While making his case for further American military action against the self-styled Islamic State tonight, the President is expected to call for further American support for "vetted" or "moderate" rebels against the Syrian government. Neither Obama nor the Republicans seem reconciled to the idea that Bashar al-Assad's dictatorship may be Syria's best defense against an IS takeover. In fact, you're likely to read or hear that Assad is somehow to blame for ISIS's ascendancy in his own country -- that's "Islamic State in Syria," after all, if only through his refusal to capitulate and abdicate. You also hear from Republicans (and some hawkish Democrats) that Obama is to blame for the spread of ISIS because he hasn't heretofore given adequate support to the moderates who are somehow to defeat both ISIS and Assad. If they were capable they'd be winning -- but this argument won't work with those idealists who feel that there has to be a moderate force, a Syrian constituency for liberal, pluralist democracy. Such a force would automatically deserve to win and therefore should be supported with all available resources. If they don't win, if Syria remains a Baathist dictatorship (if not an Alawite monarchy) or becomes part of a jihadist caliphate, it has to be Obama's fault in particular and the U.S.'s fault in general because liberal pluralist democrats have to win everywhere, and liberal pluralist democrats everywhere have to support their comrades in Syria.
There's been an uprising in Syria because the country is a dictatorship and quite a few Syrians can't stand it. Bashar al-Assad may as well be King Bashar; his dynastic succession is as much an insult to the modernist ideals of the Baath party as Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un's reigns have been to Marxism and Leninism. Plenty of Syrians presumably have plenty of reasons to be rid of Assad and the Baathists, if not of the Alawite clique over which Bashar presides. But what do these disgruntled Syrians want in Assad's place? Americans suppose that they know what the Syrians should want, but it doesn't follow that that's what the people who actually first took up arms against Assad wanted. The sad fact is that there seems to be no consensus among the Syrian rebels themselves, who seem to fight amongst themselves as often as they fight the government. There are relative liberals among the rebels, but all accounts portray them as weak -- that may come with the liberalism -- and there's no reason to believe that American money and material support will make them any more formidable than the Iraqi army has been in the face of the IS assault. There's no evidence I know of to indicate that a majority of rebel supporters, much less a majority of Syrians, seek the sort of liberal pluralist democracy we think they should want. Perhaps the best proof against any Assad complaint that the entire uprising is an American plot is the fact that our favorites aren't in command right now. But a sudden ascendancy of liberal pluralist fighters, without a proportionate expansion of their popular base, would allow Assad to say that the U.S. has co-opted the uprising as much as the jihadis have. Leaving that aside, doesn't it simply seem unfair for us, who didn't start this rebellion, to dictate how it should turn out, or to say this particular group should win regardless of their share of fighting or organization? Offensive as it may be to our liberal sensibilities, the best option may be to let Assad win, if he can, if not to help him win. But Assad is too friendly with Iran and Russia, and too unfriendly with Israel, for most Americans to support him even for the sake of regional stability. Yet he may be the Stalin we must work with, clothespins on noses if necessary, to defeat the caliphists we deem the Hitlers of our time. But I fear that too many of today's Americans, transplanted to World War II, would root for moderates to win the battle of Stalingrad.