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Why Leaving Syria Alone is a Good Idea

Last week’s combined victory by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists in the first phase of elections in Egypt should have sent a shudder down the spine of every government opposed to the rise of radical Islam. That the two parties jointly received approximately two-thirds of the popular vote in Egypt should be all the evidence anyone needs that the likely near-term result of this year’s uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa will not be cookie-cutter western liberal democracies, but rather governments that may in the end prove contrary both to the interest of the people that fought for change, and the governments that supported such change.

In a visit to Cairo last weekend, I learned that Salafist support was strongest in Egypt’s rural areas, and that the Salafist vision of an Egypt that restricts individual rights, the rights of women, and basic freedoms struck a resonant chord with many throughout the country.

As abhorrent as this may appear to liberals and westerners, the idea of living under an Islamic code is not anathema to everyone in Egypt. I dare say, the same is true throughout the region. Tunisia just elected an Islamist government, and Libya will undoubtedly do the same when they get around to having elections (presumably next year), given that the most popular politician there is an Islamic scholar.

So I find myself asking a basic question: given that all three of the countries that have so far experienced a change of government in northern Africa this year have either already elected conservative Islamist governments, or are poised to do so, is there any reason to believe that if more governments in the region fell, the result would be any different? Does anyone really believe that the government that will replace Saleh in Yemen will be a liberal democracy? Given the strength of the Islamist movement in Algeria, and Bouteflika’s support of the Gaddafi regime until its last day, can the electoral outcome of an overthrow of his government be in serious question?

Which brings me to Syria. The global community is firmly against the continuation of the Assad regime, reasoning that Assad must go by virtue of his family’s long dictatorial rule, its alliance with Iran, and its crackdown against demonstrators. In a perfect world, they may well be right. But my view is that this is simplistic and short-sighted. As reprehensible as many Syrians and others may find Mr. Assad, they fail to imagine what Syria and the region may be like in his absence. Is there any reason to believe that a radical Islamist regime wouldn’t in the end be the result of his departure?

Turkey has led the charge against Mr. Assad but appears not to have considered the possibility that an Iran-friendly, more radical regime may emerge in Syria. Despite proclamations to the contrary, Iran’s influence is growing throughout the region, which is why the West is now so desperate to contain it. Earlier this week, the Turkish and US government said they were considering next steps in the event Mr. Assad should go, but short of sending in ground troops, they are unlikely to be able to do much more than they have done elsewhere in the region — which is to watch events as they unfold. Sending ground troops to Syria seems a remote possibility, and would undoubtedly be unwelcome by Syrians in any event.

Should a radical government take over in Syria, Israel, which is already in its most precarious position since the 1967 War, would be virtually surrounded by Islamist governments. The only missing piece would be Jordan. Given this, the likelihood that Israel will feel it has no choice but to attack Iran’s nuclear program next year has surely risen. What would it be giving up by doing so, after all? Israel argues that it faces an existential threat from a possible nuclear attack by Iran — but it also faces a possible existential threat as a result of the new landscape taking shape around it.

For that reason, the Israeli government surely prefers that Mr. Assad stay right where he is. And I would argue that is exactly what the West should prefer, for it should now be apparent to all that rapid political change is not necessarily a good thing, and the results of that change in the region to date are not encouraging. As much as the West would like to believe that everyone in the world prefers western-style democracies, that is not in fact the case, and democratic elections often deliver results contrary to what the West would like to see. It would be nice if the world were simply a place where demonstrators demonstrate, dictators fall, and liberal democracies take their place — but that is not the world we live in. I subscribe to Mr. Assad’s argument that the West should be very careful what it wishes for in Syria, because it is unlikely to get what it wants.