The wooing of “hearts and minds” has been at the centre of military interventions for decades. President Johnson used (some would probably say abused) the phrase in reference to operations and goals in Vietnam, and the same can be said for George “Dubya” Bush during the Iraq invasion and the subsequent Islamist insurgency.
It’s an interesting concept with a long history. The phrase itself describes the act of winning a conflict (not necessarily an armed conflict) through gaining the support of a population – but what does it mean for Syria?
A recent NATO study showed that the majority (around 70%) of Syrians stand behind Assad. The stated reason for this shift in support is that “the great majority of the [Sunni] community is withdrawing from the revolt.” In short, Sunni Muslims in Syria, who comprise 74% of the total population, believe that a Syria under Assad is preferable to a Syria under foreign jihadis, suggesting that the regime isn’t really winning hearts and minds but rather the competition for desirability.
Winning hearts and minds has again become a point to consider following Thursday’s revelation that the U.S. plans to provide the Syrian opposition with “direct military aid“. Washington has stressed the importance of arming the “right” factions, but this is of course a huge gamble – the repercussions of such an undertaking are obvious and plentiful. In a sectarian conflict that has claimed close to, or more than, 100,000 lives, it’s easy to be sceptical over the efficacy of arming the fractured and increasingly radicalised opposition.
According to an article on The Washington Examiner, 7 out of 9 key rebel fighter groups are Islamist. This is no surprise; the good guys – the moderates – rarely survive years of civil war. As The Economist reported – “The hard men on both sides prevail.”
As a result of the presence of Islamist groups both regional and international support for the Syrian opposition has withered. Washington’s search for moderates amongst the numerous opposition groups has proved relatively fruitless. It’s become a hackneyed phrase, but it is true: There are only bad options left for Syria.
When it comes to the Obama administration’s foreign policy, it’s clear that the president has not won the hearts and minds of the American people, who fear that arming the rebels could draw the U.S. into direct confrontation. Opinion polls generally show that Americans still remain wary over intervention in Syria. (Although it appears the use of chemical weapons really is a “game changer” for many Americans as a more recent survey shows that “58 percent of adults said they would support military intervention if it were confirmed that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons”.)
Former president Bill Clinton has warned that, by remaining passive, Obama risks looking like a “wuss” (a painfully ironic comment given his inaction during the Rwandan genocide, but a view that I agree with nonetheless, especially given Obama’s “red line” quasi-threats) but, as mentioned previously, the options are few and precarious. Simply toppling Assad’s government is unlikely to move Syria in the right direction because of the strong Islamist presence.
The decision to supply the opposition with arms is not part of some imperialist conspiracy. The west should have supplied the moderate opposition with arms when it was still moderate. Desperation from a lack of arms has since bolstered the support base for the more amply-armed extremist groups. The al-Qa’ida associates such as al-Nusra have effectively grown stronger as the moderate groups have been starved of weaponry. Islamist groups continue to thrive as the future of the Syrian uprising becomes more and more bleak. Secular rebels have already voiced their concerns that a “second war” between opposition groups will follow Assad’s fall.
Martin Amis wrote in The Second Plane: “What has extremism ever done for anyone? Where are its gifts to humanity? Where are its works?” It’s a sad truth, but because of the growing support base for militant Islamists a bloodless peace is a unlikely prospect. It’s now considered naive to expect a western-style democracy to succeed the fall of Assad’s government. Obama knows this; the west knows this – everyone fears what might follow Assad’s fall from power, and this has deterred support long enough for the Islamists to grow considerably in size and power.
The reality is that the opposition is not winning the hearts and minds of the Syrian people anymore (the majority of whom I would speculate are less interested in ideology and more interested in peace and quietude). The west has remained passive for too long. Hearts and minds no longer lie with the democratic opposition because the democratic opposition barely exists – it has been commandeered by extremists averse to the very ideals the anti-Assad uprising was founded on.
It seems that the Syrian people are now forced to choose among evils. Their priority isn’t to form a pluralist democracy anymore, it’s to bring an end to the bloodshed – which as I’ve already mentioned, is an upsettingly distant prospect.