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Commentary

America’s shameful abdication on Syria

Little more than a year into their terrible ordeal, the Syrians are a people disillusioned. “We have been forsaken by the world,” a noted figure of the opposition recently told me in Istanbul. Days later, in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Antakya, in a tent city a stone’s throw from their tormented homeland, ordinary Syrians reiterate the same message. The ongoing diplomacy of the United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan and the United Nations-brokered “cease-fire” are seen for what they are – an alibi for the abdication of Western powers, and a lifeline for the regime.

Abu Mohammad, a propertied man in his mid-60s from the town of Jisr al-Shoughour, now in this camp with his family for more than 10 months, says the world knows all it needs to know about the Damascus regime, but prefers to turn a blind eye to its savagery. Two of his sons have been killed in the protests, a third is missing. He is weary of the pronouncement of the mighty.

In the Syria deliberations, deliverance is always around the corner. American diplomacy is always on the verge of making Russia see its way to the proper path. In these tortured discussions, there is no end to finesse and to the parsing of things.

Syria is not Libya, Barak Obama’s officials opine. Homs is not Benghazi, they note. The air defenses of Syria are thick when compared with those of Libya, the army of the Damascus regime is mightier. And then there is the mother of all alibis – the borders of Syria are more sensitive, and they preclude a rescue operation akin to the one that delivered the Libyans from the grip of their tyrant.

The truth is that the air defense system of the Syrians can be dismantled with ease. And that mighty army of the House of Assad? The Syrians refer to it as “jaysh abu shahatta” (the army in slippers). The Sunni recruits are worn out, terrified and underfed, thrown into assignments they abhor and dread – the killing of their fellow Sunnis.

As for those sensitive borders, they are, if anything, a warrant for a NATO operation against this rogue regime. In this sense, Syria is not Libya. It’s much more important.

Grant the Assad tyranny its due, it has succeeded in turning its fight for its privileges and dominion into a poisonous religious schism. There may have been Alawites who opposed President Bashar Assad and his ruthless regime, but this season of killing has turned them into Basharists. The Assads have convinced them the fall of the regime is a catastrophe for the Alawites as a whole.

Never mind that the Alawites are not doctrinally Shiites. That fine distinction has been lost in the storm. The lines are now drawn in the crudest of ways: an embattled regime of schismatics in Damascus backed by Iran, the Shiite Hezbollah in Beirut, and (shamefully) a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, against the Sunni majority of Syria and their sympathizers in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states.

In one of its alibis for passivity, the Obama administration falls back on the threat posed by Islamists within the ranks of the opposition. This is but a recycling of the Assad regime’s own assertions that its tyranny is a secular shield for the minorities and a barrier to the rise of the Islamists. Yet the surest way the Islamists and the jihadists can come to greater power in Syria is a drawn-out war that further degrades and radicalizes the country.

The defining truth of this struggle is the abdication of the Obama administration. For a year now, American officials have skillfully run out the clock. They made much of the authority of the U.N. Security Council when any model U.N. team in any high school would have predicted the vetoes of Russia and China. It was clear that the Obama administration did not want to arm the opposition for fear of “escalating” the conflict.

But behind the scenes there was a darker play: American officials have resisted and discouraged other players from providing crucial aid to the rebellion. The newly emancipated Libyans had crates of weapons and were keen to dispatch them to the Syrian rebels. But according to the Syrian opposition leader I spoke to in Istanbul, they were discouraged from doing so by American officials. Arab diplomats from the Gulf states confirm the same pattern of American obstructionism.

From the start, the argument that the introduction of outside weapons would deepen the conflict is unworthy of any serious treatment. The regime and its vigilantes are fully armed. The helicopter gunships thrown into the fight recently over Idlib are a reminder of the disparity in firepower between the regime and its opponents.

Suspicions that the U.S. doesn’t really want to see the fall of the Assad regime have taken hold in the region. In the charitable version, the policy toward Syria is hostage to the electoral needs of Obama – stasis is to be the order of things until November. The president has no interest in truly taking on the Iranian regime, so Syria twists in the wind.

There is enough outrage – and resources – in the region to bring down the regime in Damascus if and when an American decision to do so is made. And there are two borders, the Jordanian and the Turkish, from which a determined effort could be made. A no-fly, no-drive zone on the border with Turkey would critically alter the terms of engagement and encourage greater defections from the regime’s forces.

Everyone is waiting on Washington’s green light and its leadership. Turkey would act, but only under the banner of NATO, and in partnership with the U.S. Importantly, none of the proposals for Syria’s rescue call for American boots on the ground.

In the markets in Dubai, the Assad dictatorship is dumping its gold reserves – at a discount. In the long run, this regime is doomed. But that is hardly consolation to an outgunned rebellion. We shouldn’t be waiting on a Syrian Srebrenica before the regime is pushed into its grave.

It is a waste of time – and of precious lives – to buy into a wishful diplomacy that maintains that a few hundred U.N. observers will ward off the evils of a merciless sectarian tyranny.

Fouad Ajami, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is the author of “The Syrian Rebellion,” out next month from Hoover Institution Press. This commentary first appeared at The Wall Street Journal, and is published by permission.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 30, 2012, on page 7.

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