Listening to the Syrian Resistance
Assad has created a humanitarian crisis — and a strategic opportunity.

Assad and Putin in the Kremlin in 2005


Clifford D. May

Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, members of the resistance movement inside Syria were able to have a secure conversation last week with a small group of foreign-policy mavens in Washington, D.C. What they told us boils down to this: A revolution is under way. On one side is the dictator Bashar al-Assad, backed by Iran’s rulers, Hezbollah, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. On the other side are ordinary Syrians, facing bombs and bullets with the kind of courage exhibited in Tiananmen Square. Meanwhile, those who should be their allies dither.

“Why is Syria not as important as Egypt and Libya?” asked “Muhammad,” one of the resistance leaders on the Skype call connecting the offices of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies with an undisclosed location outside Damascus. His comments were translated by FDD fellow A,mmar Abdulhamid, a prominent Syrian dissident who was forced into exile in 2005. “We are facing a killing machine,” Muhammad added. Indeed, the Assad regime is estimated to have slaughtered more than 7,000 Syrian men, women, and children to date. “We are not asking for any boots on the ground,” he added. So what do they want? Supplies, equipment, secure communications technology — and, yes, the means to defend themselves, their families, their homes, and their communities.

Recent upheavals in the Middle East, mislabeled “the Arab Spring,” have so far brought change only to countries where those in power had been cooperating with the U.S.: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. By contrast, the 2009 uprising against Iran’s anti-American theocrats was brutally suppressed, while Western leaders lifted not a finger and said hardly a word. If Assad manages to remain in power, the lesson will be that it has become less dangerous to be America’s enemy than to be America’s friend.

This formulation, I suspect, goes a long way toward explaining Russia’s staunch backing of Assad. Putin is sending a message to his fellow autocrats everywhere: Moscow, unlike Washington, can be counted on when the chips are down.

The resistance leaders we spoke with sounded determined: They will not give up, even if it costs them their lives. But they also are frustrated: They are facing helicopters, armor, and artillery. They have only small arms — and not enough for all those willing to fight.

Muhammad called the diplomatic debate over Syria that has been taking place at the U.N. a “farce.” Another resistance leader — Abu Alnour is his nom de guerre — said that the Arab League also has proved useless and, besides, cannot be trusted. As for Turkey, Muhammad said it is “only capable of words, it seems.”

The United States continues to be seen as the resistance movement’s last, best hope because, Muhammad said, Americans are “the only ones who protect democracy and human rights in the world.  They are the only ones who actually do that. So we are hoping that they will review their position.”

What these besieged revolutionaries may not appreciate is how disillusioned many Americans have become. In recent memory, American power has been deployed to defend Kuwaitis, Bosnians, Kosovars, and, yes, Iraqis and Afghans. We did not necessarily expect deep affection in return, but we were hoping for better than the animus that is directed at us by so many in the Islamic world (an increasingly accurate label).

Some Americans have become skeptical of Muslims who claim to be democrats. Others have come to believe that while there are Muslim freedom fighters, they are too small a minority to be significant. Recent developments in Egypt, where Muslim Brothers and Salafis won an overwhelming majority of the votes in the recent elections — and now are holding hostage Americans who came to Egypt to assist with democratic reform — have reinforced such views.

All of which misses this point: Americans should support the revolutionaries in Syria based on strategic self-interest at least as much as altruism. Assad is an enemy of the United States. He facilitated the killing of hundreds of American in Iraq and arranged the assassinations of pro-Western Lebanese leaders who dared defy Syrian domination.