Three weeks before his ousting in June 2013, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi organized a major rally against the Assad regime in Cairo's International Stadium. For Egypt's secularist military, Morsi's jihadist-undertoned rhetoric supporting the Syrian rebels was a red flag and ultimately helped convince Defense Minister Sisi that the Brotherhood-backed leader had to be removed.
Egypt has since taken a 180-degree turn in its approach to the Syrian conflict. In December, it was revealed that local Egyptian traders were transferring Iraqi oil through an Egyptian port to Damascus, helping the Assad regime evade international sanctions and providing a crucial lifeline to its war effort for the past several months, likely under the watchful eye of Egyptian intelligence. Amidst the anti-Islamist fervor in post-Morsi Egypt, the once-welcomed Syrian refugee population is now facing arrest, deportation, and harassment from both police and ordinary residents, spurring an exodus of thousands.
Egypt's turnaround follows a trend witnessed in the Middle East and around the world, where jihadist-jittery governments are increasingly buying into the argument that Bashar and company have been pushing from the get-go: that a rebel victory will turn Syria into a haven for Islamic extremism and foment instability throughout the region. But what they fail to realize is that the Assad regime is duping them into choosing between one extremist future for Syria and another.
Membership in Assad's bogus counter-terrorism fan club is growing. In addition to long-time members Russia and China, the Algerian government, which stems from the same secular-nationalist roots as the Assad regime, has refused to vote against Syria in the Arab League since the conflict began. Even Jordan, whose northern border has become a springboard for foreign support to the Syrian opposition, refuses to pull its ambassador from Damascus.
To these states' credit, Assad's charges against the Syrian opposition that were completely false at the start of the Syrian revolution have now become partially true. Sunni jihadists of the most extreme breed are a major menace in opposition areas. Slightly more moderate but nonetheless anti-Western advocates of sharia law are now the uncontested tip of the spear of the rebel campaign, prompting the United States to roll back whatever limited military support they were offering the rebels in the first place.
While the democracies of the West and the not-so-democratic regimes of the Middle East fixate over Assad's horrific prophesy of Syria as an al-Qaeda haven, his long-standing ties with extremists and contributions to regional instability go ignored. The same jihadist groups whom Assad allowed to stream into Iraq during the U.S. occupation have formed the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (Syria), which prioritizes forcing sharia law onto held areas over fighting the Assad regime. The notable absence of regime airstrikes in ISIS-held areas in northern Syria has led many to believe that the Assad regime is intentionally enabling the group's growth in order to isolate the moderate opposition. In fact, the ISIS have become so despised by local moderate Syrians that moderate and even Salafist rebels have turned against them, leading to interrebel clashes throughout northern Syria. Whether the U.S. will take note of this anti-Al Qaeda turnaround remains to be seen.
While Bashar and his wife Asma post photos of themselves wearing jeans and t-shirts on Instagram, he allows Shiite extremists to flood into the country. A recent report by the Meir Amit terrorism center in Israel suggested that the number of foreign Shiite jihadists in Syria is now greater than the number of foreign Sunni jihadists. Sent by hardline clerics in their home countries, these fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran aren't exactly volunteering to ensure that Syria becomes a liberal democracy. Rather, they use fundamentalist and anti-Western propaganda to recruit more fighters to join what they openly brand as a holy war. Assad places these Shiite extremists at the forefront of his so-called counter terrorism campaign, trusting their willingness to die for religious beliefs (in other words, to carry out jihad) over his beleaguered conventional military to attack rebel bastions.
It is hard to believe that Iran and Hezbollah will simply pack up and leave Syria without asking Assad to return the favor if the rebels are ever defeated. Similar to the feared al-Qaeda haven scenario, Syria will become a training ground and launching pad for Shiite extremists like Hezbollah to continue fighting their enemies across the region and in the West. In fact, the Assad regime has already risked war with Israel multiple times by following Iranian orders and transferring advanced anti-aircraft missiles and other advanced weapons to Hezbollah. Some seem to have forgotten that Hezbollah is listed on both sides of the Atlantic as a terrorist organization.
Meanwhile, as Lebanon teeters on the brink of civil war, it remains the stage for a mafia-style intimidation campaign led by the Assad regime and Hezbollah. On December 27 a brazen bombing attack killed moderate anti-Syrian Lebanese politician (and former ambassador to Washington) Mohammed Chatah in Beirut. It was the third attack of its kind to be blamed on Assad regime agents following the assassination of a prominent Sunni security official in October 2012, and the bombings of two Sunni mosques in the northern city of Tripoli in August 2013.
Indeed, the only thing more disturbing than Mr. Assad's seemingly fulfilled al-Qaeda prophecy is his ability to sell himself to the international community as the antichrist of religious extremism or a guarantor of regional stability. For those who truly care about preserving stability in the Middle East, the time has come to stop letting a dictator dictate the rules of the game, and to start empowering Syria's moderates while they still exist.