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.”
The first is for President Obama to “unequivocally” call for Assad to step down, as he did when Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — whose misdeeds never approached those of Assad — became the object of widespread protests.
The second is for the U.S. to impose much tougher unilateral sanctions and work for serious multilateral sanctions on Assad, his family, and his cronies, and to push for U.N. Security Council condemnation of the regime. As Tony Badran, a Levant expert at FDD, wrote, “The United States, along with Britain and France, is halfheartedly seeking to overcome Chinese and Russian objections to a Security Council resolution condemning Assad. . . . The position of the superpower, after all, matters.”
The third step is to withdraw the U.S. ambassador from Syria and expel Syria’s envoy from the United States. Ambassador Robert Ford has done a commendable job — his visit to Hama, where protests were mounting, is what precipitated the assault on the U.S. embassy. But as Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations noted, unless Ford is now willing and able to ratchet up his “public displays of disgust with the regime and its behavior . . . there is no point in his remaining in Syria.”
Fourth, the U.S. should energetically support Syria’s referral to the U.N. Security Council for stonewalling the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has been trying to investigate Assad’s nuclear program — revealed only when the Israelis, in 2007, destroyed a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor secretly built with North Korean assistance.
Fifth, the U.S. could be encouraging Turkey to apply pressure on Assad. As FDD’s Gerecht has also pointed out, Turkish public opinion has turned against Assad, making this the moment to challenge the strength and wisdom of Ankara’s “nonsectarian, pro-Muslim, ‘neo-Ottoman’ policy.”
I would add this: The U.S. should directly (though perhaps covertly) assist the liberal opposition movements in Syria. In recent days, Syrian dissidents have received secure communications technology — but from private sources, not the U.S. government.
It also would be helpful to increase both economic and diplomatic pressures on Iran and to support the Green Movement by providing its members as well with secure communications technology. The more Iran’s rulers are concerned about dissidents at home, the less they will be able to assist Assad, who has been their Great Alawite Hope too: the living, breathing, murdering proof that it is possible for Arabs to accept Persians as leaders of the Muslim world and of the Grand Jihad against the West.
Assad’s ouster would be consequential. So, too, would be Assad’s survival. If there are any strategic thinkers inside Obama’s White House, Clinton’s State Department, and what is about to become David Petraeus’s CIA, they will grasp that — and act upon it.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and political Islam.