Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bashar Assad

Assad Owes His Survival to Obama

With so much attention being focused on Russian aggression in Ukraine and the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East peace talks, the ongoing disaster in Syria hasn’t gotten much attention lately. That’s good news for President Obama because as much as Ukraine and the peace talks are genuine defeats for the administration, it’s possible to argue that his retreat on Syria was far more humiliating than either of those other situations. By backing down from his threats to bomb Syria once the Bashar Assad regime crossed the “red line” personally imposed by Obama on the use of chemical weapons, the president’s international standing and credibility as a world leader to be reckoned with sunk to a new low.

In punting on Syria, President Obama helped set the stage for future problems because of his decision to basically hand the issue of chemical-weapons disposal to Russia. In doing so, he inflated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sense of invulnerability that made aggression in Ukraine more likely. But there was another more direct result of the White House’s shameful flight from principle: the preservation of the Assad regime. The American willingness to back down on threats of intervention and the increased cooperation with Assad’s Russian ally more or less guaranteed the survival of the very regime whose fall President Obama had repeatedly demanded.

But now, several months after Obama’s demarche on chemical weapons, the proof that Obama had preserved Assad is unmistakable. When the Syrian government announced on Monday that the country would hold a presidential election, it was one more confirmation that Assad believes he has won the civil war. Though it will be a travesty, we can expect that the dictator will be reelected with a total that is somewhere north of 95 percent of the votes cast. Assad will have many people to thank for being able to pull this off: Iran, Hezbollah, and Vladimir Putin. But he will be remiss if he doesn’t also express gratitude to Barack Obama.

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With so much attention being focused on Russian aggression in Ukraine and the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East peace talks, the ongoing disaster in Syria hasn’t gotten much attention lately. That’s good news for President Obama because as much as Ukraine and the peace talks are genuine defeats for the administration, it’s possible to argue that his retreat on Syria was far more humiliating than either of those other situations. By backing down from his threats to bomb Syria once the Bashar Assad regime crossed the “red line” personally imposed by Obama on the use of chemical weapons, the president’s international standing and credibility as a world leader to be reckoned with sunk to a new low.

In punting on Syria, President Obama helped set the stage for future problems because of his decision to basically hand the issue of chemical-weapons disposal to Russia. In doing so, he inflated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sense of invulnerability that made aggression in Ukraine more likely. But there was another more direct result of the White House’s shameful flight from principle: the preservation of the Assad regime. The American willingness to back down on threats of intervention and the increased cooperation with Assad’s Russian ally more or less guaranteed the survival of the very regime whose fall President Obama had repeatedly demanded.

But now, several months after Obama’s demarche on chemical weapons, the proof that Obama had preserved Assad is unmistakable. When the Syrian government announced on Monday that the country would hold a presidential election, it was one more confirmation that Assad believes he has won the civil war. Though it will be a travesty, we can expect that the dictator will be reelected with a total that is somewhere north of 95 percent of the votes cast. Assad will have many people to thank for being able to pull this off: Iran, Hezbollah, and Vladimir Putin. But he will be remiss if he doesn’t also express gratitude to Barack Obama.

As his rant at a news conference in the Philippines illustrated, Syria is a sore point for Obama. But rather than vent his spleen on the critics who have the temerity to point out his weakness by calling them trigger-happy warmongers, the president would do better to search his own conscience and wonder just how many of the more than 100,000 people slaughtered in that country might have been saved had he decided to act in the early stages of the unrest there.

The initial demonstrations in the wake of the Arab Spring protests showed just how weak Bashar Assad was in 2011. The second-generation dictator was deeply unpopular and the people of Syria were clearly begging for change, if not something approaching democracy. As was the case with Libya’s Qaddafi, a swift and limited intervention in Syria could have easily toppled Assad with little cost to the West. While the aftermath might, like that in Libya, have been messy, the cost of inaction turned out to be even worse than some of Obama’s sternest critics feared. Not only did the indifference of the West embolden Assad to use any and all means to preserve his regime, but weakened opposition forces were soon infiltrated and arguably dominated by radical Islamists. This could have been avoided had Obama done something more useful than spout empty predictions of Assad’s imminent demise.

This “lead from behind” strategy created the worst of all possible outcomes: a human-rights catastrophe in which Assad was allowed to slaughter tens of thousands with impunity and the growth of an Islamist faction that rallied many of those who hated the regime to its ranks.

What has happened in Syria over the past three years gives the lie to all of the administration’s pronouncements about its concern for human rights. But it also demonstrates how a feckless foreign policy motivated by fear of involving America in foreign tangles can make a bad situation worse. As much as Assad owes his life to his Iranian, Hezbollah, and Russian allies, his faux reelection this year would not have been possible had Obama shown resolve early on in the crisis when a decent outcome was still possible and the costs of intervention were lower. That’s a sobering commentary on Obama’s lack of leadership. But when one considers how many tens of thousands of lives might have been saved had America had a leader with the courage of his convictions, it is a disgrace that all the accolades given him by the liberal press will never be able to erase.

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Assad’s Threats Are a Godsend to Obama

If Bashar Assad thought issuing threats against America in his interview with Charlie Rose on CBS was his chance to convince Congress to reject President Obama’s plan to attack the Syrian regime, he has made a terrible miscalculation. There is no shortage of skeptics about the administration’s plan for an “unbelievably small” strike on Syria. But the notion that Assad can intimidate the United States into leaving him alone to use chemical weapons on his own people is risible.

That’s not just because Assad’s warnings that the U.S. “should expect everything” from both the Syrian government and its allies in response to an American strike is a largely empty threat. It’s that he might have been better off letting a chronically incompetent Obama remain the face of the argument about Syrian intervention rather than injecting his own criminal personality into the debate in Congress and the American public square. Indeed, the only way to change the momentum in the fight to pass a resolution authorizing the use of force in favor of the administration might be if the argument switches from one pitting Obama against his critics to another that matches the Syrian dictator against the president. While one miscalculated interview by Assad might not be enough to turn the tide in a political battle in which both the right and the left seem unprepared to back the president—albeit for slightly different reasons—it is a break for a White House that appears to be running into a stone wall when it comes to appealing for congressional approval.

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If Bashar Assad thought issuing threats against America in his interview with Charlie Rose on CBS was his chance to convince Congress to reject President Obama’s plan to attack the Syrian regime, he has made a terrible miscalculation. There is no shortage of skeptics about the administration’s plan for an “unbelievably small” strike on Syria. But the notion that Assad can intimidate the United States into leaving him alone to use chemical weapons on his own people is risible.

That’s not just because Assad’s warnings that the U.S. “should expect everything” from both the Syrian government and its allies in response to an American strike is a largely empty threat. It’s that he might have been better off letting a chronically incompetent Obama remain the face of the argument about Syrian intervention rather than injecting his own criminal personality into the debate in Congress and the American public square. Indeed, the only way to change the momentum in the fight to pass a resolution authorizing the use of force in favor of the administration might be if the argument switches from one pitting Obama against his critics to another that matches the Syrian dictator against the president. While one miscalculated interview by Assad might not be enough to turn the tide in a political battle in which both the right and the left seem unprepared to back the president—albeit for slightly different reasons—it is a break for a White House that appears to be running into a stone wall when it comes to appealing for congressional approval.

As for worries about Assad’s threats, it is probably unwise to completely discount the willingness of a man who has already gassed innocent civilians to commit mayhem. But the fact that the Syrian regime’s atrocities have been focused on civilians—including women and children—who are unable to defend themselves should tell us a lot about Assad’s capabilities when it comes to retaliating against the United States. After all, as we know, Israel has repeatedly struck at Syria’s missile arsenal and other weapon convoys in the last year without generating any kind of military response from Assad’s regime or his Iranian and Hezbollah allies. It also should be remembered that the Israelis took out Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007 without a blow from Assad in return. The reason for the Syrian timidity in the face of repeated Israeli attacks to prevent the regime from gaining nuclear capability or transferring dangerous weapons to Hezbollah was obvious. Assad knew his already beleaguered forces didn’t stand a chance if pitted against the Israel Defense Forces. When that factor is weighed against Assad’s current bluster, does anyone seriously believe Syria’s military or its terrorist auxiliaries would be any more eager for a match-up against the far more formidable forces of the United States?

But the point here is that Assad would have been far better keeping quiet right now rather than giving the administration more talking points as it attempts to convince Congress that American credibility is on the line in the vote on Syria. If either the Senate or the House turns down a resolution on force against Assad, the dictator will not just be given a proverbial free get-out-of-jail Monopoly game card. He will also be able to boast to his people that the Americans quailed in the face of his threats of violence.

So long as the debate in Congress is about the war-weariness of the American people and their lack of interest in what happens in Syria no matter how beastly Assad might be, Obama loses. But if the argument can be refocused, as it should be, on the spectacle of a murderous dictator allied with Iran and Hezbollah given impunity to commit mass atrocities, then the president stands a chance.

The congressional vote will be probably far more influenced by polls showing overwhelming opposition by the American people to involvement in Syria as well as by Obama’s personal appeals than anything Assad can say. But by opening his mouth and making idiotic threats and transparent lies about his regime’s culpability, Assad has given the president a small opening which he might use to convince wavering members of Congress.

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Will Obama Finish What He Starts in Syria?

The fact that United Nations weapons inspectors came under fire today in Syria as they attempted to visit the site of last week’s chemical weapons attacks didn’t do much to enhance the credibility of a mission that never had a chance of success. This episode will only make it even likelier that, at long last, the Obama administration will respond forcefully to the latest atrocity committed by the Assad regime. If the noises emanating from Western European capitals are to be believed, what follows may well be a mission with the imprimatur of NATO. If the optimists about President Obama finally having made up his mind to act on Syria after years of dithering are right, then the response may be some sort of concerted air campaign rather than a symbolic yet meaningless strike consisting of lobbing a few missiles that change nothing on the ground.

