The Corner

America Watches As Syria Crumbles

The Assad regime is coming apart. The defections of the last few weeks, which included a general who is the son of a former defense minister, are one sign. The spread of fighting into Damascus is another. Today, both the defense minister and the deputy chief of the army, Assaf Shawkat, who more significantly was Assad’s brother-in-law and for many years a pillar of the regime, were killed in one of the regime’s inner sanctums in Damascus.

So the regime will fall, and it may not take the six or twelve months that pessimists suggested. The opposition forces are doing better in July than in June, better in June than May, and so on — presumably in part because outside help is arriving in the forms of weapons, ammunition, and money.

How much credit does the United States get for this happy trend toward regime collapse? Very little or none. As Michael Young, opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut, wrote this week, “In Syria, where the Americans have the capacity to politically cripple a principal regional rival, namely Iran, the Obama administration is still dependent on the goodwill of Russia and China, two countries that want to see American power reduced.”

#more#Young decries America’s absence from the scene:

It is astonishing that at such a crucial stage in the Arab world, Washington is doing little hard thinking. Obama has written himself out of the script, a distant apparition alien to the peoples of the Middle East. But the region remains critical, no matter what the president believes, and it can still bite the world in the rear end. When that happens, the Americans cannot afford to lead from behind. They need to be up front, knowing precisely what they want.

What the administration wants, it has seemed for all 17 months of the Syrian revolt, is to hide behind the U.N. and Kofi Annan. The apparent success of outside aid, which has quickly made the opposition far more effective, shows that it should have been provided far sooner: regime collapse could have been induced far sooner and thousands of lives saved. Picking up the pieces in Syria will be a great deal harder because of the scope of the killings there over 17 months.

What now? First, let’s hope those who call Syria a hopeless quagmire are quieter. It is a war that can be won, or rather two wars: a civil war between the Assad regime and the vast majority of Syrians, and a proxy war between the United States and our allies on one side, and Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia on the other. The American goal should be victory: to oust the Assad regime and thereby defeat the axis supporting it. This goal is in sight, but it will not be brought about by Kofi Annan; it will be the result of fighting in Syria’s streets. If there is a role for the U.N., it will be after the regime collapses, in helping avoid or at least limit intercommunal strife.

With the regime appearing increasingly weak, there are two other matters to keep in mind. First, Assad might in extremis conceivably try to use chemical weapons against the populace. If he does, the United States should organize a group of nations, including the Arab League, Turkey, the UK, and France, to intervene militarily from the air as we did in Libya, and help the rebels win quickly. Second, there is no sensible reason to make deals now with Russia that guarantee its access to a naval base in Syria or a role in Syria’s future. Most Syrians hate Russia for its role in defending the regime and supplying it with the weapons it has turned against the people. Let the Russians cope with that problem without our help.

Elliott Abrams — Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.

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