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Kapil Komireddi Headshot

What's Next for Obama and Syria?

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Barack Obama's reelection coincided with devastating assaults by the Free Syrian Army on suburbs throughout the Syrian capital of Damascus. Obama's reelection was celebrated in the United States as an affirmation of American diversity. In Syria, jihadis backed by America's allies in the region were unravelling the Middle East's most enduring ethno-religious mosaic. In Aleppo and Damascus, opposition fighters targeted Christians and other minorities. Insurgents blew up an evangelical church in Aleppo's old town.

Had these actions, aimed at terrorizing religious minorities loyal to the regime and reorganizing the society through violence, occurred anywhere else, the west would be rushing to condemn them by their actual name: acts of terrorism. But because they happen in a country that is aligned with Iran, the west's great nemesis in the region, we call it a people's uprising, a revolution. Most western observers of the Middle East know this to be nonsense. But self-elevating fantasies -- particularly the conceit that political conflicts elsewhere are driven primarily by the desire to achieve western-style democracy -- are not easily suppressed.

Obama has thus far resisted the clamor to intervene militarily in Syria. But attempts to lure America into the conflict in his second term will only increase. The Syrian opposition is following the example of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which, in 1999, compelled NATO to interfere in the former Yugoslavia on its behalf. "Often indiscriminate in their attacks," Madeline Albright, then the U.S. Secretary of State, wrote in her assessment of the Kosovo Liberation Army, "they seemed intent on provoking a massive Serb response so that international intervention would be inevitable." The Free Syrian Army is doing exactly that.

There is a belief in the west that ousting Bashar Al-Assad, the president of Syria, from power will weaken Iran's clout in the region -- and thus assist Israel. From James Rubin and Max Boot in America to Jonathan Freedland in Britain, the popularity of this insidious idea transcends political divisions. But having reported from Syria, I believe rushing to oust Assad will produce the opposite results. Far from weakening Tehran or strengthening Tel Aviv, it will create chaos on Israel's doorstep.

Syria right now is a catchment for jihadis from places as far as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chechnya -- many of them on subventions from Saudi Arabia. They have, among other things, blown up churches, attacked Shiites, carried out beheadings and expelled at least 80,000 Christians from the province of Homs. If this is what they are prepared to do to Christians and Shiites, imagine what they must be willing to do to Jews. As I wrote in Israel's Haaretz newspaper recently, one "rebel," from Afghanistan, openly declared to me his desire to take up the "fight against the Jews" once Assad is ousted. It would be foolish to assume that this phenomenon is limited to a handful of rebels. Hatred of Israel remains a powerful tool of political mobilisation in the region. It's bewildering, therefore, to see Israel's friends in the west offer solutions for Syria that will only produce long-term threats to Israel's security.

Does this mean that Obama must let the fighting in Syria continue? Not at all. Stopping the fighting in Syria is not as difficult a task as the pro-intervention lobby makes it out to be. The Syrian opposition fighters receive their arms, funding and training from three sources: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey -- all of them American allies. A deal is waiting to be made here. If President Obama can lean on them to force their clients in the Free Syrian Army to negotiate, Russia will almost certainly reciprocate by pushing Assad, their beneficiary, to the table. The bloodshed will halt. The idea that such a move will only give Assad time to commit more killings is, in the words of Kofi Annan, "a piece of unmitigated nonsense." Assad has nothing now to gain from prolonging the violence: every piece of footage of carnage helps advance his adversaries' cause, not his.

President Obama can bring this conflict to a close by focusing on intense diplomacy. But if he succumbs to the clamor of the interventionists -- the cottage industry of sedentary experts that flourishes on war -- he will repeat the mistake that America committed in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the prospect of humiliating the Soviets in Afghanistan trumped every concern about arming unknown fighters in the Taliban. That mistake came back to haunt the United States, and those of us who inhabit that region, two decades later. Following the interventionists' script will turn Syria into another Afghanistan. Obama, in his second term, must now ensure that he doesn't end up creating a launching pad for the most implacably anti-Israeli Islamists who have congregated in Syria. Otherwise, as John R. Bradley, a preemiment expert of the region, warned recently in Britain's Jewish Chronicle, Israel may find itself "confronting an even more determined, uncontrollable and fanatical enemy than the Assad regime has ever proved to be."