If true, better late than never will probably be the response of many observers to such a decision. But even if he does shed the restraint he has showed and does something, the question we should be asking right now is not so much whether the president finally makes good on his year-old threat about “red lines” about chemical weapons, but whether the United States is prepared to finish what it starts in Syria. If, as may be likely, a strike on Syria comes under the NATO flag, the credibility of the West won’t be vindicated by symbolism. Having chosen to avoid involvement in the Syrian civil war when Assad might have been toppled without that much trouble, the president must understand that the stakes are far higher today than one or two years ago. With Iran and Hezbollah now heavily invested in the conflict and Russia still committed to keeping Assad afloat, the West probably won’t be able to get away with a repeat of its Libyan intervention or even a more large scale Kosovo-style air offensive and think it will change the tide of war there.

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The fact that United Nations weapons inspectors came under fire today in Syria as they attempted to visit the site of last week’s chemical weapons attacks didn’t do much to enhance the credibility of a mission that never had a chance of success. This episode will only make it even likelier that, at long last, the Obama administration will respond forcefully to the latest atrocity committed by the Assad regime. If the noises emanating from Western European capitals are to be believed, what follows may well be a mission with the imprimatur of NATO. If the optimists about President Obama finally having made up his mind to act on Syria after years of dithering are right, then the response may be some sort of concerted air campaign rather than a symbolic yet meaningless strike consisting of lobbing a few missiles that change nothing on the ground.

If true, better late than never will probably be the response of many observers to such a decision. But even if he does shed the restraint he has showed and does something, the question we should be asking right now is not so much whether the president finally makes good on his year-old threat about “red lines” about chemical weapons, but whether the United States is prepared to finish what it starts in Syria. If, as may be likely, a strike on Syria comes under the NATO flag, the credibility of the West won’t be vindicated by symbolism. Having chosen to avoid involvement in the Syrian civil war when Assad might have been toppled without that much trouble, the president must understand that the stakes are far higher today than one or two years ago. With Iran and Hezbollah now heavily invested in the conflict and Russia still committed to keeping Assad afloat, the West probably won’t be able to get away with a repeat of its Libyan intervention or even a more large scale Kosovo-style air offensive and think it will change the tide of war there.

A lot has changed since President Obama first starting predicting that Assad’s fall was inevitable. Rather than giving up, he has dug in, and with the help provided by Russia as well as the Iranian “volunteers” from Tehran’s Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah reinforcements, he has seized the initiative in the war. While air strikes could cripple his chemical supplies, heavy weapons, and air power, it’s a trifle optimistic to believe a series of bombing raids or cruise missile strikes will defeat Assad.

That means that if President Obama is serious about Syria, he’s going to have to risk a long-term commitment to the conflict. Though he is probably not contemplating putting any boots on the ground, the cost of a prolonged air offensive will not be cheap. Coming at a time when the American people are already weary of war after Afghanistan and Iraq, fighting another one even with airpower alone is quite a political risk.

Count me among those who believe that the U.S. cannot afford to make threats such as those made by Obama and let them slide. But if the U.S. attacks and Assad survives, America’s credibility—and that of the president—will be hurt, not enhanced. At this stage, mere gestures won’t be enough. To the contrary, once the West enters the war, nothing short of Assad’s defeat will be a satisfactory outcome. Indeed, with the administration preparing to engage in another round of diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear project, both the ayatollahs and their sometime allies in Moscow will be measuring the Western response in Syria and judging whether they should worry about continuing to stonewall Washington. A failure to finish what begins this week will leave Iran, Russia and Assad as big winners. Getting into Syria won’t be difficult; getting out with a result that will not make things in the region even worse won’t be so easy. 

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Obama Already Waited Too Long on Syria

I agree with our Michael Rubin who writes today that the fuss about a United Nations investigation into the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar Assad regime in Syria is largely meaningless. There’s little doubt which side in the Syrian civil war committed the atrocity, and the Obama administration is right to be signaling that it is unimpressed by Assad’s belated decision to let U.N. inspectors into the area to make a determination. However, the president’s characteristically slow decision-making process as he decides if and how to react to the incident may turn out to be equally irrelevant to the question of whether the tyrant of Damascus is called to account in a meaningful way for the latest evidence of his depravity.

Given the willingness of the administration to speak openly of their certainty about Assad crossing the “red line” that the president established last year about the use of chemical weapons, it’s obvious the White House is calculating some sort of response. What exactly that response will be is still a matter of speculation. If, as many think, the president orders some sort of a strike on Assad’s forces or that of his Iranian and Hezbollah allies that are currently winning the war in Syria by a clear margin, perhaps he thinks he will have vindicated his reputation as a man of his word since he has taken so much heat for letting Assad cross his “red line” earlier this year with impunity. But short of a shower of cruise missiles that would decapitate the Syrian regime and completely change the course of the war there, it’s likely that any American action now would be more about Obama’s self-regard than anything else. Having passed on the chance to deal with the situation in Syria when minimal action might have ended Assad’s reign of terror without opening the gates to the al-Qaeda-related forces that currently play a huge role in the opposition, it’s just too late for a single show of force to make a difference.

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I agree with our Michael Rubin who writes today that the fuss about a United Nations investigation into the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar Assad regime in Syria is largely meaningless. There’s little doubt which side in the Syrian civil war committed the atrocity, and the Obama administration is right to be signaling that it is unimpressed by Assad’s belated decision to let U.N. inspectors into the area to make a determination. However, the president’s characteristically slow decision-making process as he decides if and how to react to the incident may turn out to be equally irrelevant to the question of whether the tyrant of Damascus is called to account in a meaningful way for the latest evidence of his depravity.

Given the willingness of the administration to speak openly of their certainty about Assad crossing the “red line” that the president established last year about the use of chemical weapons, it’s obvious the White House is calculating some sort of response. What exactly that response will be is still a matter of speculation. If, as many think, the president orders some sort of a strike on Assad’s forces or that of his Iranian and Hezbollah allies that are currently winning the war in Syria by a clear margin, perhaps he thinks he will have vindicated his reputation as a man of his word since he has taken so much heat for letting Assad cross his “red line” earlier this year with impunity. But short of a shower of cruise missiles that would decapitate the Syrian regime and completely change the course of the war there, it’s likely that any American action now would be more about Obama’s self-regard than anything else. Having passed on the chance to deal with the situation in Syria when minimal action might have ended Assad’s reign of terror without opening the gates to the al-Qaeda-related forces that currently play a huge role in the opposition, it’s just too late for a single show of force to make a difference.

President Obama’s pitiful performance on Syria over the past three years doesn’t need to be rehashed in depth. Suffice it to say that there isn’t much debate about the fact that had the United States chosen to act when the rebellion first began, Assad might well have been soon toppled without it opening the gates for radical Islamists to replace him. But instead he waited and did nothing except for incessantly predicting that Assad’s fall was imminent. Even a “lead from behind” strategy that was used in Libya might have been better than that because as the chaos in Syria spread, other forces entered the fray, complicating the conflict and reducing America’s options. On the one hand, groups related to al-Qaeda infiltrated the opposition to Assad, making regime change a less attractive option. On the other, Iran and Hezbollah’s entrance into the war raised the stakes in a regional conflict in which possession of Damascus becomes key to Tehran’s hopes for regional dominance that should scare the West more than anything else.

In the coming days we may be treated to the spectacle of a demonstration of American power in Syria. Expect the usual photos out of the situation room in the White House as the president and his team are depicted waiting for news of the strike and the subsequent celebration in the manner which we saw when the president took credit for the heroism of the Navy SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden. But nobody should mistake such theatrics for a coherent policy.

President Obama didn’t create this mess by himself, but he worsened it with rhetoric that he chose not to back up with action. So now that the world turns to the United States and ponders what it will do about Assad’s atrocities three years on, all Washington can offer is a gesture that is unlikely to make a whit of difference in Syria. At this point, even a full-fledged American decision to get involved in the military effort to oust Assad may be too little, too late.

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Blame Obama, Not Israel for Syria Push

For those who like to blame Israel for every aspect of American involvement in the Middle East, the debate about Syria must be frustrating. Despite being next door to the chaos in Syria, Israel’s government is making it clear that it doesn’t have a dog in the fight over whether the United States ought to intervene in some manner in the civil war tearing that country apart. Today at a New York conference sponsored by the Jerusalem Post, a member of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Cabinet stated the obvious: It’s not Israel that’s pushing the United States to take action on Syria. Yuval Steinetz, who holds the odd-sounding title of minister of strategic and intelligence affairs and international relations told an audience:

We never asked, nor did we encourage, the United States to take military action in Syria. And we are not making any comparison or linkage with Iran, which is a completely different matter.

Israel’s position on Syria is, if anything, even more complicated than America’s. Their main interest is in keeping the border with a state that is still technically at war with them quiet. Though Bashar Assad was a butcher whose regime has slaughtered tens of thousands of his own people just like his father Hafez was before him, Israel has stayed aloof from the conflict in that country. Assuming Bashar does actually fall some day, most Israelis are far from confident that the next Syrian government will be any less hostile than that of Assad. Indeed, with al-Qaeda-allied elements, it may be even worse.

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For those who like to blame Israel for every aspect of American involvement in the Middle East, the debate about Syria must be frustrating. Despite being next door to the chaos in Syria, Israel’s government is making it clear that it doesn’t have a dog in the fight over whether the United States ought to intervene in some manner in the civil war tearing that country apart. Today at a New York conference sponsored by the Jerusalem Post, a member of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Cabinet stated the obvious: It’s not Israel that’s pushing the United States to take action on Syria. Yuval Steinetz, who holds the odd-sounding title of minister of strategic and intelligence affairs and international relations told an audience:

We never asked, nor did we encourage, the United States to take military action in Syria. And we are not making any comparison or linkage with Iran, which is a completely different matter.

