From the very start, the Obama administration has been pushing the crisis in Syria to the breaking point. More than any other factor, internationally, since the start of the revolt against Bashar al-Assad in 2011, it has been the aggressive push by the United States against Assad that has exacerbated the incipient civil war in that country.
Contrary to the view of various hawks, neoconservatives, Israeli politicians and the Washington Post, the United States ought to back off.
Here’s my view on the Syria crisis. President Assad, whose father ruled with an iron hand for three decades, inherited a not-so-ideological, sectarian regime determined to stay in power at all costs. Since the start of the uprising, which was sparked by the Arab Spring in neighboring countries, Assad has cracked down, hard, and he’s showed every intention of using violent force to remain in control. Those on the outside who thought he’d be toppled à la Egypt’s President Mubarak, without a fight, were sadly misguided from the beginning. There’s no reason to believe, now, that he’ll go quietly, as did Yemen’s President Saleh eventually. All indications are that the regime’s military and security forces are pretty much holding together, especially the Alawite command that is loyal to Assad.
The opposition in Syria is a hodgepodge of individuals, groups and organizations, including the nefarious Muslim Brotherhood, that is increasingly motivated by sectarian feelings. It is mostly, or almost entirely Sunni, and for a year now there have been reports of sectarian massacres carried out by both sides, atrocities that echo the events in Iraq in 2006–07. So far, what’s happened in Syria hasn’t reached anywhere near the level of intensity of the uprising in Iraq. The opposition, scattered and divided, doesn’t know what it wants beyond Assad’s departure. Meanwhile, the sectarian nature of the opposition has led Alawites, Shiites and Christians in Syria to maintain support for Assad. To its credit, the Obama administration has recognized that it doesn’t really have the option of directly supporting the Syrian rebels, despite Hillary Clinton’s failed efforts to unify the opposition and despite reports that the United States is facilitating the supply of arms to the rebels by Saudi Arabia and other kleptocratic, anti-Iran states in the Persian Gulf.
The recent massacre in Syria may or may not have been carried out by the regime directly. It’s just as likely that the thugs who executed dozens of people in the Syrian town of Houla were freelance, pro-Assad sectarian criminals. (There have been reports, too, of massacres carried out by anti-Assad, Sunni thugs.) The world has rightly recoiled in revulsion at the slaughter in Houla, but world reaction was far more understated, shall we say, when anti-Assad terrorists—possibly Al Qaeda—slaughtered a hundred people in a Damascus bombing in May. Double standard, anyone?
The Post urges Obama now, in an editorial today, to create armed “safe zones” for the Syrian rebels in Turkey and Jordan, defended by US air power, and to “begin supplying the opposition forces of its choosing with weapons and intelligence.”
That could tip the balance in Syria from proto–civil war to all-out conflagration. Indeed, the Obama administration’s policy all along has served to escalate the crisis. It has exerted no effort at all to bring about any sort of de-escalation in the crisis, to support talks, and it has given the kiss of death to Kofi Annan’s well-intentioned, and Russian-backed, diplomatic initiative. By championing the cause of the rebels since last year while demonizing Assad, the United States has done everything it can to make the crisis in Syria worse, not better. (Clinton is now accusing Russia of pushing Syria toward “catastropic” civil war.)
Why? Because the best and brightest in the Obama administration, backed by outside hawks, seem to believe that toppling Assad will strike a mortal blow to Iran. It’s not really about Syria. Ten thousand dead in Syria? Twenty times that many, if civil war erupts? Why, it’s worth it if it annoys Ayatollah Khamenei! say the Obama folks.
If real civil wars breaks out in Syria, sympathetic civil wars are likely in Lebanon and Iraq. Iraqi Sunnis will support Sunni fighters in Syria. Iran will tighten its grip on the government in Baghdad, and Iraq might split. Saudi Arabia, in its anti-Iran frenzy, will massively support Sunni fighters and tribes in Syria and Iraq. The entire region could go up in flames. In Lebanon, there are already signs of spillover, and Hezbollah there could react by either seizing power in Beirut or provoking Israel.
It’s not enough for Obama and NATO to resist the Post’s hawkish advice. The White House needs to seek a way out of the crisis in Syria, and that starts with a halt to the demonization of Assad and the pursuit of real diplomacy.