When it comes to the “Arab Spring” in Syria, the silence and lack of leadership in Washington is stunning. Two months into the uprising, unconfirmed reports suggest that as many as 800 people have been killed with as many as 10,000 arrested. The countrywide crackdown is massive, with the Assad regime using tanks and sniper fire to crush the opposition movement. Whereas the case for intervention in Libya was made based on humanitarian needs, the situation in Syria cries out for American leadership and not merely on humanitarian grounds. In Egypt, America cast an ally aside and stood with the people even though a strong case could be made that toppling the Mubarak regime was not in America’s interest. After all, there was near universal agreement that what would come next in Egypt would be less amenable to U.S. interests in the region. Yet in Syria, the case for intervention on humanitarian grounds is already manifest and toppling the Assad regime, which remains an enemy of the U.S. in both word and deed, is strongly in America’s interest. What then explains Team Obama’s trepidation?
For many years America has had a bizarre love affair with Syria — one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism. It began before the 1991 Madrid conference that set the path for a fruitless decade in which the U.S. engaged with Syria and Israel in order to make peace. Hafez al-Assad played the Clinton administration like a finely tuned cello, talking about peace while arming Hezbollah and undermining the Palestinian Authority. Nevertheless, Syria was seen as the key to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, a state that could grant Israel its seal of approval. But when Bashar al-Assad inherited his rule from his father in 2000, he set his country on a collision course with the Bush administration.
The belief in Washington is that Bashar al-Assad is a closet reformer surrounded by a clique that prevents him from carrying out his democratic and liberal vision for Syria. This wishful prognosis has never been true and has never been as crystal clear as the recent weeks of violence demonstrate. Yet simple facts do not get in the way of former presidential hopeful, current Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and longtime Syria aficionado, Senator John Kerry. Asked recently about whether the U.S. would benefit from the downfall of the Assad regime, Kerry replied, it “depends on which Assad you are talking about.” But there is only one Bashar al-Assad and he has actively worked to undermine the United States at every turn.
Many in Washington — Kerry included — question what would come after Assad. The scare tactic of Syria turning into a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold in a post-Assad era is overblown despite Assad’s attempt to harness this canard like all the region’s dictators before him. Furthermore, Syria is a charter member of the U.S. list of state-sponsors of terrorism and the regime is in league with Iran. It served as the key transit point for jihadists crossing into Iraq to kill American troops and continues to pursue a nuclear program with the help of North Korea and Iran. It hosts the headquarters for Hamas and many other Palestinian rejectionist groups and supports Hezbollah with the transfer of advance missile systems, all the while destabilizing Lebanon and assassinating political rivals both at home and abroad. The Assad regime is committed to Muqawama, which means “resistance,” and in practice that means terrorism. So it is difficult to believe that what comes next would be worse. Moreover, Syria’s population is roughly 80% Sunni and they are currently ruled by the Alawite minority that makes up some 12% of the population. Whatever would come next in Syria would likely be naturally opposed to Iran’s Shiite encroachment in the Middle East.
The most mystifying aspect of Barack Obama’s approach to Syria is that he came to office preaching diplomatic engagement with America’s enemies. That strategy has been a resounding failure. Nevertheless, in the case of Syria, Obama made wooing Syria away from Iran’s orbit a strategic priority — this was the overall goal of U.S. policy vis-à-vis Syria, and Israel was supposed to pay the price by trading away the Golan Heights. The U.S. even returned its ambassador to Syria in a December 2010 recess appointment while the region was undergoing the first spasms of what would become the “Arab Spring.” Still the White House has yet to learn that no amount of diplomatic engagement or enticements to Syria will bring about this change in Assad’s behavior. If President Obama believes he can weaken Iran by removing Syria from its orbit, then hastening the fall of the Assad regime represents the only possibility of success.
In Syria, U.S. policy should be regime change, not behavior change. This is a historic opportunity to stand with the people of Syria and Lebanon and work for the downfall of the Assad regime. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia, or Libya, the effect of a new spring in Damascus would have the greatest positive impact on U.S. interests in the Middle East. The clock is ticking.