Our Syrian menu: Bad, worse, worst

"Picking sides in Syria’s civil war is a bit like choosing between Hitler and Stalin."

June 3, 2013 22:45
4 minute read.
Syrian President Bashar Assad meeting with a Lebanese delegation, April 22, 2013.

Assad meeting with Lebanese delegation 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/SANA)

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.”

The 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 brand.

Who do you support? It is a very hard choice that requires much thought because no matter what the choice, more people will die.

When I 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 murdered.

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.

This 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 Jordan.

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 regime.

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 vs.

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.

At the 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 first.

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 were slaughtered.

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.

Winston Churchill chose between Hitler and Stalin.

For Churchill, both were devils he knew – and hated. But Hitler was more immediate, more deadly.

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, 2013-2014.

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