Amidst the many dangers posed by the political conflagration now engulfing the
Arab world, we are presented with a unique opportunity in Syria. In Egypt, the
overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak has empowered the Muslim Brotherhood. The
Sunni jihadist movement which spawned al-Qaeda and Hamas is expected to emerge
as the strongest political force after the parliamentary elections in
Just a month after they demanded Mubarak’s ouster, an acute
case of buyer’s remorse is now plaguing his Western detractors. As the
Brotherhood’s stature rises higher by the day, Western media outlets as diverse
as The New York Times
and Commentary Magazine
are belatedly admitting that
Mubarak was better than the available alternatives.
Likewise in Libya,
even as US-led NATO forces continue to bomb Muammar Gaddafi’s loyalists, there
is a growing recognition that the NATO-supported rebels are not exactly the
French Resistance. Last Friday’s Daily Telegraph
report confirming that
al-Qaeda-affiliated veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are now counted among the
rebels the US is supporting against Gaddafi, struck a deep blow to public
support for the war.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s admission Sunday
that Gaddafi posed no threat to the US and that its military intervention
against Gaddafi does not serve any vital interest similarly served to sour the
American public on the war effort.
After al-Qaeda’s participation in the
anti-Gaddafi rebellion was revealed, the strongest argument for maintaining
support for the rebels became the dubious claim that a US failure to back the al-Qaeda penetrated rebellion will convince the non-al-Qaeda rebels to join the
terrorist organization. But of course, this is a losing argument. If supporting
al-Qaeda is an acceptable default position for the rebels, then how can it be
argued that they will be an improvement over Gaddafi?
THE ANTI-REGIME protests
in Syria are a welcome departure from the grim choices posed by Egypt and Libya
because supporting the protesters in Syria is actually a good idea.
is an unadulterated rogue. He is an illicit nuclear proliferator. Israel’s
reported bombing of Assad’s North Korean-built, Iranian-financed nuclear reactor
at Deir al-Zour in September 2007 did not end Assad’s nuclear adventures. Not
only has he refused repeated requests from the UN’s International Atomic Energy
Agency to inspect the site, commercial satellite imagery has exposed four other
illicit nuclear sites in the country. The latest one, reportedly for the
production of uranium yellowcake tetroflouride at Marj as Sultan near Damascus,
was exposed last month by the Washington-based Institute for Science and
Assad has a large stockpile of chemical weapons
including Sarin gas and blister agents. In February 2009 Jane’s Intelligence
reported that the Syrians were working intensively to expand their
chemical arsenal. Based on commercial satellite imagery, Jane’s’
concluded that Syria was expending significant efforts to update its chemical
weapons facilities. Analysts claimed that Syria began its work upgrading
its chemical weapons program in 2005 largely as a result of Saddam Hussein’s
reported transfer of his chemical weapons arsenal to Syria ahead of the US-led
invasion in 2003.
report also claimed that Assad’s men had
built new missile bays for specially adapted Scud missiles equipped to hold
chemical warheads at the updated chemical weapons sites.
As for missiles,
with North Korean, Iranian, Russian, Chinese and other third-party assistance,
Syria has developed a massive arsenal of ballistic missile and advanced
artillery capable of hitting every spot in Israel and wreaking havoc on IDF
troop formations and bases.
Beyond its burgeoning unconventional
arsenals, Assad is a major sponsor of terrorism. He has allowed Syria to
be used as a transit point for al-Qaida terrorists en route to Iraq. Assad’s
Syria is second only to Iran’s ayatollahs in its sponsorship of Hezbollah in
Lebanon and Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian
Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders live in Damascus. As Hezbollah
terror commander Imad Mughniyeh’s assassination in Damascus in February 2008
exposed, the Syrian capital serves as Hezbollah’s operational hub. The group’s
logistical bases are located in Syria.
If the Assad regime is overthrown,
it will constitute a major blow to both the Iranian regime and Hezbollah. In
turn, Lebanon’s March 14 democracy movement and the Iranian Green Movement will
be empowered by the defeat.
Obviously aware of the dangers, Iranian
Revolutionary Guards forces and Hezbollah operatives have reportedly been deeply
involved in the violent repression of protesters in Syria. Their involvement is
apparently so widespread that among the various chants adopted by the protesters
is a call for the eradication of Hezbollah.
MENTION OF Lebanon’s March 14
movement and Iran’s Green Movement serves as a reminder that the political
upheavals ensnaring the Arab world did not begin in December when Mohammed
Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia. Arguably, the fire was lit in April
2003 when jubilant Iraqis brought down a statue of Saddam Hussein in
The first place the fire spread from there was Syria. Inspired
by the establishment of autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq, in May 2004 Syria’s
harshly repressed Kurdish minority staged mass protests that quickly spread
throughout the country from the Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria. Assad was
quick to violently quell the protests.
