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?