Israel’s position on Syria is, if anything, even more complicated than America’s. Their main interest is in keeping the border with a state that is still technically at war with them quiet. Though Bashar Assad was a butcher whose regime has slaughtered tens of thousands of his own people just like his father Hafez was before him, Israel has stayed aloof from the conflict in that country. Assuming Bashar does actually fall some day, most Israelis are far from confident that the next Syrian government will be any less hostile than that of Assad. Indeed, with al-Qaeda-allied elements, it may be even worse.

Steinetz is right to state that Iran and Syria are two different questions, but if there is any linkage it was put there by President Obama, not Netanyahu or American supporters of Israel. It was he who stated that Syrian use of chemical weapons constituted a red line that warrant American action. It was he, and not the Israelis, who publicly expressed the belief that Assad had to go. If, even after the White House admitted proof existed of the use of deadly poisons like sarin, the United States does nothing, it will effectively destroy his credibility.

The White House might be more worried about the fact that, as the New York Times noted today, President Obama’s job approval rating on foreign policy is down in recent polls. But they should be more concerned with how the president’s dithering on Syria is playing in Iran, where the ayatollahs are counting on the administration being more concerned about a war-weary American public than they are of the mass murders going on in Syria to save their ally.

Friends of Israel are watching to see what happens when a foreign leader crosses what President Obama defined as a red line, as he did in Syria. If the answer is nothing, they’ll have a better grasp of what they can expect out of the administration on Iran.

But there should be no doubt about who set this red line about what is going on in Damascus. It wasn’t Israel, Netanyahu or the pro-Israel community in the United States.

The impetus to take a stand on Syria came from a president who was eager to place himself on the side of Arab Spring protesters against authoritarian regimes. No one was more vocal than Obama when it came to supporting the ouster of dictators, especially in Egypt, even when doing so brought little comfort to either Israeli or American strategic interests. Though these revolutions have brought either chaos or the rise to power of Islamist parties, the president has not recalibrated his rhetoric. He remains a firm believer in the wave of change in the Middle East as his continuing embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt illustrates.

Obama’s stand on Syria was in the context of a “lead from behind” strategy that involved few risks for the United States even in Libya, where we joined a Western intervention. But no one in Israel was twisting his arm to talk about red lines on Syria, especially when he has refused to set them on the far more dangerous Iranian nuclear threat. He did so on his own hook just as his rhetoric about Assad was the function of his Arab Spring sympathies rather than any neoconservative plot.

Mass murder in Syria and the use of chemical weapons is something that ought to concern the civilized world. But having put his own credibility on the line there, the issue now is inextricably tied to that of the president’s reputation. If he succumbs to his fears on this issue, it will complicate Israel’s strategic dilemma, but it will be Barack Obama’s legacy that will be fatally compromised. 

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Chemicals Mean Obama Must Act on Syria

The Assad regime has been sounding more confident lately, as it has become apparent that many of those fighting to oust the dictator are Islamists. As the New York Times noted in a front page feature today, Western concerns about turning Syria over to radical Muslims with strong connections to terrorism has emboldened Assad’s loyalists to begin pitching the idea that his murderous government is not only the lesser of two evils but a potential ally.

They’re dreaming if they think even Secretary of State John Kerry is foolish enough to buy into such thinking. The Obama administration has committed itself to opposing Assad and it’s not likely anything will deter them from working for his ouster. Nor should it, since for all of the justified worries about the rebels Assad remains an ally of Iran and Hezbollah. Nevertheless, the effort to separate the West from the opposition dovetails with the thinking of some Americans, like scholar Daniel Pipes, who think it probably is in America’s interests to keep the two sides in Syria fighting until exhaustion.

But the announcement today that the United States believes Damascus has used chemical warfare against the opposition ought to put an end to any idea that Assad could gain Western indifference, let alone support. The White House admission confirms the information that has been filtering out of Israel that pointed to the use of these extremely dangerous weapons by a Syrian government that has already slaughtered 70,000 people in the course of their war of survival. The question now is not whether the U.S. will be neutral about the regime’s survival but just how far it will go in order to secure his demise.

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The Assad regime has been sounding more confident lately, as it has become apparent that many of those fighting to oust the dictator are Islamists. As the New York Times noted in a front page feature today, Western concerns about turning Syria over to radical Muslims with strong connections to terrorism has emboldened Assad’s loyalists to begin pitching the idea that his murderous government is not only the lesser of two evils but a potential ally.

They’re dreaming if they think even Secretary of State John Kerry is foolish enough to buy into such thinking. The Obama administration has committed itself to opposing Assad and it’s not likely anything will deter them from working for his ouster. Nor should it, since for all of the justified worries about the rebels Assad remains an ally of Iran and Hezbollah. Nevertheless, the effort to separate the West from the opposition dovetails with the thinking of some Americans, like scholar Daniel Pipes, who think it probably is in America’s interests to keep the two sides in Syria fighting until exhaustion.

But the announcement today that the United States believes Damascus has used chemical warfare against the opposition ought to put an end to any idea that Assad could gain Western indifference, let alone support. The White House admission confirms the information that has been filtering out of Israel that pointed to the use of these extremely dangerous weapons by a Syrian government that has already slaughtered 70,000 people in the course of their war of survival. The question now is not whether the U.S. will be neutral about the regime’s survival but just how far it will go in order to secure his demise.

The replacement of Assad by a government dominated or even run by Islamists is a scary proposition. It’s even scarier if you think of these people being able to put their hands on Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons. But rather than inducing the U.S. to stand aside and let the dictator finish the job of massacring the opposition, the admission by the administration that Assad has succumbed to the temptation of employing his chemical arsenal may make it imperative that Washington step up its support of non-Islamist rebels.

Though Syria hawks sometimes talk as if we can pick and choose our friends in Syria, it’s probably not as simple as that. While it might have been easy to empower genuine pro-democracy forces in Syria two years ago when the rebellion started as part of the Arab Spring protests, the administration’s waffling on the issue has complicated this process. Islamist radicals now are an integral part of the opposition to Assad and it may not be possible to create a new Syrian government without incorporating some of them. But unless the West takes action to ensure that the more presentable Syrians gain the upper hand now, it’s probably a given that we will be stuck having to choose between a murderous Iranian ally and al-Qaeda types.

More to the point, this is a moment when the United States must reassert its responsibility to stop humanitarian disasters. While many, if not most, Americans don’t care whether Assad or some other thug rules Syria, the notion of the West standing back and watching while mass murder is taking place is unacceptable. Having already said that the use of chemical weapons is a “red line” Assad cannot cross without triggering Western action, the president cannot continue to stay on the sidelines.

For too long, President Obama’s Syria policy has been one of “leading from behind” and hoping that the problem will be solved before we are forced to do anything. But Assad won’t be toppled without Western involvement. Nor will we be able to keep his chemical weapons out of the hands of extremists by praying that others will do the job for us.

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Backing Assad Is Not an Option

In the early days of the revolt against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, it was a little easier to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. The regime’s massacres of demonstrators and dissidents calling for an end to tyranny made it clear the world’s sympathy should be with the government’s opponents. But the assumption on the part of President Obama and his European allies that the ruthless Assad clan and its Alawite followers would meekly fold up its tents and leave the same way authoritarians in Egypt and Tunisia did was wildly over-optimistic. Since the U.S. rightly knew that Syria was a much tougher nut to crack than the Gaddafi regime in Libya, which they decided to take out as a humanitarian mission, the hope was that Assad would fall in due time, allowing a transition to a less murderous ruler in Damascus.

Unfortunately, Obama’s decision to wait and see was a colossal mistake. Assad and his backers had nowhere to go and showed they were prepared to kill as many people as possible to hang on. Tens of thousands of dead civilians later, something just as troubling has happened as the armed opposition to the regime is now dominated by jihadist forces, some of which are linked to al-Qaeda. Which means the debate about intervention in Syria has become a rather murky subject. But that hasn’t stopped the discussion that was enlivened this week by a couple of suggestions that pretty much covered the spectrum from a stance of dogged do-gooding altruism to dark cynicism.

Senators Marco Rubio and Bob Casey put the former position forward in a Politico op-ed. They want the U.S. to selectively back the least unattractive parts of the Syrian opposition while doing its best to oust the dictator. The latter was the work of scholar Daniel Pipes who wrote in the Washington Times to suggest that it was time to for the United States to think strategically and, astonishingly, back Assad’s bid to stay in power. Which of them is right? I’m not entirely comfortable with either position but if I really had to choose, Rubio and Casey’s proposal seems like the better option.

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In the early days of the revolt against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, it was a little easier to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. The regime’s massacres of demonstrators and dissidents calling for an end to tyranny made it clear the world’s sympathy should be with the government’s opponents. But the assumption on the part of President Obama and his European allies that the ruthless Assad clan and its Alawite followers would meekly fold up its tents and leave the same way authoritarians in Egypt and Tunisia did was wildly over-optimistic. Since the U.S. rightly knew that Syria was a much tougher nut to crack than the Gaddafi regime in Libya, which they decided to take out as a humanitarian mission, the hope was that Assad would fall in due time, allowing a transition to a less murderous ruler in Damascus.