Like Gaddafi today, seven years
ago Assad deployed his air force against the Kurds.
Scores were killed
and thousands were arrested. Many of those arrested were tortured by Assad’s
The discrimination that Kurds have faced under Assad and his
father is appalling. Since the 1970s, more than 300,000 Kurds have been stripped
of their Syrian citizenship. They have been forcibly ejected from their homes
and villages in the north and resettled in squalid refugee camps in the south.
The expressed purpose of these racist policies has been to prevent territorial
contiguity between Syrian, Iraqi and Turkish Kurds and to “Arabize” Syrian
Kurdistan where most of Syria’s oil deposits are located.
The Kurds make
up around 10 percent of Syria’s population. They oppose not only the Baathist
regime, but also the Muslim Brotherhood. Represented in exile by the Kurdistan
National Assembly of Syria, since 2004 they have sought the overthrow of the
Assad regime and its replacement by democratic, decentralized federal
government. Decentralizing authority, they believe, is the best way to check
tyranny of both the Baathist and the Muslim Brotherhood variety. The Kurdish
demand for a federal government has been endorsed by the Sunni-led exile Syrian
This week the KNA released a statement to the world
community. Speaking for Syria’s Kurds and for their Arab, Druse, Alevi and
Christian allies in Syria, it asked for the “US, France, UK and international
organizations to seek [a] UN resolution condemning [the] Syrian regime for using
violence against [the Syrian] people.”
The KNA’s statement requested that
the US and its allies “ask for UN-sponsored committees to investigate the recent
violence in Syria, including the violence used against the Kurds in
The KNA warns, “If the US and its allies fail to support
democratic opposition [groups] such as the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria
and others, [they] will be making a grave mistake,” because they will enable
“radical groups to rise and undermine any democratic movements,” and empower the
likes of Hezbollah and Iran.
Led by Chairman Sherkoh Abbas, the KNA has
asked the US Congress to hold hearings on Syria and allow representatives of the
opposition to state their case for regime change.
Opponents of regime
change in Syria argue that if Assad is overthrown, the Muslim Brotherhood will
take over. This may be true, although the presence of a well-organized Kurdish
opposition means it may be more difficult for the Brotherhood to take charge
than it has been in Egypt.
Aside from that, whereas the Brotherhood is
clearly a worse alternative in Egypt than Mubarak was, it is far from clear that
it would be worse for Syria to be led by the Brotherhood than by Assad. What
would a Muslim Brotherhood regime do that Assad isn’t already doing? At a
minimum, a successor regime will be weaker than the current one. Consequently,
even if Syria is taken over by jihadists, they will pose less of an immediate
threat to the region than Assad. They will be much more vulnerable to domestic
opposition and subversion.
EVEN IF Assad is not overthrown, and is merely
forced to contain the opposition over the long haul, this too would be an
improvement over what we have experienced to date. In the absence of domestic
unrest, Assad has been free to engineer and support Hezbollah’s coup d'etat in
Lebanon, develop nuclear weapons and generally act as Iranian President Mahmoud
But now, in a bid to quell the anti-regime
protests, Assad has been forced to deploy his military to his own towns and
villages. Compelled to devote his energies to staying in power, Assad has
little time to stir up fires elsewhere.
The first beneficiary of his
weakness will be Jordan’s King Abdullah who now needs to worry less about Assad
enabling a Hamas-Muslim Brotherhood-instigated civil war in
Depressingly, under the Obama administration the US will not lift
a finger to support Syrian regime opponents. In media interviews Sunday, not
only did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rule out the use of force to
overthrow Assad, as his troops were killing anti-regime protesters, Clinton went
so far as to praise Assad as “a reformer.”
The US retreat from strategic
rationality is tragic. But just because President Barack Obama limits American
intervention in the Middle East to the places it can do the most harm such as
Egypt, Libya and the Palestinian conflict with Israel, there is no reason for
Israel not to act independently to help Assad’s domestic
Israel should arm the Kurds. Israeli leaders and spokesmen
should speak out on behalf of Syria’s Kurds from every bully pulpit that comes
their way. Our leaders should also speak out against Assad and his proliferation
of missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu should ask the UN to speed up the release of the indictments in the
investigation of the late Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Foreign Minister
Avigdor Lieberman should call on the UN to behave honestly and indict Assad for
ordering Hariri’s murder.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak should release
information about Syria’s transfer of weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah. The
government should release information about Syria’s use of terror against the
Druse. Netanyahu must also state publicly that in light of the turbulence of the
Arab world generally, and Assad’s murderous aggression against his own people
and his neighbors specifically, Israel is committed to maintaining perpetual
sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
We are living through dangerous
times. But even now there is much we can do to emerge stronger from the
political storm raging around us. Syria’s revolt is a rare opportunity. We’d
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