DAVID IGNATIUS: Charting a path in the Middle East

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON – What is America doing in the Middle East? I hear that question being asked increasingly as the Obama administration finally moves toward military support for the Syrian opposition. People are rightly looking for a strategy that connects U.S. policy in Syria with what’s happening in Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and elsewhere in the region.
The administration’s goal should be to support moderate forces – meaning those that are committed to pluralism, freedom of expression and the rule of law.
Aiding the Syrian rebels mainly to undermine Iran, the chief backer of President Bashar al-Assad, would be a mistake, I think. The U.S. should oppose all sectarian extremists – Iranian-backed Hezbollah or al-Qaeda-backed Sunni jihadists, alike – who threaten the region.
The administration feels more confident about aiding the Syrian rebels because Gen. Salim Idriss, the rebel military commander, embodies these moderate, pluralist values. But U.S. officials shouldn’t have stars in their eyes: Idriss is weak militarily, and the U.S. needs to bolster him, urgently, so that he’s a real commander and not just a well-meaning American foil.
Among my Syrian rebel friends, I hear an almost desperate plea for U.S. leadership.
Idriss is a good man and a sensible leader. He has told me in multiple interviews that he favors outreach to Syria’s Alawites, Christians and other minorities; he wants to work with the Syrian army; he wants to reassure Russia of its future in Syria. But all these fine qualities will be useless if he isn’t a winner on the battlefield.
The U.S. must make clear that it’s supporting Idriss because he’s a moderate. If his forces deviate, they risk losing U.S. support.
A similar commitment to a moderate path that averts the Sunni-Shiite cataclysm should drive U.S. policy in Bahrain.
Egypt should be a third strand of the U.S. policy of backing moderation and reconciliation. The sad fact is that the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi is failing to govern in an effective, pluralistic way.
Egypt is in the political-economic equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It survives on handouts from Qatar, a U.S. ally that unwisely supports the Muslim Brotherhood. The U.S. should condition economic assistance from Washington and the IMF not on the imposition of austere reform policies but on a commitment to pluralism.
This strategy of supporting moderation and resisting sectarianism should extend to Iraq, where the U.S. spent so much in lives and money.
A final challenge is Turkey: if Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan opts for Islamist authoritarianism, he should lose Obama’s support.
Calling for moderation in the Middle East can be a fool’s errand. Arming the Syrian rebels should be part of a hard-nosed effort to stand with moderate forces, resist sectarian violence and encourage governments across the region that respect pluralism and rule of law.
Contact DAVID IGNATIUS at davidignatius@washpost.com.