(Host) The American decision to formally recognize a coalition of Syrian
opposition groups as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian
people, is seen by critics here and abroad as too little, too late. Yet
as commentator and veteran ABC News foreign correspondent Barrie
Dunsmore says, we should see Washington’s great caution over involvement
in the Syrian revolution as the new normal.
Syrian civil war is about to end its second year and has so far cost
about 40,000 lives. While both liberals and conservatives – for
different reasons – have urged much greater American involvement, the
United States has made a conscious effort to avoid being unwittingly
dragged into a Syrian military intervention. And with good reason.
Americans need reminding that the vast majority of the people fighting
for change in the Middle East are Muslims – including very conservative
ones. Moreover, in Syria the struggle is becoming not just for power but
over which branch of Islam – Shia or Sunni – is going to prevail.
President Bashar Assad and his supporters are mainly Alawites – which is
a Shiite offshoot. Most of Assad’s opponents are Sunni’s. There are
Lebanese, Syrian and Armenian Christians, Kurds and Druze in the mix.
But since the Iranian revolution of 1979, the historical Sunni-Shia
enmity – exemplified today by Saudi Arabia and Iran – is the fault line
of most of the region’s civil conflicts.
President Barack Obama
has repeatedly called for President Assad to step down. He has tacitly
given his approval for states such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to
provide weapons for the rebels. And America has given the rebels
non-lethal support such as communications equipment. But Obama hasn’t
wanted to supply heavy weapons to Islamic extremists who might one day
turn those weapons against America’s interests and allies. That is
essentially what happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s when the U.S.
armed Islamic freedom fighters to help drive out the Russians – only to
have many of those same fighters, including Osama Bin Ladin himself,
morph into al Qaeda.
It now turns out that the Nusra Front – the
most aggressive and militarily successful rebels in Syria – are Sunni
Muslim extremists trained and equipped by al Qaeda in Iraq. They’re said
to be the best fighters and as such they are popular with Sunni
civilians and respected by their fellow rebels.
When the US
followed France, Britain and Turkey in recognizing the Syrian Opposition
coalition, it explicitly relegated the Nusra Front to the State
Department’s list of terrorist groups, along with some sketchy militias
fighting on behalf of the Assad regime.
US recognition of the
Syrian opposition was expected to be welcomed by the rebels, But
according to early reports from Syria, American efforts to also isolate
the Nusra Front have generated even more anti-American feeling among
rebel groups generally. They were already frustrated with Washington
because of its cautionary approach.
The reality is that the
people of the Arab street blame the United States for its decades long
coddling of Arab dictators – those recently overthrown or still with us.
America has interests in the region and it still has some influence.
But it does not have the absolute power to impose its will on complex
conflicts – as we have vividly seen in Iraq and Afghanistan – and are
seeing now in Syria, Libya and Egypt.