The Great Alawite Hope
Belief in Bashar al-Assad was always misplaced.


Clifford D. May

Syria does not sit atop an ocean of oil, as does Saudi Arabia. It does not have a huge population, as does Egypt. It does not wield economic and military clout like Turkey’s. But under the oppressive rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria has been the primary agent of Iran’s ruling jihadis within the Arab world. It has been the patron of Hezbollah, the militia that has been carrying out a slow-motion coup in Lebanon. And it has been a welcoming host to Hamas and other terrorist groups whose most immediate target is Israel.

Over the past four months, Syrians have been taking to the streets in courageous displays of defiance, demanding the resignation of Assad and an end to the dynasty begun by his father, Hafez al-Assad, 40 years ago. In response, the regime’s security forces have killed as many as 1,600 men, women, and children. Almost ten times that number have been arrested. And yet, to the surprise of many, the protesters refuse to be suppressed.

If Assad falls, the Arab Spring becomes a much sunnier season. Hezbollah and Hamas would be weakened. Lebanon would have another chance. Israel would feel a little safer. Most significantly, in the words of Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former officer in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations and a Middle East analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), “The world will look a lot more precarious to supreme leader Ali Khamenei and a lot more hopeful to the millions behind Iran’s pro-democracy Green Movement if Bashar al-Assad goes down. The importance of Syria to Iranian foreign policy and internal politics cannot be overstated.” 

Do President Obama and his advisers get this? For years, Assad has been what one might call the Great Alawite Hope. The Alawites are a Shi’ite offshoot and a minority within Syria — under 15 percent of its 22 million souls. Orthodox Shi’ites have sometimes denounced the Alawites as heretics. Among the reasons: Alawites proclaim the divinity of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, and don’t strictly observe the customary Muslim prohibition on alcohol. But Tehran’s theocrats are tolerant of those who pay obeisance and serve their interests. Consider Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, their favorite infidel. Where is it written that fanatics cannot be pragmatic?

Assad himself is a curious figure: a 45-year-old British-educated ophthalmologist who inherited his father’s power after his older, smarter brother died in a car accident. His wife, Asma al-Assad, is more likely to wear Prada than a burqa. Indeed, in March she was the subject of a Vogue profile that gushingly called her “A Rose in the Desert,” “glamorous,” “very chic — the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.”

Vogue neglected to ask her to comment on her husband’s oppression at home, his support for terrorism abroad, his request that the pope apologize for the Crusades, or his charge that the Jews tried to murder the Prophet Muhammad.

But then, how many Western diplomats and politicians have pressed these issues? For years, Arlen Specter, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, and other leading lights of Congress were convinced that Assad was a moderate — or at least could be induced to become more moderate. Assad also has been viewed as the key to a settlement of the Arab/Israeli conflict. The basis for such visions was never apparent.

They persisted even after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, when Assad welcomed terrorists from all over the Muslim world and then sent them over the border to spill American and Iraqi blood.

Only a month ago, President Obama was calling on Assad to lead “a transition” to democracy. More recently, and especially after Assad’s thugs on July 11 attacked the U.S. embassy in Damascus while Assad’s security forces averted their eyes, American rhetoric has hardened a bit. Now Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are saying Assad “is losing legitimacy” and is “not indispensable.”

Stronger medicine is needed if the U.S. is to assist the astonishingly brave Syrians who are fighting and dying to oust Assad — an outcome that is unambiguously in the interests of the United States and the West in general. To that end, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), whose board of directors includes William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Dan Senor, last week issued a “fact sheet” of “five steps to hasten Assad’s exit.”


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