2013 update: Ralph Peters notes that "Although the old-school leaders of al Qaeda still rage against the US and jihadists welcome any chance to harm us, look at who the terrorists actually kill. We're not the main target of Sunni extremists these days. Iran, along with its allies, tops the list."
Jan. 2, 2014 update: According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Israelis are quite content with the present strategic situation in Syria:
Israeli officials say they are content for now to watch enemies No. 1 and No. 2—Hezbollah and Iran on one side, al Qaeda on the other—kill each other next door. … "It is arguably in Israel's interest to exploit the chaos without becoming embroiled in it," said Steven Simon, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington and a former senior Obama administration official.