Unfortunately, Obama’s decision to wait and see was a colossal mistake. Assad and his backers had nowhere to go and showed they were prepared to kill as many people as possible to hang on. Tens of thousands of dead civilians later, something just as troubling has happened as the armed opposition to the regime is now dominated by jihadist forces, some of which are linked to al-Qaeda. Which means the debate about intervention in Syria has become a rather murky subject. But that hasn’t stopped the discussion that was enlivened this week by a couple of suggestions that pretty much covered the spectrum from a stance of dogged do-gooding altruism to dark cynicism.

Senators Marco Rubio and Bob Casey put the former position forward in a Politico op-ed. They want the U.S. to selectively back the least unattractive parts of the Syrian opposition while doing its best to oust the dictator. The latter was the work of scholar Daniel Pipes who wrote in the Washington Times to suggest that it was time to for the United States to think strategically and, astonishingly, back Assad’s bid to stay in power. Which of them is right? I’m not entirely comfortable with either position but if I really had to choose, Rubio and Casey’s proposal seems like the better option.

The bipartisan pair of Rubio and Casey has the advantage of sounding reasonable while also attempting to put the United States on the side of the angels:

We recently introduced legislation that would help bring about such a change in U.S. policy. The bill would authorize additional humanitarian aid for the Syrian people, support for the political opposition, and non-lethal assistance for vetted elements of the armed opposition. It would seek to further isolate Assad by recommending additional sanctions against entities that still do business with his regime. The bill would also require a plan for addressing Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, so they cannot be used against civilians or Syria’s neighbors.

That sounds good, but as even the two admit in their piece, the difficulties facing any effort to deal Assad a knockout blow while also ensuring that he isn’t succeeded by an even worse regime are great. Vetting an opposition that is thoroughly infiltrated by Islamists is easier said than done. While there are people in Syria who want democracy, does anyone seriously believe they can prevail over jihadists even with the help of the West? Even more to the point, any ties between them and the West may turn out to be more of a liability than an advantage. Moreover, as our Abe Greenwald pointed out in his post on Syria this afternoon, there is no chance that the United States will have any real interest in nation-building in Syria after what is universally thought to be a disaster in Iraq, even if it was a noble and misunderstood endeavor.

Pipes takes on the issue from a completely different angle. He completely discounts the chance that the Syrian opposition can be cleaned up or even house-trained and views the prospect of an Islamist Syria, which would be heavily dependant on an Islamist Turkey, as a recipe for disaster for the United States. Rather than seeing the goal of American policy as ending the slaughter and pushing for democracy, the head of the Middle East Forum think tank urges us to view this conflict as being analogous to the conflict in the 1980s between Iran and Iraq. Pipes says in that war between two hateful, vicious governments, the smart play was to back whichever side was the weakest in order to keep the fighting going so as to weaken both.

Applying this same logic to Syria today finds notable parallels. Mr. Assad fills the role of Saddam Hussein, the brutal Baathist dictator who began the violence. The rebel forces resemble Iran — the initial victim getting stronger over time and posing an increasing Islamist danger. Continued fighting endangers the neighborhood. Both sides engage in war crimes and pose a danger to Western interests.

Yes, Mr. Assad’s survival benefits Tehran, the region’s most dangerous regime. However, a rebel victory would hugely boost the increasingly rogue Turkish government while empowering jihadis, and replace the Assad government with triumphant, inflamed Islamists. Continued fighting does less damage to Western interests than their taking power. There are worse prospects than Sunni and Shiite Islamists mixing it up, than Hamas jihadis killing Hezbollah jihadis, and vice versa. Better that neither side wins. 

That’s why he thinks the West should back Assad even though it’s the sort of advice that makes most observers gag. Pipes concedes that the West can’t stand by and let Assad continue slaughtering civilians so he suggests putting pressure on the two sides to behave according to the rules of law while threatening military strikes to punish those who fail to do so. But this idea is every bit as problematic as the formulas put forward by the do-gooders. That will only lead both sides to blame the West and leave it as vulnerable to being held responsible for the slaughter as a policy that backs the rebels.

Pipes is right that those who want to back the rebels are hopelessly naïve about the problems inherent in such a strategy. He’s also correct to point out that the only really good outcome in Syria would be one in which the friends of Iran and the friends of Turkey are both left exhausted and without complete control of the country.

But his call for Americans to think strategically ignores the fact that it is impossible for the United States to have an unabashedly cynical approach to any foreign policy problem. An America that disdains the cause of democracy, even in a country where democracy is not a viable option, is an America that has lost its moral compass and will soon lose whatever influence it has left. A policy that even tacitly countenanced the continuation of Assad in power would be a deathblow to our credibility as a nation. It would also be wrong. Pipes, who has a long record of astute analysis of the Middle East, understands just how evil the Assad regime has been. It is possible to argue that leaving Assad in power prior to the Arab Spring was the least bad option in Syria. But after his murderous role in the civil war of the past three years, it is simply not possible for the United States to even think about associating itself with him.

The fact is there are no good choices left to President Obama in Syria and haven’t been since he first passed on intervention when it might have done some good. Taking a chance on picking winners among the Syrian opposition is a long shot that will probably fail. But betting on Assad is a guaranteed disaster. As much as I think Rubio and Casey’s recommendations are based more on hope than serious analysis, Pipes’s proposal is simply a non-starter.

Like it or not, America’s only choices in Syria consist of the following: continuing to stand on the sidelines or a more robust effort on behalf of the rebels. Neither strikes me as smart, but at least the Rubio-Casey idea has the advantage of being rooted in American values. For all of its logic and historical perspective, Pipes’s realpolitik tilt to Assad is incompatible with those values and therefore must be rejected out of hand.

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Inside Obama’s Syria Paralysis

The Wall Street Journal had a long article this weekend on the Obama administration’s decision-making process with regard to Syria. You can read the whole thing here if you have a WSJ.com subscription. My takeaway is that the administration’s deliberations do not inspire much confidence. As Journal reporter Adam Entous notes, the “process has been slowed by internal divisions, miscalculations and bureaucratic inertia.”

Former CIA Director David Petraeus emerges as the strongest proponent within the administration of arming moderate Syrian rebels. He had the support of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but she “and other advocates of arming the rebels didn’t in the end aggressively push for the initiative… as it became clear where Mr. Obama stood, according to current and former administration officials.” As this passage shows, the president has been the biggest obstacle to a more active role to end the slaughter in Syria. His “Syria strategy is emblematic,” the article notes, “of the administration’s policy of limiting Washington’s role as global policeman.”

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The Wall Street Journal had a long article this weekend on the Obama administration’s decision-making process with regard to Syria. You can read the whole thing here if you have a WSJ.com subscription. My takeaway is that the administration’s deliberations do not inspire much confidence. As Journal reporter Adam Entous notes, the “process has been slowed by internal divisions, miscalculations and bureaucratic inertia.”

Former CIA Director David Petraeus emerges as the strongest proponent within the administration of arming moderate Syrian rebels. He had the support of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but she “and other advocates of arming the rebels didn’t in the end aggressively push for the initiative… as it became clear where Mr. Obama stood, according to current and former administration officials.” As this passage shows, the president has been the biggest obstacle to a more active role to end the slaughter in Syria. His “Syria strategy is emblematic,” the article notes, “of the administration’s policy of limiting Washington’s role as global policeman.”

The president has been so desperate to stay on the sidelines, in spite of ample evidence that a standoffish American attitude is making the crisis worse, that he has fallen time and again to the lure of wishful thinking—imaging that Assad might be forced out by the rebels last summer or that a diplomatic initiative by Kofi Annan could possibly succeed. The interagency committee working on Syria policy was directed, according to the Journal, to focus on planning for post-Assad Syria—while largely ignoring the substantial issue of how to get rid of Assad in the first place.

In the absence of resolution from the top, the bureaucracy generated various reasons for doing nothing—as is usually the case. The most egregious objections came from “lawyers at the White House and departments of Defense, State and Justice,” who “debated whether the U.S. had a ‘clear and credible’ legal justification under U.S. or international law for intervening militarily. The clearest legal case could be made if the U.S. won a U.N. or NATO mandate for using force. Neither route seemed viable: Russia would veto any Security Council resolution, and NATO wasn’t interested in a new military mission.”

Suffice it to say, if the president were remotely interested in a more active American role, legal opinions could easily be ginned up to provide ample justification for such a policy. And if the U.S. were serious about doing something, then NATO could very well be brought along. These are not serious obstacles to action—but rather excuses for inaction.

The consequences of that inaction are persuasively laid out today by Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post [http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jackson-diehl-what-the-iraq-war-taught-me-about-syria/2013/03/31/5ef2e6d0-97b2-11e2-814b-063623d80a60_story.html]. He notes that U.S. influence in the Middle East survived the early setbacks in Iraq. But “now it is plummeting: Not just Britain and France but every neighbor of Syria has been shocked and awed by the failure of U.S. leadership. If it continues, Syria — not Iraq — will prove to be the turning point when America ceases to be regarded as what Bill Clinton called the ‘indispensable nation.’”

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Iran Nuke/Syrian Linkage Is Fool’s Errand

The latest round of the P5+1 talks between the West and Iran over efforts to persuade the Islamist regime to give up their nuclear ambitions is scheduled to begin again later this month. Notwithstanding the spectacular failure of this negotiating process last year, speculation is rife as to what, if any, leverage can be exerted over Tehran. According to Haaretz, the scuttlebutt from last week’s Security Conference in Munich, Germany is leading some to draw some interesting conclusions about whether the fate of embattled Syrian dictator Bashar Assad is somehow linked to the nuclear program of his Iranian ally.

