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.
For more than a year, optimists have been predicting the end of the Assad regime in Syria. Those forecasts have been proven wrong, as the Syrian dictator has not lost his willingness to kill as many people as possible in order to hold on. Nor has he been deprived of the crucial foreign support from Iran, Hezbollah and most importantly, Russia. But today’s news that his prime minister has defected may finally be the signal that the tipping point has been reached in the conflict that has taken the lives of thousands of Syrians. While Bashar al-Assad’s forces still seem full of fight, they have noticeably faltered in their efforts to finish off the opposition or even to keep them out of Damascus and other major cities. No one could credibly accuse someone who had served in this brutal government of having much of a conscience about all the massacres committed in order to preserve Assad’s grip on power, but it may be that Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab has read the writing on the wall and understands it is better not to go down with a sinking ship.
Nevertheless, this latest sign that finally President Obama’s forecast about Assad’s demise is coming true is no reason for the administration to celebrate. Obama helped prolong the agony of Syria and the life of Assad’s government by not acting more forcefully to depose him earlier in the struggle. But now that the country is in a state of chaos with Islamists appearing to dominate the opposition forces, the United States is faced with a far more dangerous situation. During the weekend, the New York Times reported that both the State Department and the Pentagon were planning for the post-Assad era in Syria. That’s good, but the problem is it may be too late for the United States to have much influence on the outcome if, as now seems possible, Assad is actually defeated.
For five grim years, from approximately 2003 to 2008, Iraq faced the greatest onslaught of terrorism in the history of any state. Many of the worst attacks were perpetrated by suicide bombers, often driving vehicles packed with explosives. By mid-2008, suicide bombers had killed at least 10,000 Iraqis. A disproportionate share of those suicide bombers were foreign Sunnis who arrived in Iraq via Syria. The U.S. government remonstrated with the Assad regime to stop the flow of the fanatics, but Bashar al-Assad consistently played dumb. If the U.S. could not control its border with Mexico, the Syrians disingenuously argued, how could they control their border with Iraq? This ignored the rather major difference that Syria is a police state. The networks that recruited, organized, and passed on the suicide bombers could not have operated without the knowledge of the regime’s all-pervasive secret police. Assad and his cronies were not jihadist fanatics, but they were willing to make use of jihadist fanatics to inflict harm on American interests in Iraq–even if the overwhelming majority of victims were Iraqis, not Americans.
Fast forward to today. Now comes news that Syrian Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and Deputy Military Chief of Staff Asef Shawkat (who is also the president’s brother-in-law) have been slain by a suicide bomber in the heart of Damascus. The interior minister–the man in charge of the notorious secret police–was also wounded but is said to be alive. Quite possibly the bomber, who was rumored to be a bodyguard, was connected to the very organization that Syria once did so much to help–al-Qaeda in Iraq. It is hard not to see some element of cosmic justice here: what goes around comes around, ye reap what ye sow, if you play with fire, and all that. It is certainly a sign the Assad regime is getting ever more embattled, and the civil war many had warned would come if the U.S. provided arms to the rebel fighters has arrived anyway.
The downfall of dictators is often their stupidity, arrogance, and unbridled aggression. Saddam Hussein might have stayed in power if he had simply admitted not having weapons of mass destruction. Muammar Qaddafi could have survived if he had not made blood-curdling statements about massacring everyone in Benghazi. And Bashar al-Assad would have a greater chance of survival had not his aircraft defenses shot down a Turkish Air Force F-4 yesterday.
It is still unclear exactly what happened, but the result will surely be to increase Turkey’s role—already substantial—in helping the Syrian opposition.
Last year’s Western decision to intervene in Libya prompted some debate, but the scale of the conflict and its fairly swift conclusion limited the debate to some extent. But the growing tally of atrocities and the thousands of casualties in Syria have necessarily amplified the arguments being conducted as both the United States and its European allies continue to stand aside from the fighting there. As the weeks go by and new outrages are reported, it is increasingly clear to even the optimists in the Obama administration that the Assad regime will not go unless they contribute materially–giving him the push. Consequently, the debate among informed observers about the wisdom of intervention is growing in intensity.
Among the loudest of voices opposing intervention is scholar Daniel Pipes, who writes in National Review to urge the West to stay out of the Syrian morass. While acknowledging the arguments that allowing civil strife there to continue might be dangerous, he argues that such a war might actually be in America’s interest so long as the U.S. doesn’t get dragged in. Walter Russell Mead is more equivocal about intervention than Pipes. But Mead writes in his blog at The American Interest that the humanitarian argument to be made on behalf of intervention is weaker than we think. Both make strong arguments, especially Mead, who acknowledges that there are no good answers here. He’s right about that, but the alternative of a long war there or an Assad victory is not an acceptable outcome.
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.