Bloom is off Arab Spring

Tony George



Civilians flee from fighting after Syrian army tanks enter the northwestern city of Idlib, Syria, Wednesday. Syrian President Bashar Assad ordered a referendum for later this month on a new constitution that would allow political parties other than his ruling Baath Party, the centerpiece of reforms he has promised to ease the crisis, even as the Syrian military on Wednesday besieged rebellious areas.

After a year of bloodshed, the so-called Arab Spring is veering dangerously off course. The revolutions are seemingly more Khomeini and less Jefferson; theocracy is trumping democracy. U.S. policy appears to be more about wishful thinking than Islamic realism.

With the United Nations revved up about freedom in the Middle East, it's time to wonder whether radical Islam and democracy are even compatible.

The more the United States and its allies use political muscle to force-feed democracy there, the bloodier the fighting has become. In Syria, for example, what began as anti-government protests have morphed into a near civil war. Once-peaceful Syrian neighborhoods are now killing fields.

President Barack Obama, who encouraged the pro-democracy movements in the Middle East, now seems clueless as to a strategy to deal with the worsening crisis that is empowering extremists to seize power.

He once compared Egyptian dissidents to Rosa Parks and (the original) Boston patriots, when, in fact, there was the clear danger that the protests were being hijacked by radicals who wanted no part of democracy, much less religious freedom, except for their own. Obama says he wants to give peaceful negotiations a chance to resolve the conflict -- then pulls American diplomats out of Syria.

He raises eyebrows among those who understand the complexities of Middle Eastern politics when he praises the efforts of the Arab League to foster self-determination in Syria. What a joke. The Saudis and other Muslim monarchies want no part of free elections or dissent within their own borders.

The media finally are reporting just how thoroughly Obama and his ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, have been duped about the makeup of the protestors.

Last week, McClatchy Newspapers reported that al-Qaida was behind deadly attacks and suicide bombings that were part of ramped-up violence in Syria in recent weeks. It seems al-Qaida never wastes a crisis anywhere.

It's vintage al-Qaida to infiltrate peaceful protests, crank up the violence against government forces and civilians, then blame the retaliatory attacks on a government they want to destroy. This fuels U.S. anger, prompts more United Nations sanctions and even inspires calls to arm Syrian rebels. Score one for al-Qaida.

For sure, terrorist provocation is no excuse for the excessive force the government forces have employed against civilians. Many people feel it is a stretch to think that Syrian President Bashar Assad, the father of three children and husband to a Sunni, would personally order troops to fire into crowds. Assad can win over his critics and can demonstrate to the world what real leadership looks like by holding his security forces immediately accountable for any human-rights violations.

Another major flaw in Obama's policy is there is no strategy to protect the millions of Christians caught in the sectarian crossfire in the Islamic world.

While Obama is focused on the killings of protesters -- and rightfully so -- Christians are being butchered throughout the Middle East in what Ayaan Hirsi Ali, writing in Newsweek, calls "a rising genocide that ought to provoke global alarm."

Christians are fleeing this Islamic power struggle (2 million fled Iraq to find safe harbor in Syria, where they are being protected by Assad).

The U.S. policy of encouraging democracy in a region where theocrats have ruled for centuries is backfiring. The anti-American Muslim Brotherhood has taken advantage of free elections to win nearly half of the seats in the Egyptian parliament. The provisional government thumbed its nose at Obama by targeting for arrest Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, for -- believe it or not -- teaching Egyptians the mechanics of free elections!

It is doubtful the United States ever intended to give the Muslim Brotherhood more political clout in Egypt, to allow Iraq to drift closer to Tehran's orbit, to enable Iran to become a nuclear power or to seat a government in Pakistan that wants to kick out NATO and play nice with the Taliban.

It's time for the United States and allies to back off their blind support of so-called democracy movements in the Middle East and face the reality that maybe radical Islam and democracy will never co-exist. The Arab World is not Montgomery, Ala., or revolutionary Boston.

It is right for Obama to harshly criticize Assad for the killing of civilians. Too much blood has been shed. But "to keep all options open," including arming protesters or giving them the false hope that we have their backs, is dangerous -- as Iranian dissidents learned last year.

The stakes are too high for such blind and naive intervention in complex Middle Eastern theocratic politics. This initiative is setting the stage for bloody civil wars and Christian genocide and emboldening our terrorist enemies.

Tony George, a Cleveland businessman, is a former board member of the Arab-American Institute, former member of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and former member of the Syrian Cultural Garden Committee. He is an American-born Syrian Christian who met with Assad in 2004 to discuss reforms.

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