It’s hard to get a grip on what scenarios the rumors emanating from Munich would entail, but the gist of it is that some people are beginning to assume that Iran might be inclined to make some nuclear concessions in order to save the Assad regime. The assumption is based on the idea that both Iran and the United States have a common goal in Syria in keeping radical Islamists from taking power in Damascus that would owe nothing to either country. But given recent developments in Syria and the importance of the nuclear project to the prestige of the Iranian government, the idea that linkage between the two issues will lead to any progress toward Assad’s exit or an end to the nuclear threat seems far-fetched.

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The latest round of the P5+1 talks between the West and Iran over efforts to persuade the Islamist regime to give up their nuclear ambitions is scheduled to begin again later this month. Notwithstanding the spectacular failure of this negotiating process last year, speculation is rife as to what, if any, leverage can be exerted over Tehran. According to Haaretz, the scuttlebutt from last week’s Security Conference in Munich, Germany is leading some to draw some interesting conclusions about whether the fate of embattled Syrian dictator Bashar Assad is somehow linked to the nuclear program of his Iranian ally.

It’s hard to get a grip on what scenarios the rumors emanating from Munich would entail, but the gist of it is that some people are beginning to assume that Iran might be inclined to make some nuclear concessions in order to save the Assad regime. The assumption is based on the idea that both Iran and the United States have a common goal in Syria in keeping radical Islamists from taking power in Damascus that would owe nothing to either country. But given recent developments in Syria and the importance of the nuclear project to the prestige of the Iranian government, the idea that linkage between the two issues will lead to any progress toward Assad’s exit or an end to the nuclear threat seems far-fetched.

Diplomatic rumors of this sort can always be dismissed as either disinformation or an attempt to manipulate Western opinion. But what is troubling about this talk of a connection between the Syrian civil war and the Iran talks is that it is coming at a time when confidence in the ability of Assad’s opponents to overthrow the dictator is ebbing. The blithe assumptions about the fall of the Syrian government were always based more on unfounded optimism than hard facts. Though the rebels have demonstrated an ability to maintain themselves against brutal attempts at repression, Assad has also shown that his staying power is far greater than the Obama administration, and others who hoped he would disappear without getting their hands dirty, hoped.

Some may find the willingness of the Russians to meet with the Syrian opposition a sign that they may be about to dump their client, but Assad is a vital link in the Iranian attempt to maintain their sphere of influence over Lebanon via its Hezbollah auxiliaries. They have fought hard for him and will not concede the loss of the strategic advantage this alliance provides them until it is proven that he can be driven from power. As dangerous as his position may be, that proof has yet to be found, especially since the West refuses to involve itself more directly in the conflict with a no-fly zone or more aid to the rebels.

It is far more likely that the crafty negotiators from Tehran are hoping to use the Syrian mess as a way to distract their Western negotiating partners from the nuclear issue. Only a hopeless optimist would think the Iranians would give up their nuclear program now after years of prevarication with the West had gotten them so close to their goal of a weapon. It takes an equal amount of faith in their good will to think they are prepared to swap the nukes for Assad’s survival or that they would keep their word even if they did.

Unfortunately, given the willingness of the Obama administration and the rest of the P5+1 group to return to a failed process with no tangible reason to think the Iranians are less resolute or skillful in delaying tactics, hopeless optimism is the only accurate way to describe the West’s approach to the talks. Given that weakness, the rumors about Syrian linkage should further encourage Iran to treat the administration’s tough talk as nothing they should worry about–no matter what happens in the negotiations. Anyone sent to explore the possibility of linkage between Iranian nukes and Assad’s future is being sent on a fool’s errand.

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Israel Doing West’s Dirty Work in Syria

American officials are now confirming that Israel launched an attack on a Syrian convoy transporting sophisticated weaponry into Lebanon. As expected, the Israelis had no comment about the incident. But the squeals of outrage from both Syria and its ally Iran about the attack, as well as their furious threats of retaliation, show that the operation was probably a success. It’s not clear whether the transfer of what was allegedly anti-aircraft equipment to Hezbollah is a sign that the Assad regime is falling or whether the shipment was a payment for the extensive help it has received from both Iran and its Lebanese proxies. But the question of the disposal of the massive arsenal, including chemical weapons, that Assad still possesses raises an a important point about this latest twist in what has become a Syrian civil war.

As that struggle increasingly looks like one between a bloody tyrant and Islamist rebels rather than a democratic alternative, the American decision to lead from behind in Syria rather than to take action earlier when a better result might have been possible is looking even worse than it did a year ago. Though much of the discussion about Israel’s actions has centered on how far it will go to defend its interests, the bottom line here is that, as it has done in the past, the Jewish state is doing the Americans’ dirty work for them in Syria.

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American officials are now confirming that Israel launched an attack on a Syrian convoy transporting sophisticated weaponry into Lebanon. As expected, the Israelis had no comment about the incident. But the squeals of outrage from both Syria and its ally Iran about the attack, as well as their furious threats of retaliation, show that the operation was probably a success. It’s not clear whether the transfer of what was allegedly anti-aircraft equipment to Hezbollah is a sign that the Assad regime is falling or whether the shipment was a payment for the extensive help it has received from both Iran and its Lebanese proxies. But the question of the disposal of the massive arsenal, including chemical weapons, that Assad still possesses raises an a important point about this latest twist in what has become a Syrian civil war.

As that struggle increasingly looks like one between a bloody tyrant and Islamist rebels rather than a democratic alternative, the American decision to lead from behind in Syria rather than to take action earlier when a better result might have been possible is looking even worse than it did a year ago. Though much of the discussion about Israel’s actions has centered on how far it will go to defend its interests, the bottom line here is that, as it has done in the past, the Jewish state is doing the Americans’ dirty work for them in Syria.

The United States has cautioned Syria about its cache of chemical weapons both in terms of their use against insurgents and their possible export to safe havens in either Lebanon or Iran. But when it comes to brass tacks, it is the Israelis and not U.S. forces that are being counted on to act to ensure that those threats have teeth.

The administration has spent the last two years punting on a deteriorating situation in Syria. Initially Obama was reluctant to turn on a dictator that he and his new secretary of state may have thought was a moderate. But eventually he switched and started claiming that Assad’s fall was imminent. Had the West moved swiftly on Syria, as it did in Libya, that might have been true even though such action would have been fraught with risk. But what we have learned is that sometimes inaction can be even more dangerous than interventions.

Syria is a crucial lynchpin in Iran’s strategy for expanding its influence throughout the Middle East. By largely standing aloof from the bloody struggle there, the United States has not only been complicit in the slaughter there but has allowed Tehran to save its ally, which it has propped up with “volunteers” and arms. This has led to a worst-case scenario in which the Assad regime is still holding on while Syria is convulsed in chaos and violence. That not only endangers Israel’s security, but also creates the danger that Assad’s arsenal will either fall into the hands of unsavory insurgents or be given to Hezbollah.

Though Israel will be criticized for having its forces cross an international border, in acting to interdict Syrian arms convoys or to attack chemical weapons stored there, it is doing something that is as much in the interests of the United States as it is their own. At a time when critics continue to attack Israel as a liability for American foreign policy, this attack ought to bring home just how important the strategic alliance with the Jewish state has become.

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Gaza Missiles a Bigger Threat Than Syria

Over the weekend, provocations on two of Israel’s borders presented the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with new challenges. In the Golan Heights, what was described in reports as “erratic mortar fire” from Syrian army positions brought a sharp, though limited, response from the Israel Defense Forces. In the south, Hamas launched a rocket offensive aimed at Israeli civilian targets. But while the Syrian incident made headlines in the international press since it threatened to drag Israel into the Syrian civil war, it was the situation in Gaza that was the more troubling.

As troubling as the possibility that Israel could be dragged into the ongoing chaos of Syria is, the country’s Gaza dilemma is far more worrisome. Rockets continued to fall on Israel Monday as the Hamas rulers of Gaza continued their own attempt to provoke Israel into an offensive. While both Israel and neighboring Egypt have little to gain from either a repeat of the 2008 Operation Cast Lead, in which Israel knocked out terrorist positions inside Gaza, or a more far-reaching offensive, in which the Islamist terrorist group would actually be deposed, the possibility that at some point Netanyahu will have to do something to stop the rain of fire on his country is very real.

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Over the weekend, provocations on two of Israel’s borders presented the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with new challenges. In the Golan Heights, what was described in reports as “erratic mortar fire” from Syrian army positions brought a sharp, though limited, response from the Israel Defense Forces. In the south, Hamas launched a rocket offensive aimed at Israeli civilian targets. But while the Syrian incident made headlines in the international press since it threatened to drag Israel into the Syrian civil war, it was the situation in Gaza that was the more troubling.

As troubling as the possibility that Israel could be dragged into the ongoing chaos of Syria is, the country’s Gaza dilemma is far more worrisome. Rockets continued to fall on Israel Monday as the Hamas rulers of Gaza continued their own attempt to provoke Israel into an offensive. While both Israel and neighboring Egypt have little to gain from either a repeat of the 2008 Operation Cast Lead, in which Israel knocked out terrorist positions inside Gaza, or a more far-reaching offensive, in which the Islamist terrorist group would actually be deposed, the possibility that at some point Netanyahu will have to do something to stop the rain of fire on his country is very real.

Israelis don’t know for sure whether, as some observers seem to think, the fire from Syria was an attempt by the faltering Assad regime to portray its struggle as one against Israel rather than its own people. Given that such a ploy is a tried and true standby for Arab dictators, it seems logical to think that a desperate Bashar Assad thinks involving Israel in the fighting will bolster support for his embattled government. Yet it is just as likely that the fire into the Golan was unintentional spillover from that war. Certainly it was nothing comparable to the deliberate attacks from the regime on the Turkish border, which is actually a transit and supply route for the rebels who have the support of Ankara.

