Commentary Magazine


What If Assad Wins?

All throughout the Syrian civil war, analysts and human rights groups were at pains to point out the rising death toll and falling share of media and public attention. But underlying the legitimate frustration was a perhaps forced belief–straining under the weight of reality–in the conventional wisdom: the house of Assad will fall; the victims’ deaths will not be in vain.

But the standard rule of conventional wisdom–that it may be the former but is rarely the latter–applies here as well. As Emile Hokayem writes in the wake of Bashar al-Assad’s recent defiant speech:

More importantly, Western states should get off the sidelines. The illusion of a negotiated settlement is a consequence of Western indecision, not the cause for it. The United States in particular has squandered precious time and opportunities: The risks of greater involvement in Syria are certainly great, but the conflict has already overtaken the Iraq war in terms of regional and strategic impact, and Washington is at best marginal to its dynamics. U.S. Sen. John McCain only slightly exaggerated when he said last month: “In Syria, everything we said would happen if we didn’t intervene is happening because we didn’t intervene.” Judging by Assad’s speech, Syria’s civil war is indeed about to become even more tragic as the world stands idly by.

That “illusion” is a Western creation, and more importantly it is not widely–and certainly not universally–shared. The “rebels” do not emit an air of encroaching victory, and to speak of patience and inevitability seems nothing less than vulgar. Can anyone explain why time is on the side of the rebels? It certainly doesn’t feel that way anymore, does it?

As Hokayem points out, Assad’s strategy is to wait until 2014 and then pretend to hold (fake) elections. Westerners can laugh at this now, but the world’s only superpower has just nominated to serve as its chief diplomat John Kerry–a man who referred to Assad as his “dear friend,” a reformer with whom we could work. Kerry is so enamored of mindless, endless negotiations that analysts are already predicting he will attempt to swing Foggy Bottom’s approach to North Korea–a genuinely evil regime, the persistence of which we will one day have to explain to its survivors, though we’ll be unable to–away from Hillary Clinton’s supposedly “tough” approach to one that allows him to hear the sound of his own voice in yet another obsequious, weak-willed context.

The Obama administration sought to help the rebels by recognizing the opposition, but in so doing had to first designate the al-Nusra Front, which is participating in the war, as a terrorist organization. The al-Nusra Front subsequently, and unsurprisingly, became the military leaders of the rebellion. Which raises the question: has the window closed on intervention? Have we made it impossible to intervene even if we wanted to? As Simon Tisdall writes at the Guardian, that is becoming the new convention wisdom:

The west’s hedging of bets over Syria has become glaring in recent months even as its rhetoric has intensified. Political demands, principally that Assad step down immediately and without preconditions, have become ever more inflexible. Led by France, the western position is that nothing less than regime change at the top will do. But at the same time, the argument about doing what needs to be done militarily and logistically to ensure that objective, for example by arming the rebels, seems to be over – and the rebels are the losers. Despite the rebooting of opposition forces under the umbrella Syrian National Coalition, weapons supplies and financial aid are drying up. Even the Sunni Gulf states seem to be having second thoughts as they contemplate a post-Assad Syria sliding into post-Saddam style anarchy.

The most perverse element in all this is that it seems the only event that could now trigger American-sanctioned intervention in Syria would be the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against the rebels. Max has already asked why it is OK for Assad to kill children with guns and bombs but not chemical weapons. It’s a rhetorical question, because the only acceptable answer–that it isn’t OK to kill them with anything–would put Assad on the wrong side of the red line the administration has so carefully placed in front of him.

The White House may also think that this will ease the criticism from interventionists and human rights groups: if it’s too late for action, it’s surely too late for words. It’s more likely, however, that as the inevitable turns into the inconceivable the judgment will be harsh, but it won’t be written on the country’s op-ed pages; it’ll be written in the history books.

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