Picking sides in Syria’s civil war is a bit like choosing between Hitler and
Stalin. You do not like either side, do not want to deal with either side, but
you have to choose anyway because, as they say, “it is what it is.”
Assad regime – father Hafez and now son Bashar – is among the most brutal in the
modern Middle East, but foes of the regime now include some of the forces of
al-Qaida that want to enslave or destroy anyone who is not part of their Muslim
Who do you support? It is a very hard choice that requires much
thought because no matter what the choice, more people will die.
first visited Syria, people told me how the Assad regime faced foes using car
bombs and assassination in ways unknown even by many Middle East experts. That
was in late 1979.
Assad’s personal physician had been
Four car bombs went off simultaneously in a traffic circle in
the capital. The tension was everywhere.
It got so bad that the Assads
banned motorcycles in Damascus after cycle-borne assassins had grown especially
effective. The Assad family carried out major massacres in 1980-82, focusing on
Sunni Muslim religious dissidents.
Several hundred inmates in Tadmor
Prison were summarily shot. The city of Hama itself was targeted by Syrian
government artillery, much of the town reduced to rubble, with estimates of the
dead reaching 20,000-30,000.
Today things in Syria are much worse than
they were in 1979: more than 80,000 have died in warfare that began not long
after the Obama administration reached out to engage the Assad regime, sending a
US ambassador over the express and formal disapproval of Congress.
is not the time to list all of President Barack Obama’s Middle East fiascos, but
the case of Syria may be the case that defines the Obama presidency, because
what is happening in Syria is already spreading to Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and
Hundreds of thousands of refugees have destabilized Jordan. Syria
has already fired on Israeli positions, and Israel has already destroyed Syrian
arms shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Meanwhile, chemical weapons have been
used, and the Russians are sending more advanced missiles to the Assad
President Obama has chosen to act like Talleyrand, Napoleon’s
foreign minister, who once declared that he faced crises by going to sleep for
three days. If the crisis did not sort itself out, then, Talleyrand said, he
dealt with the problem.
Unlike Talleyrand, Obama has been sleeping for
more than three days. He decided not to decide. The crisis got worse. An earlier
response may have saved lives, stopped the spread and use of advanced missiles
and chemical weapons.
Some say the Assad-Islamist clash is like Iran
Iraq: best to keep them fighting each other and they will not have
the energy or time to make trouble for others. But the Iran-Iraq conflict showed
that it is hard to “manage” such a war, and the current fighting in Syria is
even harder to manage.
Some suggest that the Assad regime is the “devil
we know,” and also “less extreme” than al-Qaida.
Sometimes one “has to do
business” or tacitly back even horrible regimes when the choice is an even worse
terror organization like al-Qaida.
Others suggest that even at this late
date, there are important non-al-Qaida forces in the Syrian opposition which may
rise to the surface if the West intervenes.
This is an optimistic
approach, but regional history should teach us to be more wary.
risk of being ridiculed by the hard-headed strategists (with whom I usually
agree), I would like to suggest that there is a certain moral principle which is
also a important: we need to stop, expel, even execute, the worst murderer
This is an especially important principle for Jews and for Israel.
Making all kinds of sterile “balance of power” and “dual containment”
calculations is repugnant for those who recall how the world dithered while Jews
Whatever the sins of Syrian dissidents, they do not
match the half-century of blood spilled by the Assads. A second moral-strategic
reason: Assad’s Alawites comprise a tiny part of Syria. The Alawites and other
small groups deserve their rights, but the Sunni plurality has been waiting too
long, and the Sunnis will eventually win.
A third reason is purely
strategic: Two of the worst terror forces in the world are backing Assad: Iran
and Hezbollah. Bringing down Assad reduces Iran and Hezbollah.
Churchill chose between Hitler and Stalin.
For Churchill, both were
devils he knew – and hated. But Hitler was more immediate, more
So it is with Assad. After he is gone, we can help and try to
mold a new Syrian regime. If his successors turn out bad, then we will face and
defeat them as the West eventually defeated Communism.The writer served
as strategic affairs adviser in Israel’s Ministry of Public Security, and wrote
Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat, published by
Threshold/Simon and Schuster. He teaches at Bar-Ilan University and is a
Schusterman visiting professor at the University of California at Irvine,