While Israel has no love for Assad and would be happy to see Iran’s ally fall, it must also ponder whether his replacement by a weak rebel regime would lead to more conflict in the future. Israel is likely to do just about anything to stay out of that mess, and it will take more than a few stray mortar shells to drag it into that war.

But Netanyahu’s choices with regards to Gaza are not so easy. Though Israel’s main strategic focus in the last year has understandably been on the Iranian nuclear threat, Hamas’ ability to make the lives of Israelis living in the south a living hell is a reminder that the enemies on the Jewish state’s border can’t be ignored. Since Saturday, more than 160 rockets have fallen on the region bordering Gaza. Their motives for this offensive are complex.

The impetus for the escalation may stem in part from a desire to remind the world that the Palestinian Authority is merely one of two groups competing for control of a future Palestinian state. The surge in violence doesn’t help PA leader Mahmoud Abbas’s efforts to get the United Nations to unilaterally recognize Palestinian independence without first making peace with Israel, and that suits Hamas’s purposes.

The Hamas fire may also have a tactical purpose. Last Thursday, the Israel Defense Forces discovered a tunnel along the border with Gaza, the intent of which was obviously to facilitate a cross-border terror raid along the lines of the one that resulted in Gilad Shalit’s kidnapping as well as the murder of two other soldiers. Israel has sought to establish a 300-meter no-go zone on the Gaza side of the border in order to prevent such attacks, but Hamas uses rocket fire to defend its freedom of action.

Whether thinking tactically or strategically, Hamas continues to hold approximately one million Israelis living in the south hostage. Anti-missile defense systems like Iron Dome help limit the damage, but they can’t stop all or even most of the rockets, as the last two days showed. Hamas seems to be assuming that an Israeli counter-offensive into Gaza to silence the fire would be too bloody and too unpopular abroad to be worth it for Netanyahu. Another option would be to return to targeted killings of Hamas leaders, but that is likely to lead to more rockets fired at Israeli civilians rather than to stop the attacks.

The bottom line is that Israel has no good choices open to it with regard to Gaza. But with elections looming in January, Netanyahu can’t afford to let the people of the south sit in shelters indefinitely. If their Muslim Brotherhood friends in Egypt — who also worry about the spillover from a new war — can’t persuade Hamas to stand down soon, the prime minister may have to consider raising the ante with the Islamist terrorist movement. While the world is more interested in the violence in Syria, Gaza remains the more difficult dilemma facing the Israelis.

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Don’t Be Misled By Iran-Hamas Split

For most of the last decade, Iran treated Hamas as its Palestinian auxiliary force. Iran helped fund the group, and once it seized power in Gaza in a violent coup, it established a steady flow of arms into the enclave to challenge Israel in conjunction with its other Syrian and Lebanese allies. But the Iranians’ decision to pull out all the stops to save another ally, Bashar Assad’s Syrian regime, has helped break up their romance with the Palestinian terror group. Tension between Iran and Hamas has escalated in recent months after the latter’s international leader, Khaled Meshaal, shifted his headquarters from Damascus to Qatar. Faced with the choice between its old funder in Tehran and the whims of its Egyptian and Turkish allies, Hamas seems to have definitively chosen the embrace of the latter. The loss of Hamas is a blow to Iran’s hopes to become the dominant force in the region, and they are not taking it lying down. As the Times of Israel reports, an Iranian government newspaper this week threw the ultimate insult at Meshaal by calling him, wait for it, “a Zionist agent.”

While the spat between two groups of violent Islamist extremists can be viewed with schadenfreude, if not amusement, the West should not be fooled by this development into buying into some incorrect assumptions about Iran, Hamas or the situation in Syria. We should not be deceived into viewing Hamas’s decision as a harbinger of moderate behavior by the terrorist group. Nor should we be gulled into thinking Hamas’s defection from the Iranian fold will materially damage Iran’s hopes to keep Assad in power or lessen the need for a greater Western effort to end his reign of terror in Damascus.

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For most of the last decade, Iran treated Hamas as its Palestinian auxiliary force. Iran helped fund the group, and once it seized power in Gaza in a violent coup, it established a steady flow of arms into the enclave to challenge Israel in conjunction with its other Syrian and Lebanese allies. But the Iranians’ decision to pull out all the stops to save another ally, Bashar Assad’s Syrian regime, has helped break up their romance with the Palestinian terror group. Tension between Iran and Hamas has escalated in recent months after the latter’s international leader, Khaled Meshaal, shifted his headquarters from Damascus to Qatar. Faced with the choice between its old funder in Tehran and the whims of its Egyptian and Turkish allies, Hamas seems to have definitively chosen the embrace of the latter. The loss of Hamas is a blow to Iran’s hopes to become the dominant force in the region, and they are not taking it lying down. As the Times of Israel reports, an Iranian government newspaper this week threw the ultimate insult at Meshaal by calling him, wait for it, “a Zionist agent.”

While the spat between two groups of violent Islamist extremists can be viewed with schadenfreude, if not amusement, the West should not be fooled by this development into buying into some incorrect assumptions about Iran, Hamas or the situation in Syria. We should not be deceived into viewing Hamas’s decision as a harbinger of moderate behavior by the terrorist group. Nor should we be gulled into thinking Hamas’s defection from the Iranian fold will materially damage Iran’s hopes to keep Assad in power or lessen the need for a greater Western effort to end his reign of terror in Damascus.

First, Hamas has not changed its spots, just its donors. The alliance between radical Shiites in Iran and the radical Sunnis of Hamas was always one of convenience rather than conviction. They are much happier aligning themselves with Arabs than with the Persian power that is viewed with distrust by most of the region. More important, closer ties with the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist party in Turkey allows them to pose as a mainstream Arab government in waiting rather than the terrorist group that they really are. Though advocates of dropping the Western isolation of Hamas will argue their abandonment of Iran should be rewarded, it makes the group more, not less, dangerous. Rather than assuming that Hamas is joining the good guys, their ties with Turkey and Egypt should make Americans think twice about the Obama administration’s desperate interest in portraying both governments as moderate.

As for events on the ground in Syria, the Hamas departure from Damascus has had zero influence on rebel efforts to unseat Assad. Whatever minimal assistance Hamas might have given Assad is more than offset by the willingness of the Iranians and Hezbollah to intervene in the fighting on the side of the dictator.

Iran’s influence in the region is waning, and that is a good thing. But unless the United States and the rest of the West steps up its minimal involvement in the struggle, they will have no say in the outcome. Despite the optimism about Assad’s certain fall heard from both the administration and much of the press, his regime remains in place because he has not lost control of the armed forces. The threats of Turkey and the hostility of Egypt and Hamas will not conquer Damascus. But if Assad does fall and the West has played no real role in the outcome, the result will be the creation of a government that will be just as dangerous as the current one and provide the “Zionists” of Hamas with a new ally who could make the situation in the region even more perilous. Either way, President Obama’s “lead from behind” style is a formula for disaster that will not be saved by this minor setback for the Iranians.

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Don’t Underestimate Iranian Tyrants

As Michael Rubin noted yesterday, the unrest in Iran yesterday shows that the people of that country are not so foolish as to believe their troubles are the result of anything but the Islamist regime’s economic mismanagement. The turmoil in Tehran reinforces their dissatisfaction with Iran’s plight under the rule of the mullahs and front men like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the latest clashes in Tehran as security forces sought to break up black market moneychangers must also not be interpreted as a sign that the fall of the regime is imminent.

Sanctions have caused a good deal of pain for the Iranian people, but as was demonstrated clearly in 2009, the Islamist government has no compunction about the use of force to protect their survival. This is a lesson that those who have been predicting the collapse of the government in Syria haven’t learned despite the demonstrated resiliency of that Iranian ally over the last year and a half. But while it is principally the Syrian people who have suffered because of the false Western belief that Bashar Assad would quickly fall without any help from the outside world, Western complacency about the future of Iran will have terrible consequences for the entire region as well as the security of the rest of the world.

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As Michael Rubin noted yesterday, the unrest in Iran yesterday shows that the people of that country are not so foolish as to believe their troubles are the result of anything but the Islamist regime’s economic mismanagement. The turmoil in Tehran reinforces their dissatisfaction with Iran’s plight under the rule of the mullahs and front men like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the latest clashes in Tehran as security forces sought to break up black market moneychangers must also not be interpreted as a sign that the fall of the regime is imminent.

Sanctions have caused a good deal of pain for the Iranian people, but as was demonstrated clearly in 2009, the Islamist government has no compunction about the use of force to protect their survival. This is a lesson that those who have been predicting the collapse of the government in Syria haven’t learned despite the demonstrated resiliency of that Iranian ally over the last year and a half. But while it is principally the Syrian people who have suffered because of the false Western belief that Bashar Assad would quickly fall without any help from the outside world, Western complacency about the future of Iran will have terrible consequences for the entire region as well as the security of the rest of the world.

It needs to be reiterated that it is an iron rule of history that tyrants fall only when they lose their will to shed blood, not when the rest of the world says so. The mere fact of opposition in the streets of Tehran is no more of an indicator that the end of the Islamist nightmare is near than it was in the summer of 2009, when a stolen presidential election set off an even greater response than the collapse of the rial.

Even the willingness of some to take up arms against the regime, as is the case in Syria, is not a guarantee of change, so long as the government retains the loyalty of the armed forces and security apparatus and is able to fight back. Even as much of the Arab world abandoned Assad, something that happened in no small part because of his alliance with Iran, his army’s ability to hold Damascus and its willingness to kill as many people as necessary in order to assure their own survival as well as that of the dictator has been enough to hold the rebels at bay.

If a shaky government like that of Syria, whose power base is a minority group, can persist, how much more solid is that of its Iranian ally, which can still count on the backing of the religious establishment as well as the military.

