America's Alibis for Not Helping Syria
There are the Friends of Syria, and there are the Friends of the Syrian Regime. The former, a large group-the United States, the Europeans and the bulk of Arab governments-is casting about for a way to end the Assad regime's assault on its own people. In their ranks there is irresolution and endless talk about the complications and the uniqueness of the Syrian case.
No such uncertainty detains the Friends of the Syrian Regime-Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and to a lesser extent China. In this camp, there is a will to prevail, a knowledge of the stakes in this cruel contest, and material assistance for the Damascus dictatorship.
In the face of the barbarism unleashed on the helpless people of Homs, the Friends of Syria squirm and hope to be delivered from any meaningful burdens. Still, they are meeting Friday in Tunis to discuss their options. But Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad needn't worry. The Tunisian hosts themselves proclaimed that this convocation held on their soil precluded a decision in favor of foreign military intervention.
Syria is not Libya, the mantra goes, especially in Washington. The provision of arms to the Syrian opposition is "premature," Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently stated. We don't know the Syrian opposition, another alibi has it-they are of uncertain provenance and are internally divided. Our weapons could end up in the wrong hands, and besides, we would be "militarizing" this conflict.
Those speaking in such ways seem to overlook the disparity in firepower between the Damascus ruler with his tanks and artillery, and the civilian population aided by defectors who had their fill with official terror.
The borders of Syria offer another exculpation for passivity. Look at the map, say the naysayers. Syria is bordered by Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and Israel. Intervention here is certain to become a regional affair.
Grant the Syrians sympathy, their struggle unfolds in the midst of an American presidential contest. And the incumbent has his lines at the ready for his acceptance speech in Charlotte, N.C. He's done what he had promised during his first presidential run, shutting down the war in Iraq and ending the American presence. This sure applause line precludes the acceptance of a new burden just on the other side of the Syria-Iraq frontier.
The silence of President Obama on the matter of Syria reveals the general retreat of American power in the Middle East. In Istanbul some days ago, a Turkish intellectual and political writer put the matter starkly to me: We don't think and talk much about America these days, he said.
Yet the tortured dissertations on the uniqueness of Syria's strategic landscape are in fact proofs for why we must thwart the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah nexus. Topple the Syrian dictatorship and the access of Iran to the Mediterranean is severed, leaving the brigands of Hamas and Hezbollah scrambling for a new way. The democracies would demonstrate that regimes of plunder and cruelty, perpetrators of terror, have been cut down to size.
Plainly, the Syrian tyranny's writ has expired. Assad has implicated his own Alawite community in a war to defend his family's reign. The ambiguity that allowed the Assad tyranny to conceal its minority, schismatic identity, to hide behind a co-opted Sunni religious class, has been torn asunder. Calls for a jihad, a holy war, against a godless lot have been made in Sunni religious circles everywhere.
Ironically, it was the Assad tyranny itself that had summoned those furies in its campaign against the American war in Iraq. It had provided transit and sanctuary for jihadists who crossed into Iraq to do battle against the Americans and the Shiites; it even released its own Islamist prisoners and dispatched them to Iraq with the promise of pardon. Now the chickens have come home to roost, and an Alawite community beyond the bounds of Islam is facing a religious war in all but name.
This schism cannot be viewed with American indifference. It is an inescapable fate that the U.S. is the provider of order in that region. We can lend a hand to the embattled Syrians or risk turning Syria into a devil's playground of religious extremism. Syria can become that self-fulfilling prophesy: a population abandoned by the powers but offered false solace and the promise of redemption by the forces of extremism and ruin.
We make much of the "opaqueness" of the Syrian rebellion and the divisions within its leadership. But there is no great mystery that attends this rebellion: An oppressed people, done with a tyranny of four decades, was stirred to life and conquered its fear after witnessing the upheaval that had earlier overtaken Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
In Istanbul this month, I encountered the variety, and the normalcy, of this rebellion in extended discussions with prominent figures of the Syrian National Council. There was the senior diplomat who had grown weary of being a functionary of so sullied a regime. There was a businessman of means, from Aleppo, who was drawn into the opposition by the retrogression of his country.
There was a young prayer leader, from Banyas, on the Syrian coast, who had taken up the cause because the young people in his town had pressed him to speak a word of truth in the face of evil. Even the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Riad al-Shaqfa, in exile for three decades, acknowledged the pluralism of his country and the weakness of the Brotherhood, banned since 1980.
We frighten ourselves with phantoms of our own making. No one is asking or expecting the U.S. Marines to storm the shores of Latakia. This Syrian tyranny is merciless in its battles against the people of Homs and Zabadani, but its army is demoralized and riven with factionalism and sectarian enmities. It could be brought down by defectors given training and weapons; safe havens could give disaffected soldiers an incentive, and the space, to defect.
Meanwhile, we should recognize the Syrian National Council as the country's rightful leaders. This stamp of legitimacy would embolden the opposition and give them heart in this brutal season. Such recognition would put the governments of Lebanon and Iraq on notice that they are on the side of a brigand, lawless regime. There is Arab wealth that can sustain this struggle, and in Turkey there is a sympathetic government that can join this fight under American leadership.
The world does not always oblige our desires for peace; some struggles are thrown our way and have to be taken up. In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama dissociated himself from those who preach the doctrine of America's decline.
Never mind that he himself had been a declinist and had risen to power as an exponent of America's guilt in foreign lands. We should take him at his word. In a battered Syria, a desperate people await America's help and puzzle over its leader's passivity.