The Real Reason the West Is So Passive in Syria

By Antoine Basbous

Originally published in Le Temps.

PARIS - Let's be honest, Syria's June 3 presidential election was nothing but a giant government-orchestrated masquerade. Bashar al-Assad will remain president of Syria, a country whose population has been largely decimated, as the three-year-long conflict has turned the country into a battleground for international jihadists from Shia and Sunni Islam, with the direct involvement of Iran and Russia.

Back in 2000, Assad's political ascendance was made possible by rushed constitutional reform to lower the minimum age for presidential candidates. He succeeded his father, who took power by a coup d'état in 1970.

How can we explain the longevity of this dynasty when the Assad family is from an Alawite minority (representing about 12% of the population) that has long been persecuted? Central to their success was the craftiness and brutality of the intelligence and law enforcement agencies, as well as the Assads' ability to numb the Syrian people by presenting sacrifices as necessary for the success of the Palestinian cause.

This trickery lasted until the 2011 "tsunami" when the Syrian people started to aspire to democracy. Trapped, Assad launched a diversion that should be covered in academic war studies, by turning the liberation movement into a religious conflict by freeing thousands of jihadists that he had sent to Iraq in 2004 to fight against the American military. There were members of al-Qaeda originally from Iran, who had found shelter in Syria after 2011, and served as the ideal structure to welcome all the jihadists into the country.

Then Baghdad's pro-Iran regime helped some 1,500 jihadists escape from its prisons, and they too moved to Syria. That's how the opposition's jihadist pipeline, manipulated by Tehran and Damascus, was born.

Iran has become a co-warmonger in Syria, engaging its elite soldiers and their auxiliaries from Hezbollah with cargos of weapons and generous financing. By highlighting the cruelty of Sunni Islam, Assad has tried to hide that the Shia-Alawite faction is actually just as cruel.

This all-out war waged by Assad and his allies, characterized by a systematic scorched-earth strategy, has displaced at least 40% of the country's population. It has even threatened the very identity of Syrian neighbors such as Lebanon.

Unconscionable passivity

Still, the biggest enigma remains the West's attitude toward the "hangman" Assad. The West has failed the Syrian people by encouraging them to overthrow the regime without providing any support. At the same time, the dictator's allies have been supplying him with multiple forms of assistance. Nothing has been able to sway the guilty passivity of the West. Not the use of chemical weapons or food blockade, neither barrel-bombing of civilians nor the torture deaths of some 11,000 prisoners. This is a West led by Barack Obama, who is a brilliant lawyer but otherwise incapable - because of a lack of authority or calculation - of making himself respected.

It is true that the U.S. president was elected (and re-elected) to end the conflicts of his predecessor, but his justifications for inaction are suspicious. While a direct response has been ruled out, nothing is stopping U.S. intelligence from doing in Syria what they have succeeded doing elsewhere by helping the moderate opposition rebuild itself. Moreover, it is this moderate opposition that's now pitted against jihadists and terrorists.

How can we explain that the collective defense capacity of the West is apparently unwilling to train 20 Syrian deserters and give them ground-air missiles to reduce Assad's air superiority and leave him no choice but to negotiate?

The mystery is so large that it is legitimate to doubt the sincerity of the West and its ally Israel about their desire for a political transition in Syria. Why haven't these powers allowed Gulf countries or Turkey to deliver equipment? Are the Syrian people being sacrificed on the altar of Iranian-American negotiation? Or is it about exhausting global jihadists in an endless war of attrition?

The result is clear. Assad can keep on destroying his people in the name of the fight against terrorism. Instead of stepping aside - like what Tunisian, Egyptian or Yemenite dictators did - Assad slaughters his people and presides over a divided country.

Regional civil war that has appeared to be a conflict between Sunnis and Shia Islam is far from being extinguished. Syria has become this century's largest cemetery. The West needs to react to mitigate the suffering of a people that has become martyrs, and to stop the flux of Western jihadists who will inevitably return to destabilize their native countries.

This can be done without sending a single soldier to Syria.

Antoine Basbous is a Franco-Lebanase political scientist and director of the Paris-based Arab Nations Observatory (OPA).

Originally published by Worldcrunch. Republished with permission.

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