There are things that can be done to heighten the Islamists’ problems in Iran. Sanctions must be increased and more stringently enforced. After all, though ordinary Iranians are suffering, the amount of oil income flowing into the country is still enough to support the needs of the government, the military and the nuclear program.

Just as important would be the demonstration of Western resolve that has been lacking in recent years. In 2009, President Obama’s relative silence about the violence in Tehran discouraged protesters and assured the ayatollahs that they had nothing to fear from the United States. That set the stage for the last three years of failed diplomacy because Iran’s leaders have never believed that the president meant what he said about preventing them from going nuclear.

If Washington continues to soft pedal its Iran policy and places its hopes on domestic unrest producing a change in policy, the only result will be to perpetuate the current stalemate. Like Assad, the ayatollahs have no plans to give up power.

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A No-Fly Zone Could End Syria Stalemate

Last week, Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution and I had an op-ed in the New York Times arguing for a greater level of American involvement in Syria. Among the steps we advocated was putting an initial focus on helping the rebels to take Aleppo, the country’s second-largest city and commercial hub.

Today you can read in the Weekly Standard a first-hand report on how the battle of Aleppo is progressing by Jonathan Spyer, a Jerusalem Post columnist. Spyer, who recently visited the area, confirms the extent to which Assad has lost control of the land between Aleppo and the Turkish border:


I entered Aleppo governorate in broad daylight, crossing through an olive grove on the Turkish border. Once over, I was picked up by a driver affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, and we continued on our peaceful way, taking the highway to the warzone of Aleppo city. The Assad regime no longer exists as a functioning presence in the surrounding countryside. The FSA, in its various local manifestations and with its various political allies, has the final word.

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Last week, Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution and I had an op-ed in the New York Times arguing for a greater level of American involvement in Syria. Among the steps we advocated was putting an initial focus on helping the rebels to take Aleppo, the country’s second-largest city and commercial hub.

Today you can read in the Weekly Standard a first-hand report on how the battle of Aleppo is progressing by Jonathan Spyer, a Jerusalem Post columnist. Spyer, who recently visited the area, confirms the extent to which Assad has lost control of the land between Aleppo and the Turkish border:


I entered Aleppo governorate in broad daylight, crossing through an olive grove on the Turkish border. Once over, I was picked up by a driver affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, and we continued on our peaceful way, taking the highway to the warzone of Aleppo city. The Assad regime no longer exists as a functioning presence in the surrounding countryside. The FSA, in its various local manifestations and with its various political allies, has the final word.

However, Assad retains an ace card—his air force. Spyer goes on to note:

The relative tranquility in the villages between the border and Aleppo city is deceptive, however. Assad’s power is not manifested in the few remaining points on the ground he controls but in his near-complete mastery of the air. This enables the dictator to maintain a reign of terror even over areas physically held by his opponents, as we would discover.

That is why Doran and I argued for the U.S. and its allies to impose a no-fly zone, thus taking away from Assad the major advantage he continues to hold—and without running the risk of providing to the rebels sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles that could fall into the wrong hands. As Spyer notes, the battle of Aleppo is currently a stalemate but the U.S. could break that stalemate easily—and help to bring about Assad’s downfall.

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Turkey’s Love-Hate Affair with Syria

When it comes to any resolution to the Syrian problem, Turkey is at the center of it. After all, Syria’s largest land border is with Turkey. Most Syrian refugees are fleeing north or west into Turkey, and there can be no safe-haven unless, as in 1991 with Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey plays host to the forces that would protect it.

At the same time, Bashar al-Assad is in many ways a monster of Turkey’s creation. Sedat Ergin is Turkey’s foremost journalist, editor, and columnist. He is neither polemical nor easily cowed. Amidst Prime Minister Erdoğan’s war on the press (and anyone else who might criticize him), Ergin has remained un-intimidated, even as Erdoğan has maneuvered to muzzle him.

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When it comes to any resolution to the Syrian problem, Turkey is at the center of it. After all, Syria’s largest land border is with Turkey. Most Syrian refugees are fleeing north or west into Turkey, and there can be no safe-haven unless, as in 1991 with Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey plays host to the forces that would protect it.

At the same time, Bashar al-Assad is in many ways a monster of Turkey’s creation. Sedat Ergin is Turkey’s foremost journalist, editor, and columnist. He is neither polemical nor easily cowed. Amidst Prime Minister Erdoğan’s war on the press (and anyone else who might criticize him), Ergin has remained un-intimidated, even as Erdoğan has maneuvered to muzzle him.

His column today is a must-read to understand not only the evolution of Turkey’s policy toward Syria, but also to understand how Erdoğan’s turn on Assad is based more on Erdoğan’s impetuous personality and less on principle.

Let’s go to the very beginning. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, much before the Arab Spring was seen on the horizon, had headed for very close and intimate cooperation with the Bashar al-Assad administration in Syria. This policy had reached, in the year 2009, such an advanced level that joint Cabinet meetings were held between the two countries and mutual visa restrictions were lifted. Also, the affectionate relations between the Erdoğan and al-Assad families somewhat warmed up the climate between the two countries. Interestingly, during this period, the AK Party government immediately opposed the United States’ efforts to put the brakes on its cooperation with the al-Assad regime – on the grounds that it supported terror.

More broadly, the lesson of Erdoğan’s Syria policy (and his Libya policy before that) should remind us how unwise it is to embrace dictatorships or to believe that words alone will convince them to reform.

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Iran’s Prominent Visitors Go Off Script

It’s always nice to see a totalitarian propaganda show disappoint its sponsors. Thus it’s hard to avoid chortling at the embarrassment suffered by Iranian leaders today when the much-heralded meeting of the Nonaligned Movement in Tehran went off in an unscripted direction.

The ayatollahs had made much of the attendance of President Mohammad Morsi of Egypt–the largest Arab state–and of Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon of the United Nations. But they could not have liked what they heard from the two prominent visitors. Morsi openly came out in support of the revolt being waged by the Syrian people against Bashar Assad–Iran’s closest ally in the regime. “The Syrian people are fighting with courage, looking for freedom and human dignity,” he said prompting the Syrian ambassador to walk out.

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It’s always nice to see a totalitarian propaganda show disappoint its sponsors. Thus it’s hard to avoid chortling at the embarrassment suffered by Iranian leaders today when the much-heralded meeting of the Nonaligned Movement in Tehran went off in an unscripted direction.

The ayatollahs had made much of the attendance of President Mohammad Morsi of Egypt–the largest Arab state–and of Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon of the United Nations. But they could not have liked what they heard from the two prominent visitors. Morsi openly came out in support of the revolt being waged by the Syrian people against Bashar Assad–Iran’s closest ally in the regime. “The Syrian people are fighting with courage, looking for freedom and human dignity,” he said prompting the Syrian ambassador to walk out.

Ban also denounced the repression carried out by the Syrian government with Iranian help. Then, even better, he upbraided the Iranian leadership for threatening to annihilate Israel and for denying the Holocaust. “I strongly reject threats by any member state to destroy another or outrageous attempts to deny historical facts, such as the Holocaust,” he said.

The Iranian news media apparently did not report Morsi’s or Ban’s remarks but it seems certain that they will be become widely known within Iran, thus presenting a strong counterpoint to the propaganda line of the regime.

That said, we should not get carried away–ruthless dictatorships like the one that rules Iran can suffer a lot of embarrassment with impunity. And however discredited the regime becomes, it still yields considerable power both within Iran and outside of it–and that power will only grow unless something more is done to stop its nuclear weapons program, which has not been slowed in the slightest by the latest diplomatic efforts emanating from Washington nor even, so far, by a new round of sanctions. The Wall Street Journal reports, for example, that Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear weapons scientist, is back at work.

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Assad Won’t Be Toppled by Words

In the last year, President Obama loudly denounced Syria dictator Bashar al-Assad for human rights abuses and confidently predicted the regime’s fall. But as in virtually every other difficult foreign policy question, the president has preferred to “lead from behind,” which in this case means doing absolutely nothing while Assad slaughters thousands. The most recent Syrian atrocity has brought this shameful inaction back into the spotlight, but as Mitt Romney’s justified criticism of Obama on the issue yesterday makes clear, both the president and his challenger need to come up with more coherent positions.

The administration has tried to have it both ways on Syria ever since the protests there began more than a year ago. On the one hand, Obama wants to pose as the scourge of tyrants and a supporter of human rights, so he has claimed it was only a matter of time before Assad was driven out. But he has done nothing to match those words, and the result is that the atrocities continue with no end in sight. Romney rightly criticized this inaction yesterday as an example of the president’s feckless and cowardly foreign policy. But though this critique is warranted, Romney’s own prescription for U.S. action on Syria isn’t a heckuva lot better. As the New York Times reports:

He called for the United States to “work with partners to organize and arm Syrian opposition groups so they can defend themselves” — a policy that goes somewhat further than Mr. Obama’s but falls short of the airstrikes advocated by Republicans like Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

The problem here is that despite the blithe assumptions commonly heard in the West about Assad’s inevitable doom, there is no reason to believe that he cannot sustain himself in power so long as the security services remain loyal to him.

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In the last year, President Obama loudly denounced Syria dictator Bashar al-Assad for human rights abuses and confidently predicted the regime’s fall. But as in virtually every other difficult foreign policy question, the president has preferred to “lead from behind,” which in this case means doing absolutely nothing while Assad slaughters thousands. The most recent Syrian atrocity has brought this shameful inaction back into the spotlight, but as Mitt Romney’s justified criticism of Obama on the issue yesterday makes clear, both the president and his challenger need to come up with more coherent positions.

