Don't Let the Syrian Rebels Win

An outright victory by Assad’s enemies would be a disaster.

It may well be true, as recent news reports tell us, that Bashar al-Assad's regime in Damascus, increasingly desperate in the face of an unrelenting rebel onslaught, is prepared to use chemical weapons against its own citizens. The Syrian leader himself, all the main power brokers in his government, and virtually all of the country's military officer corps come from a long-persecuted minority that legitimately fears that this war is a matter of "kill or be killed" for the Alawites, who make up around 12 percent of Syria's population. The Alawites left what is now Iraq a millennium ago and settled in the dusty hills of northwest Syria overlooking the Mediterranean. A doubly heretical sect in the eyes of orthodox Sunni Muslims -- as an offshoot of Shiite Islam -- the Alawites lived an isolated existence for centuries as their religion evolved to reflect various folk traditions.

The Alawites have few defenders in the Arab world, both because of the unorthodox nature of their religion and because of the horrible nature of the Baathist regime they have controlled since the 1960s. Nor does it help that they are widely seen as pawns of Iranian interests in the region. The regime's fall -- which is still far from certain -- will not be widely mourned in the Arab world, outside of Tehran and in Hezbollah circles.

The fall of the House of Assad will likely be celebrated by many in the West. But banking on the well-heeled Syrian expatriate community to come to power for any length of time is a losing bet. The exiles may have won the support of the Obama administration and others, but have little chance of holding power in Syria for any length of time, barring international occupation of the country. And nobody thinks the United States has any appetite to occupy another Arab country militarily, even for a relatively short period of time.

In other words, forget about the expats. The people that will ultimately take power in Syria are the armed men who control the country's streets, villages, and towns right now. They do not speak with a single voice, and are often people just looking to protect their families and communities from the Assads' onslaught. As for the rebel "Free Syrian Army," it is no army at all in the sense of having any kind of command and control over its constituent units.

What about the budding terrorist groups we hear so often about? The specter of foreign jihadis -- al Qaeda and its fellow travellers -- infiltrating the Syrian opposition and coming to power in Damascus is a silly, unrealistic notion promoted by those overeager to send in the U.S. Marines to Latakia. There is little evidence that foreign jihadis represent anything more than a sliver of those fighting the Assad regime.

But Syria does not need foreign jihadis and radical Islamists -- it has more than enough of the home-grown variety. This is where people so often miss the nature of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, easily the most coherent political force in Syria's opposition today. It is an organization stuck in a time warp from 1982, when it lost the last round of Syria's long civil war, and has been waiting for its chance at revenge. Syria's Muslim Brotherhood is not like its analogues in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, or Morocco; it has not been part of the political process for decades, "tamed" by having to get its hands dirty in the everyday stuff of politics. It has been a capital offense to be a member or give any support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria for three decades. As a result, the organization is secretive and opaque, and it's not clear how much its cadres inside the country interact with its exiled leadership.

Many of the fighters currently battling the Syrian regime honed their guerrilla skills in Iraq, learning urban combat techniques fighting Americans in Iraq from 2003 to 2007. Those who were not killed in Iraq made their way back to Syria (the largest entry point for foreign jihadis entering Iraq during that war), and have taken up arms against their own regime. Their ability to kill a large number of regime forces from the outset of this current round of civil war is indicative of the skill set they already possessed 19 months ago. The body count of 4:1 during the early months of this civil war -- that is, four opponents killed for every soldier killed -- is quite good for unorganized insurgent groups.

In fact, the insurgents might be too good. Neither Syria nor the region would be well served by a decisive victory by either the Assad regime or by the opposition. Breathless supporters of Syria's revolution need to be careful what they wish for. The most powerful elements of Syria's armed opposition would almost certainly be no friend of liberal democracy were they to seize power for themselves. Consider this: The dissidents who brought down autocratic governments in Egypt and Tunisia, even the political Islamists among them, were far more politically liberal than what we see in Syria. And look at those countries now.

What, then? It is not fashionable to say so, but a negotiated outcome remains the best solution to end the killing and prevent the worst elements from either side ruling Syria. An outright opposition victory would likely produce a momentary air of euphoria before the steep decline toward autocracy and darkness begin.



Lost in Cyberspace

Why the State Department’s proposed new Twitter restrictions are a terrible idea.

According to a draft U.S. State Department document obtained by the blog Diplopundit, State employees tweeting in their official capacity may soon have to submit their tweets to a two-day review before posting them. Like other measures being considered in Foggy Bottom, the restrictions on tweeting are meant to ensure employees do not write things that could "damage the department" or disclose "protected information," which goes beyond current prohibitions on disclosing personally identifiable information and classified material.

Although the review began before the U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted controversial denunciations of the anti-Mohamed YouTube clip that sparked riots in September, friends at State tell me that Embassy Cairo's tweets -- which were not approved by Washington -- gave added urgency to the effort to draft new guidelines for online behavior. State's contemplated restrictions on its employees' use of Twitter do not arise from a misunderstanding of a medium; some of Twitter's most prominent members, including Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, work or have worked at State. Rather, State worries that the freewheeling, uncontrollable environment of Twitter could lead the public interpret the tweets of its employees as representing the official U.S. position on sensitive issues.

Although State's fears are understandable given the misunderstandings that frequently occur on Twitter, it might consider the upsides of unrestricted tweeting before implementing its new policy. The job of many Foreign Service officers overseas is to understand people in their host countries and build positive relationships with them. One can gain some insight from passively reading tweets by locals, just as one can gain insight by sitting in an embassy and reading local newspapers. But true insight comes from frequent interaction, which more readily challenges assumptions and sharpens cultural awareness. Over time, these interactions can lead to enduring relationships that are useful in a crisis, as Cohen found during Iran's Green Revolution. Enduring Twitter relationships are also a safeguard against tweets being taken out of context, as I found as a private citizen when Twitter users defended me against unfair accusations following my tweets about Anders Breivik's attack in Norway. The more State allows its employees to tweet during periods of calm, the more likely it will be that the institution can weed out problem tweeters and elevate those who have done a good job cultivating a community of interest.

There is also something to be said for creating a little distance between the official U.S. position declared by a State spokesperson and tweets from embassy spokespeople and employees. State can take a long time formulating messages in response to crises because it has to vet them in many offices and, often, with the national security staff in the White House. By allowing embassy tweeters to message on their own, State will get early indications of what works and what doesn't for the various audiences it is trying to reach. The department is also relying on people who know the country better than folks back in Washington. If an employee says something that does not work, State has the luxury of correcting it publicly.

Take away unrestricted tweeting, however, and State has only itself to blame for a message gone wrong; it loses its strategic depth because it has nowhere to retreat. Take away the ability of State employees to have meaningful, real-time interactions with people online and State loses a powerful tool for accomplishing two of its core missions: creating positive ties with foreign citizens and knowing what makes them tick. The United States' ability to achieve its objectives overseas will suffer as a consequence.

UPDATE: Alec J. Ross, senior advisor for innovation at the Office of the Secretary of State, responds:

Updating our social-media guidelines will help make the State Dept MORE open and social media-centric, not less open. It will also make us faster.

EXISTING guidelines allow a 30-day review period for all forms of public communication, including those intended for online publications and social media, though in practice review and response is much quicker. That means that the policy we have in place NOW allows us a 30-day review period. If the DRAFT guidelines go into effect as they are (and they’re still draft), that would shrink from 30 days to two days for a small subset of content. It doesn't mean that we would take the two days or that it would increase the number of social media posts that are reviewed. We just want to provide an outside window by which employees are promised a response.