What, exactly, does the assembly of hawks, neoconservatives, and liberal interventionists—yes, the coalition that convinced President Obama to bomb Libya—want Obama to do in regard to Syria?
As in the case of Libya—where a US-backed, NATO-led military campaign has led to carnage and a military stalemate—the hawks are criticizing the Obama administration for refusing to condemn, sanction, and isolate President Bashar al-Assad and his regime, and for refusing to call for Assad to step down. Jackson Diehl, the knee-jerk hawk at the Washington Post, writes today: “The Obama administration and most of its European allies have been consistently sluggish about siding with the Arab revolutionaries. But nowhere has that fecklessness been more obvious, more damaging and less defensible than in Syria.… Perhaps most significantly, President Obama has yet to say about Assad what he said about Gaddafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak—that he must go.”
Fact is, Assad will be with us for a while. In recent days I’ve spoken with intelligence analysts from the United States and Israel, none of whom believe Assad is going to be overthrown. In addition, speaking at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy last week, Gilles Kepe—a noted French expert on political Islam—made the point that the Syrian military isn’t likely to break with Assad. (In Egypt and Tunisia, of course, the military abandoned dictators there to ally itself with reformers.) That’s because the Syrian officer corps is led by minority Alawite sect officers who fear that Syria’s Sunni majority—especially its Muslim Brotherhood-allied faction—would cut them out. “We’re not likely to see the Syrian army oust Bashar,” said Kepel. “If they do oust him, it will be because they see him as weak,” i.e., that they see Assad as unwilling to use force to crush protests. Meanwhile, said Kepel, the Syrian bourgeoisie and its middle class, including many Sunnis and especially Christian, Kurdish and other minorities, have held back from joining the anti-Assad protesters because they fear the outbreak of civil war.
Last week, Secretary of State Clinton correctly stated that Assad still has the potential to engage in a reform agenda. “There are deep concerns about what is going on inside Syria, and we are pushing hard for the government of Syria to live up to its own stated commitment to reforms. What I do know is that they have an opportunity still to bring about a reform agenda. Nobody believed Qaddafi would do that. People do believe there is a possible path forward with Syria. So we're going to continue joining with all of our allies to keep pressing very hard on that.”
She’s right, and not only because there’s really no alternative to Assad, at least at the moment.
There’s no doubt that Assad’s crackdown is ugly, brutal and bloody. But statecraft isn’t about taking moral stands that have no practical value. Were Obama to call for Assad to step down, as the hawks and neocons would prefer, then what happens when Assad refuses? The very same critics would then accuse Obama of being feckless and weak for not enforcing his call against Assad by force. (That’s precisely what happened when Obama stupidly called for Libya’s leader, Muammar Qaddafi, to quit.) And getting involved in Syria militarily is virtually impossible, given the tangle of Iran, Israel, Iraq, Hamas and Hezbollah involved there.
At an April 28 forum at the Hudson Institute, Lee Smith—a fellow at the neoconservative Institute and a writer for the neocon Weekly Standard—bashed Obama on Syria, wondering why Obama was “siding with our enemies and damaging our friends.” He called the idea that Assad might take up a reform agenda “preposterous,” and added: “Why do we care what happens to Assad? They are clearly enemies of the United States. What can possibly be worse?”
Here’s what’s worse: a fourth war in the region—after Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya—with a potential for this one to expand to engulf Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, and Iran.