The Syrian regime this week made a critical decision from which there is no turning back: It used its army — even including tanks — to kill peaceful civilian protesters. Bashar al Assad, the man whom Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry saw as a reformer, has made his choice: better to kill hundreds of unarmed Syrian civilians than to risk the fall of the regime.
The next great test of the regime comes Friday, usually the day of greatest protests in the Middle East after Friday prayers. Assad has a great new enemy in his effort to stay in power: al Jazeera. For reasons known only the Amir of Qatar, who owns the station, two weeks ago al Jazeera turned against Assad and is doing what it did in Egypt: broadcasting whatever it can get its hands on about regime brutality and protester courage.
In Syria and Lebanon, there is confusion about the American position. Many believe we are Assad well-wishers, and certainly Obama’s policy for 2009 and 2010 lent credence to that view. Now, the administration is coy: It talks of new sanctions but does not impose them yet. It talks of U.N. action but it is the U.K. and France that introduce the resolution, not the United States. It will not recall the U.S. ambassador who was so foolishly dispatched to Damascus late last year. The White House issues a statement in the president’s name, but in that statement he does not once use the pronoun “I” and he does not say anything on camera — a live statement that al Jazeera could usefully broadcast into Syria.
The fall of the Assad regime may be slow and it may be bloody. If Bashar appears to the rest of his family to be too weak, he could well be replaced by a relative such as his brother Maher. Martial law could be declared. An even greater reign of terror could be coming. But it is hard to see how over time this regime survives. I am told that already some Sunni officers in the Army have refused to fire on unarmed demonstrators — and have immediately been shot. Stalin would have approved, but the Army is overwhelmingly Sunni and sooner or later some brigade will rebel and some city will come out from under regime control.
Syria is a great asset to Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran, and the fall of the regime will be the greatest blow against that axis short of the destruction of Iran’s nuclear program or, of course, the fall of the Islamic Republic itself. What’s more, the fall of the Alawite regime in Syria will be widely and rightly interpreted as a step toward the eventual fall of the ayatollahs. So what happens in Syria is hugely important for American interests in the entire region.
There is only one counterargument ever seriously interposed, namely that what follows Assad will be worse. It is hard to see how. Syria is 74 percent Sunni. Will a Sunni regime make common cause with Hizballah and Iran? Will it seek to help jihadis kill Americans in Iraq, as Assad has done since 2003? Will it give more help to Palestinian terrorists, allowing Hamas to have its headquarters in Damascus? Will it kill and torture Syrians as Assad’s regime is doing now?
For all these reasons the United States needs to step up its actions against the regime. The ambassador should be withdrawn immediately, and sent to New York and Geneva to testify at various U.N. bodies against the brutality of the Assads. The targeted sanctions being discussed should be imposed, because we can then press the EU countries to adopt similar measures — if not now, then as the killing by this vicious mafia continues and the numbers of the dead tragically rise. The very least we can do is offer powerful moral and political support for the opposition. Having called for Qaddafi and Mubarak to step down, it is indefensible that the United States does not now call for Assad to follow. We and our EU allies should as well be pushing Turkey very hard to distance itself from the regime, for that would also be an important turn in its fortunes.
The goals should be clear: to bring to an end a bloody, brutally repressive, anti-American regime and thereby weaken our enemies in Iran, Hezbollah, and the Palestinian terrorist groups, and to free the people of Syria from decades of brutal repression. How close that goal may be will be clearer after this Friday, and it may take many months and a great deal of courage by Syrian citizens to reach it. The Obama administration should make it explicit that the United States is on their side.
— Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was the deputy national-security adviser handling the Middle East in the George W. Bush administration.