Commentary Magazine


Venezuelan Oil and Iranian Arms Mean More to Syria Than American Hints

Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued another ringing condemnation of the brutal oppression going on in Syria. Clinton said that in today’s Internet culture, the Assad regime’s tactics could not be sustained indefinitely, as a “breaking point” would soon be reached. What’s more, Clinton also hinted that the Syrian opposition would be “increasingly capable,” a phrase that made it clear Washington would either arm the rebels or see to it that other nations did. She also expressed the hope that Russia and China, who have served as Syria’s diplomatic bodyguards in recent weeks and vetoed United Nations resolutions aimed at Assad, would also give way to pressure.

With the world watching helplessly as Bashar al-Assad continues to slaughter his own people, one would hope Clinton is right. But evidence continues to mount that Assad’s allies are betting the dictator will not only not crack but will succeed in suppressing the protests that have been going on there since last spring. Earlier this week, I noted the reports about Iranian naval vessels, including a supply ship, visiting a Syrian port where they may well have dropped off badly needed weapons for Assad’s security forces. Now a new report indicates that the international sanctions on Syria are being flouted by Venezuela, which is shipping oil directly to Assad. With the dictator showing no sign of losing his will to resist, and with the support of Iran, Venezuela as well as that of Russia and China, Clinton’s predictions are looking more like wishful thinking than a cogent analysis of the situation.

The alliance between Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez and Iran is sufficiently close that his decision to come to the aid of Tehran’s beleaguered ally is hardly surprising. But the brazen nature of this gesture is one more sign that Syria’s friends are convinced Western optimism about Assad’s imminent fall is at best premature. Indeed, so long as they are able to keep him supplied with ammunition and oil and watch his back in the United Nations, the only thing that could lead to his demise is if he loses his nerve.

Clinton’s assumption about the inevitable end of any regime such as that of Assad is based on the idea that in an era of instant communication, violent tyrannies cannot sustain themselves. But it bears repeating that Assad is cut from a different stripe than the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt who went quietly to the chopping block last year. And Syria’s geographic position and military strength make a repeat of the rebel victory in Libya over a crumbling Qaddafi regime most unlikely.

So long as Assad doesn’t lose his willingness to shed his compatriots’ blood and has the loyalty of the majority of the members of his equally bloodthirsty security services, he has an excellent chance of surviving this crisis. Moreover, unless the West is prepared to take an active role in aiding and abetting the Syrian opposition as they did for the rebels in Libya, the contest there will continue to be a mismatch. Absent an American decision to do more about Syria than make empty predictions, Assad and his allies are unlikely to give up the struggle.