The West’s Syrian imperative

It is overdue for the US and other Western countries to go beyond rhetoric and take more concrete steps to embolden Syrian opposition forces.

Syrian protester against flag 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)
Syrian protester against flag 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)
The US and several European nations toughened their rhetoric this weekend to condemn the ruthless brutality of President Bashar Assad’s regime. But so far, words have not been backed up with action.
The latest, bloodiest spate of violence began on what demonstrators had dubbed “Great Friday,” after the Christian Good Friday. During peaceful demonstrations in Latakia, Homs, Hama, Damascus and Izra’a, security forces loyal to Assad opened fire indiscriminately, killing more than a hundred people. At the ensuing funerals, about a dozen more Syrians were gunned down. At least 300 have been killed since unrest broke out on March 18 in Deraa.
“This outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now,” US President Barack Obama said in a statement. Instead of heeding his own people, said Obama, “President Assad is blaming outsiders while seeking Iranian assistance in repressing Syria’s citizens.”
The EU, Greece, Germany, France and even Russia added their censure. What was lacking, however, was any operative suggestion for stopping the bloodshed.
The capacity of Western nations to direct events in Syria is limited. Recent WikiLeaks revelations have shown, for instance, that after 2005, when the Bush administration broke off relations with Syria in the wake of the Rafik Hariri assassination, the US State Department began secretly financing Syrian political opposition groups and related projects, including a satellite TV channel that beams anti-Assad programming into the country. This funding continued into the Obama administration even as a parallel and largely ineffective “constructive engagement” policy with Damascus was launched.
But it was only after Syrians, inspired by the upheavals sweeping Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, shook off the spell of fear imposed by the Assad regime’s all-pervasive security apparatus that there came a chance for real change.
Syrian poet Muhammad al-Maghout had described Assad’s “Republic of Fear” thus: “I enter the bathroom with my identification papers in my hand.”
Now, as Czech playwright Vaclav Havel and later president put it when referring to the 1968 Prague Spring, many Syrians have opted, with admirable courage, to stop “living in a lie” and begin “living in truth.”
Short of a massive intervention such as the invasion of Iraq (which indirectly facilitated the “Arab Spring” by offering hope for regime change and by removing Saddam Hussein, who undoubtedly would have supported the likes of Muammar Gaddafi and Assad), neither the US nor any other Western nation can ensure that the present popular uprising will oust Assad and, if it does, that it will lead to a democracy as opposed to an Islamist regime headed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
But the West does have influence, and its first order of business – and most basic moral obligation – is to convey clear and consistent messages of support to the Syrian people for expressing their basic right to peaceful assembly in what will be a long, arduous battle for freedom and self-determination.
The US and other Western countries must make it clear that they will intervene if the violence does not cease – if Assad, that is, continues to use murderous force to put down the popular uprisings.
Should the Alawites lose control, furthermore, murderous retribution by the Sunni majority will certainly follow. Sunnis’ traumatic memories of Hafez Assad’s massacre of more than 10,000 Muslim Brotherhood members, most of them civilians, in Hama three decades ago are still fresh. The West must also make plain that it will act to prevent retribution against religious and ethic minorities.

A PEACEFUL end to the Assad regime is an American and European interest, perhaps even more so than removing Gaddafi from power in Libya. In recent decades, Syria has provided shelter to anti-West terrorists like Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah commander assassinated in Damascus in 2008 who was responsible for the 1983 US Marine barracks bombing in Beirut that killed 241 American servicemen and 58 French paratroopers, and the 1983 US Embassy attack, also in Beirut, that killed 60.
Damascus has enabled thousands of Islamist insurgents to make their way into Iraq to fight US troops and destabilize the fledgling democracy there. It hosts Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, along with members of al-Qaida and global jihad. Syria has even reportedly sent two dozen fighter jets to aid Gaddafi. And its collaborates with Iran via Islamist proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
It is overdue for the US and other Western countries to go beyond strong rhetoric and take more concrete steps to embolden Syrian opposition forces, while ensuring that sectarian violence does not spin out of control.