Mideast poses a big challenge for next president

By Trudy Rubin, Inquirer Columnist

This week I set off for Turkey, the Turkish border with Syria, and – depending on circumstances – to rebel-controlled areas in Syria. I will continue on to Egypt, where a Muslim Brotherhood president is in charge.

I want to write about some of the toughest foreign-policy challenges facing the next U.S. president. No question, many will originate in Middle Eastern countries. That fact was self-evident at the final presidential debate, where the sparring largely focused on how to handle the negative fallout from the Arab Spring.

Two years on, the demise of Mideast dictators and rise of “democracy” have produced a handful of elected Islamic governments with harder-line militants pressing from the right. Meanwhile, the Syrian uprising has deteriorated into an ugly sectarian war that is spreading across the region, drawing in Sunni jihadis along with Iranian weapons and fighters.

Casting a shadow over it all, the nuclear program of Iran’s ayatollahs could suck us into another Mideast war. On the other hand, if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad falls, it could undermine his closest ally – Tehran.

So the next president will have to manage a bad Mideast situation and try to prevent it from deteriorating further (in hopes that the region will settle down over the next decade). On both counts, U.S. policy toward Syria and Egypt will be key.

Egypt is the test case on whether Washington can work with newly elected Islamic governments, whose outlook and values differ from ours, but with whom we do share some key interests. It will also test whether we can help disorganized Arab democrats without nurturing illusions about our capacity for social engineering. These are questions I’ll be asking members of President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement, as well as unhappy opposition activists, who fear the Islamists will produce a new variant of authoritarian regime.

In Turkey and along the Syrian border, I’ll be looking at what can (or can’t) be done to bring the Syrian civil war to a quicker and less disastrous conclusion. Can we help the more pragmatic Syrian factions shape the transition that will follow Assad’s fall?

I’ll be attending an opposition conference in Istanbul run by the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, headed by intellectual and activist Radwan Ziadeh. Its goal: to encourage a wide spectrum of civilian and military activists from inside and outside Syria to hammer out a plan for how to lead Syria through a transition to a new era.

The failure of the fractious and divided opposition to unify around one set of political leaders has complicated the task of aiding them. Despite continuous U.S. pressure, exiled leaders were slow to reach out to rebels on the ground, which prevented the establishment of a government-in-exile.

The Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on nonviolent protesters spawned a military rebellion that has produced hundreds of Sunni village militias that are now pitted against thuggish militias from Assad’s Alawite (Shiite) sect. Into this maelstrom have rushed Sunni jihadis from other countries, including elements of al-Qaeda.

The war will end, the Obama administration says, only when a credible opposition leadership reaches out to key Syrian communities that still support Assad – such as Alawites, Christians, and wealthy Sunni merchants. U.S. officials believe those communities might withdraw their support, precipitating Assad’s fall, if they were assured they’d have a future in a post-Assad Syria. Right now they fear they’d be driven out (or worse) by leaders of a new Islamic state.

With its focus on a political strategy, U.S. aid to the opposition has been limited to nonlethal assistance (such as communications equipment) to nonviolent groups within and outside the country.

President Obama contends that giving the rebels antitank or antiaircraft weapons risks having those weapons fall into the hands of jihadi militias. To create a no-fly zone over rebel-held areas, as demanded by some Republican hawks, would require massive use of NATO airpower to suppress extensive Syrian air defenses – something neither presidential candidate wants to do.

Obama’s critics argue that the administration should have put more effort, earlier, into identifying which groups it could work with, and given them the heavy weapons they needed to fend off Syrian planes and tanks that massacre civilians. This would allow the rebels to create a de facto no-fly zone.

Otherwise, argue Syrian activists, weapons supplied by Gulf states and private Arab businessmen will flow primarily to hard-line Islamists, who will be in position to take control once Assad falls.

I’ve made the latter case in my column. So I’m eager to test it in conversations with militia leaders and members of civilian councils in areas along the Syrian border with Turkey, where Assad has lost control. I recognize the limits to what can be learned from talking with rebels in one area of the country. But I’m still eager to observe the relative strength of pragmatists and hard-line Islamists in the “liberated” belt of northeastern Syria.

After all, one of the first tests a new president will face will be how to speed the end of a Syrian crisis that could further radicalize the whole region – and whether it’s possible to prevent Syria from becoming yet another troubled Islamic state.


E-mail Trudy Rubin at trubin@phillynews.com.