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.