It looks like the U.S. military will soon be striking Syria in response to the apparent use of chemical weapons against civilians by Bashar al-Assad's regime. In response, some critics have questioned whether this will make any difference in deterring future use of WMDs, or if it might escalate the Syrian civil war into a wider, regional conflict. Others have asked why the U.S. should get involved now, when Assad's regime has long been guilty of killing Syrian civilians, just with conventional weapons rather than WMDs.
One line of criticism, though, deserves particular attention: the claim that, by hitting Assad's military, the U.S. is allying itself with Islamist militants, effectively the same Al-Qaeda-style groups that attacked the U.S. on 9/11. Radio pundit Sean Hannity and former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), normally political adversaries, have forged an alliance over the issue, with Kucinich appearing on Hannity's radio show and wondering aloud if Obama was serving as commander of "Al-Qaeda's air force".
But there are real problems with this criticism.
First of all, it's not unheard of for the U.S. to ally with enemies. We sided with and gave weapons to Stalin and the USSR in World War II, we aided mujahideen in Afghanistan (one of them being Osama bin Laden, the eventual head of Al-Qaeda) in the 1980s, and in Anbar, Iraq, the U.S. military worked alongside Sunni militants who had joined the Sahwa, some of them only weeks after having fought and killed U.S. soldiers. So, yes, war creates strange bedfellows. (After all, look at Hannity and Kucinich.)
Second, the forces opposed to Assad in Syria are not all Islamists. Granted, the most effective of the anti-Assad forces (Jabhat al-Nusra) are allied with Al-Qaeda. But the rebels fighting in Syria are by no means monolithic.
Third, and this is the most important rebuttal, what are the realistic prospects of an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group taking over Syria?
Even supposing that the rebels overthrow Assad, Syria is a profoundly damaged and fragmented country. If Jabhat al-Nusra does come out on top, what would they actually be ruling? The Kurds in the east, for instance, would likely split themselves off and seek refuge or even unification with the largely autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq.
Moreover, an Islamist government would make Syria's refugee problem even worse. Christians (who make up 10% or more of Syria's population) and Alawites (also 10% or more) would likely flee in droves from a Sunni government that sought to impose some strict form of sharia law. Granted, the current ruling regime is Alawite, and I imagine many Syrians would be happy if they left. But this would mean an even greater loss of the skilled labor pool necessary to run a modern state.
And whatever portion of the country that Islamists might wind up controlling after Assad goes, it will have been torn to pieces by the civil war. The pictures out of Syria show roads, buildings, and infrastructure of all sorts in utter devastation. Whoever runs the country after Assad is gone will have a massive job on their hands in terms of rebuilding. That's going to require huge amounts of international aid.
But an Islamist government won't even get the meager resources that Iran is devoting to prop up Assad, let alone the cash that the West has to offer. Even the Arab world may snub them, given that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recently offered $12 billion to Egypt amidst the ousting of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Where is an Islamist government going to get the money to provide the most basic of services, let alone the money needed to pose a threat to other countries in the region?
There is always a legitimate fear that getting rid of one bad regime will make way for an even worse one. And there is certainly a dangerous strain of Sunni terrorism that is coursing through the Middle East. But I would argue that the Shiite network of terrorists — Iran, Syria, Hezbollah — is more potent. And with Assad gone, Iran will lose one of its few allies, and Hezbollah will be seriously (even mortally) wounded.
It's far from clear that Sunni Islamist militants will take over Syria, or how much they'll be capable of even if they do (they seem to be losing in Afghanistan). Keep in mind, after being in control of the Gaza Strip for five years, Hamas is still far from implementing sharia law. And Iran has eased off enforcing religious dress codes on women (not that they were ever really winning that battle).
While we do need to be careful about what happens in Syria after Assad (and hopefully he'll be gone soon), we shouldn't imagine that a terrorist-sponsoring, sharia-imposing Islamic state is going to immediately take root and prosper. Al-Qaeda may be able to win a war, but they don't know how to run a government.