The administration has tried to have it both ways on Syria ever since the protests there began more than a year ago. On the one hand, Obama wants to pose as the scourge of tyrants and a supporter of human rights, so he has claimed it was only a matter of time before Assad was driven out. But he has done nothing to match those words, and the result is that the atrocities continue with no end in sight. Romney rightly criticized this inaction yesterday as an example of the president’s feckless and cowardly foreign policy. But though this critique is warranted, Romney’s own prescription for U.S. action on Syria isn’t a heckuva lot better. As the New York Times reports:

He called for the United States to “work with partners to organize and arm Syrian opposition groups so they can defend themselves” — a policy that goes somewhat further than Mr. Obama’s but falls short of the airstrikes advocated by Republicans like Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

The problem here is that despite the blithe assumptions commonly heard in the West about Assad’s inevitable doom, there is no reason to believe that he cannot sustain himself in power so long as the security services remain loyal to him.

Having already killed so many of his countrymen, why would having a few hundred more corpses do him in when he hasn’t been toppled despite the thousands already slain? The iron law of history teaches us that tyrannies fall when they weaken or lose their willingness to shed blood and not before. The material support Assad is getting from his ally Iran and their Hezbollah auxiliaries have helped offset any harm incurred by Western sanctions, which are largely meaningless because of the limited scope of trade with Syria.

The only thing that will put an end to Assad’s reign of terror is Western military intervention or direct aid to the Syrian rebels. There are, as the White House has pointed out, good reasons to worry about arming the Syrian opposition. As a top-ranking Israeli military official pointed out today, should Assad fall, elements of al-Qaeda that may be sympathetic to the opposition in Syria could be empowered or at least be given free reign to conduct terror operations against Israel or the West.

The Times is right to point out that few in this country on either side of the political aisle are eager for another foreign adventure, even one that really would be a matter of saving thousands of lives. There is also good reason to believe that intervention in Syria would not be as easy as last year’s European-led effort to oust Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. But that is no excuse for standing by while hundreds, if not thousands are slaughtered in Syria by Assad, while Western leaders like Obama preen ineffectually about their support for human rights.

The analogy to Libya also breaks down because the stakes in Syria are far higher. The atrocities in Syria dwarf those in Libya. It should also be pointed out that toppling the Assad regime would be a telling blow to Iran and its terrorist allies. Though we don’t know what a post-Assad Syria would look like, in the long run, regime change there would be good for the region as well as the Syrian people.

Absent a commitment to take action, nothing Obama or Romney says about Syria has much credibility. It may be too much to expect either man to embrace the possibility of armed conflict in Syria, but anything less will not solve the crisis.

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The West is Complicit in Assad’s Massacres

For months we have been hearing prominent Americans from media pundits to President Obama promising that Bashar Assad’s Syrian tyranny was on its way out. Most of this optimism was based on a faulty understanding of the grip that the Assad clan and its Alawite allies have on the Syrian military and security services as well as a misapprehension about what constitutes the tipping point in toppling despotic regimes.

But as Assad’s forces expand their bloodthirsty crackdowns to other cities in the country after squelching the opposition in the north, it is also fair to point out that he is only getting away with this because neither President Obama and the European Union nor the Arab League which professes to be horrified by these atrocities is willing to lift a finger to stop him. Thousands have already been slaughtered and thousands more thrust into Syrian dungeons where they are being tortured by the regime. But all these people have gotten from the West are empty words such as those uttered by the president on the subject.

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For months we have been hearing prominent Americans from media pundits to President Obama promising that Bashar Assad’s Syrian tyranny was on its way out. Most of this optimism was based on a faulty understanding of the grip that the Assad clan and its Alawite allies have on the Syrian military and security services as well as a misapprehension about what constitutes the tipping point in toppling despotic regimes.

But as Assad’s forces expand their bloodthirsty crackdowns to other cities in the country after squelching the opposition in the north, it is also fair to point out that he is only getting away with this because neither President Obama and the European Union nor the Arab League which professes to be horrified by these atrocities is willing to lift a finger to stop him. Thousands have already been slaughtered and thousands more thrust into Syrian dungeons where they are being tortured by the regime. But all these people have gotten from the West are empty words such as those uttered by the president on the subject.

It needs to be re-emphasized that the difference between what is going on in Syria and what happened in Tunisia and Egypt last year is that unlike the heads of those regimes, the ruler of Damascus hasn’t lost his willingness to kill in order to hold onto power. It is an iron rule of history that such governments only fall when, as in the French Revolution, the collapse of the Shah’s regime in Iran or the end of the Soviet Union, the elites in power are no longer able to summon the will to violently suppress dissent. So long as Assad hasn’t lost his taste for blood  — and he obviously hasn’t — he won’t be heading for the exits.

That means if the West really cares about the wholesale slaughter going on in Syria, it is going to have to do something whether it means arming and/or training the rebels or authorizing some sort of international intervention.

Getting into a conflict, even a limited one, in Syria is something that any administration, let alone one facing re-election would be reluctant to do. But given the scale of the suffering in Syria, President Obama needs to understand that if he wants his rhetoric about human rights to have any credibility, he’s going to have show some real leadership. But given the Obama administration’s predilection for “leading from behind” as well as its obvious lack of interest in doing anything more than talk about Syria and its Iranian ally, Assad’s victims shouldn’t expect help from America anytime in the foreseeable future.

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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.

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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.

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Iran Knows More About Syria Than Obama

The imminent demise of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has become such an article of faith among many American pundits that most have come to discuss the subject as no longer a matter of if, but merely when, his fall will occur. Unfortunately, for Western talking heads as well as President Obama, who has also predicted imminent regime change in Damascus, Assad has preferred to ignore their advice and instead stick to what his family has always done best: slaughter any and all domestic foes. After watching the fall of dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the assumption was the logic of the Arab Spring would inevitably force out the Syrian member of a rapidly diminishing club of Arab autocrats. Few in the West believed Assad could survive. But it appears there was at least one group of observers who may have pegged the Syrian as a keeper: his Iranian allies.

The news that a pair of Iranian naval vessels just left a Syrian port and are now heading home through the Suez Canal ought to have brought home the fact that the Iranian ayatollahs may understand their client better than Western editorial writers. Combined with the decision of Russia to boycott a diplomatic effort aimed at bolstering Assad’s domestic foes, it is now clear that Syria’s two major foreign sponsors have not given up on the regime. Unlike Westerners who simply took it for granted that Assad must go, Ayatollah Khamenei and Vladimir Putin have remembered an ironclad rule of history: tyrants fall when they lose their taste for spilling their people’s blood, not when they loosen the reins.

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The imminent demise of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has become such an article of faith among many American pundits that most have come to discuss the subject as no longer a matter of if, but merely when, his fall will occur. Unfortunately, for Western talking heads as well as President Obama, who has also predicted imminent regime change in Damascus, Assad has preferred to ignore their advice and instead stick to what his family has always done best: slaughter any and all domestic foes. After watching the fall of dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the assumption was the logic of the Arab Spring would inevitably force out the Syrian member of a rapidly diminishing club of Arab autocrats. Few in the West believed Assad could survive. But it appears there was at least one group of observers who may have pegged the Syrian as a keeper: his Iranian allies.

The news that a pair of Iranian naval vessels just left a Syrian port and are now heading home through the Suez Canal ought to have brought home the fact that the Iranian ayatollahs may understand their client better than Western editorial writers. Combined with the decision of Russia to boycott a diplomatic effort aimed at bolstering Assad’s domestic foes, it is now clear that Syria’s two major foreign sponsors have not given up on the regime. Unlike Westerners who simply took it for granted that Assad must go, Ayatollah Khamenei and Vladimir Putin have remembered an ironclad rule of history: tyrants fall when they lose their taste for spilling their people’s blood, not when they loosen the reins.

While the Pentagon was saying it had no knowledge of the Iranian ships ever docking in Syria, the brazen dash through the Mediterranean by Tehran’s mariners may have been more than just a morale boost for Assad. The ships, which reportedly consisted of a supply ship and an accompanying destroyer, may have delivered vital munitions to the Syrian security forces just as they were in the process of leveling the opposition stronghold of Homs.

Though defections from his army are a lethal threat to Assad, so long as he retains the loyalty of most of his regime’s security forces, the belief that his fall is inevitable is more a matter of wishful thinking than hardheaded analysis. Assad understands the stakes in the fighting in the streets of Homs and other cities where dissent has flourished is a life and death matter for him and his family. Moreover, it is often forgotten that unlike other dictatorial regimes where military elites can easily switch sides, many, if not most, of Assad’s praetorian guards don’t have that option. Since Bashar’s father first seized power in 1970, the government there has always been as much a sinecure for the Alawite minority to which his clan belonged as it was for the Assad family. The fate of the Alawites in a post-Assad Syria will be difficult, and that gives the many members of this group in positions of power within the army and security forces the same motive for hanging on no matter what the cost.

Iran also has much to lose if their Syrian ally falls, so it is to be expected it will do all in its power to help him prevail. With Russia and China prepared to prevent the United Nations from even condemning Assad, let alone sanctioning support for the opposition, that leaves the opposition looking to Europe and the United States for help. Even though Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham voiced their support for arming the Syrian rebels over the weekend, it isn’t likely that President Obama or the European Union will follow the same pattern that led to intervention in Libya last year as Qaddafi tottered, despite the fact that the situation was far less desperate than the human catastrophe unfolding in Homs.

The Arab Spring led many Westerners to believe that a paradigm shift in which murderous regimes could no longer get away with atrocities had rendered men like Assad obsolete. But Iran may have figured out that as long as Assad is willing to go on killing his countrymen, there is no reason to assume he can’t hold onto power. That’s an important lesson Western diplomats and leaders like President Obama–who have also underestimated Iran’s own willingness to abandon its nuclear ambitions–should learn.

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