Time for More Pressure on Syria

“International Pressure On Syria Grows After Killings,” a New York Times headline reads today. The killings in question are the massacres perpetrated this weekend by the Assad regime’s soldiers and the rabble called the “shabiha,” who together murdered more than a hundred villagers in the town of Houla — many of them executed in cold blood, and many of them women and children. These are the latest of the more than 12,000 civilians the regime has killed in the last 15 months.

But what is the “pressure” to which the Times referred? First is the return to Syria of Kofi Annan, whose “peace plan” has provided a useful façade behind which Assad could continue killing and various governments, including our own, could hide while wringing their hands. Annan is back, but what can he do? How many legions has a former secretary general? Does anyone believe that Kofi Annan scares Bashar Assad?

Second is the coordinated expulsion today of Syrian diplomats by many of those same governments, again including ours. This is symbolic of our disgust with the weekend’s killings, officials around the world have said. And that is precisely correct: The expulsions are symbolic. They do not hurt Assad nor do they help the Syrian people bring his bloody regime to an end any more than visits by Kofi Annan do. In February Secretary Clinton said about the killings in Syria that “world opinion is not going to stand idly by.” Three months later, it is, and so is she.

But the new murders do make it harder for this charade to continue and to be taken seriously. #more#President Obama, for example, made a high-minded speech at the Holocaust Museum last month and announced formation of a new “Atrocities Prevention Board.” Bad timing, to say the least, as he watches the atrocities occur in Syria and does so very little to prevent them. “The Syrian people still brave the streets,” he said. “They still demand to be heard. They still seek their dignity. The Syrian people have not given up, which is why we cannot give up.” More accurately, we cannot “give up” because we have hardly done anything to “give up.”

Why not? The real reason may well be the coming election: It seems the White House is avoiding any entanglements that might undercut the President’s ability to trumpet the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq and, soon, Afghanistan. The stated reason for failing to help the opposition is that we do not know them and/or they are infiltrated by jihadis. If today, 15 months into this rebellion, we do not know the rebels, that’s a remarkable intelligence failure that can only reflect a policy decision not to know them. Had we connected months ago and begun to deliver any cash or non-lethal goods, we would by now know who’s who: who’s a thief, who’s honest, who’s an effective leader. The presence of jihadis in Syria should be no surprise. Iran- and Hezbollah-backed forces are killing civilians who are Sunnis. Did anyone think that situation would not be a magnet for jihadis? In fact their presence is likely to grow so long as the slaughter of Sunni civilians continues.

What ought to concern the United States as much or more than disorganized jihadis entering Syria to fight is the presence of organized Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces and Hezbollah fighters. They are there, as Iran admitted this past weekend with respect to its own forces and as has been reported in the press (and stated to me by intelligence sources) with respect to Hezbollah snipers. That is to say, they are not just trainers or advisers; they are in this fight.

They are in it because Iran and Hezbollah believe the survival of the Assad regime is critical for them. They’re right, and the only remarkable fact is that we don’t seem to understand this. Over this same weekend the New York Times also reported that the United States is tempted to support a Russian plan in which Assad might leave power — but the regime would not. Soft landing, sort of like Yemen, the Russians say — but it isn’t anything like Yemen, which is not a critical part of the Iranian-Hezbollah axis. Moreover, Syria is a 75 percent Sunni country and maintaining an Alawite regime in power would only be possible by brute force. Is that the plan we’re chewing over?

There are two possible outcomes in Syria’s civil war: Assad wins, by killing enough people to crush the rebellion, in which case Iran and Syria (and the regime’s armorers in Russia) have a great victory. From this, dictators everywhere would learn that Ben Ali and Mubarak had it all wrong and simply failed to kill enough protesters. Or, Assad loses, and with him Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia lose.

This latter result does not require American troops or planes, but does require American leadership. The Saudis and the Turks will be helpful to us but they will not lead, as the past 15 months shows. And American leadership does not mean Atrocities Prevention Boards, but the coordinated supply of arms, ammunition, training, and non-lethal goods like radios and uniforms to the opposition forces. Secretary Clinton’s “world opinion’ won’t scare Assad any more than Kofi Annan does. It is time to end the charades and stop hiding behind façades, and give the concrete help that will bring down this murderous anti-American regime.

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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