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The Stakes in Syria, and Obama’s Silence

Until now I have not been overly critical of the Obama administration’s response to the Arab Spring. Although the president has often been tardy and hesitant, he has generally done the right thing by backing the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen in their desire to be rid of hated dictators. What I find puzzling, even inexplicable, is his failure to speak out more forcefully on behalf of the Syrian people who are in open revolt against one of the most anti-American dictators in the entire region.

Bashar Assad is an integral part of the Iranian strategy to dominate the region; without Syrian help, the Iranians would be hard put to funnel support to Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorist groups that are much closer to Damascus than they are to Tehran. The Assad regime has even gone so far as to connive in the murder and kidnapping of Americans, from Lebanon in the 1980s to Iraq more recently.

In the case of Egypt, it is not that hard to imagine that a future government will be a lot less friendly to Western interests than Hosni Mubarak was. In the case of Syria, it’s hard to imagine that any future regime could be more hostile to the West than the Assad regime.

Even if some type of Muslim Brotherhood-backed regime takes over in Syria—which is a possible if not probable outcome—it would probably still be a win for the West, because it would not as easy for a Sunni leader to cooperate with Shiite Iran as it is for the Alawites now in power. (The Alawites are a Shiite sect.)

Israelis are understandably perturbed by the possibility of turmoil on their border but they should understand that what has kept Syria from openly attacking Israel since 1973 (there was also a short, sharp dust-up in 1982 which cost the Syrians a significant part of their air force and air defenses) is not any softening on the part of the Assad regime; it is sheer terror of Israeli retaliation. Even while avoiding a frontal clash with the IDF, Assad has been funneling copious quantities of aid to Hezbollah and Hamas, among other groups, which they can then use against Israel. He has also plotted to develop nuclear weapons—or at least he did until Israeli aircraft bombed his reactor in 2007.

Presumably any future Syrian regime—unless it is run by suicidal lunatics who would make Mahmoud Ahmadinejad look rational and cautious by comparison—would be equally deterred from openly attacking Israel. It is just possible, moreover, that a successor to Assad might actually be less hostile to the “Zionist entity,” or at least might put less emphasis on anti-Zionism as a cornerstone of Syrian policy, choosing to pursue domestic development instead. It is possible, too, that Assad’s successor may choose to give up Syria’s decades-old quest to dominate Lebanon (whose independence many Syrians still refuse to accept).

If this were to come to pass, there would be a huge strategic swing in the Middle East away from the radical bloc led by Iran and toward the more pro-Western side. Those are the stakes in Syria. They could not be any bigger.

Given how much the U.S. stands to benefit from Assad’s downfall, it is downright curious that President Obama has been so mealy-mouthed and hesitant in speaking and acting in favor of the demonstrators. Why isn’t he condemning the slaughter of innocent protesters more loudly? Why isn’t he orchestrating international sanctions against the Assad regime? Why isn’t he freezing the assets of Assad and his retainers and referring them for international prosecution? Why isn’t he sending non-military aid to regime opponents?

There is no need for military action but there is much more we could do at this stage to encourage the peaceful overthrow of the dictator in Damascus. That Obama isn’t doing any of it is simply a head-scratcher.


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