After more than a month of essentially siding with the Syrian regime as it slaughters peaceful demonstrators in the streets, the White House finally had strong words for President Bashar al-Assad. “The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the use of force by the Syrian government against demonstrators,” President Barack Obama said in a statement, as the death toll climbed into the hundreds. “This outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now.”
But what if it doesn’t come to an end? Last Friday more than a hundred people were killed in 18 cities and villages around Syria. Another 100 disappeared with no record of their arrest. On Saturday, snipers shot mourners trying to bury their dead. On Monday, tanks and infantry units surrounded the city of Deraa, where the uprising first broke out six weeks ago. So far, at least 400 are dead, a higher total than in Egypt, which has roughly four times the population of Syria.
So, what should Washington do next? Previously, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained that the United States intervened on behalf of the armed Libyan rebels because the regime’s forces were firing on their own people from airplanes. Presumably, then, so long as Assad continues using only tanks, snipers, and battalions of army troops against peaceful demonstrators, he is safe. There are rumors of sanctions that may target Assad’s brother, who has led some of the shock troops against protesters, but probably not the president himself. As one administration official explained, Assad “sees himself as a Westernized leader … and we think he’ll react if he believes he is being lumped in with brutal dictators.”
There is some legitimate concern about what happens if Assad falls. Who will rule Syria next? Perhaps, as Assad warns, there is a powerful Islamist current that will come to power in this Sunni majority (70 percent) country now controlled by a ruling clique drawn from the minority Alawite sect. But Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, decimated the Muslim Brotherhood during the ’70s and ’80s, culminating in the 1982 destruction of Hama, where tens of thousands of Syrians were slaughtered by the country’s security forces. Most of Syria’s Salafist groups have been penetrated by the regime and used against its adversaries in Lebanon and Iraq. So, the Islamist current in Syria is hardly as powerful or cohesive as Assad’s apologists make it out to be.
The Obama Administration’s cautious Syria policy is not pragmatic and realist; it is, rather, an ideological fantasy. The White House is worried not about what happens to U.S. interests after Assad, but about how to salvage a campaign promise that has been thwarted by reality. The Obama White House is sheltering Assad for the same reason it was slow to support Iran’s green movement when it took to the streets in June 2009. Just as Obama held out hope for talking to the Islamic Republic, he still wants to engage Syria. The Obama Administration’s entire Middle East policy is premised on getting Damascus back to the negotiating table with Israel. Accomplishing that goal, the administration believes, will not only win the United States the favor of the Arab and Muslim masses, but it will also drive a wedge between Syria and its ally Iran.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has always been pessimistic that Washington could separate Damascus and Tehran. Nonetheless, official Israel isn’t saying much these days, because no one has any idea of what follows the Assads, or if it would be better or worse for Israel. The Assads have kept the border on the Golan quiet since 1973, even as they’ve waged war against the Jewish State through proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas, built secret nuclear facilities, maintained thousands of missiles armed with chemical warheads pointed at Israeli cities, and aligned their interests with Iran. In spite of this, there are almost as many Israeli officials as there are U.S. policymakers who believe Syria wants a peace deal—Defense Minister Ehud Barak most prominent among them.
And yet over the last 30 years it is Syria more than any actor that has brought war to Israel, on its borders and within, through terrorist assets and allies. If Damascus has not itself waged direct state-to-state war on the Jewish State, it is not because it doesn’t want to but because it cannot. Nor can it make peace with Israel. Forget for a moment the strategic reasons why Syria can’t sign a deal—that if Israel returns the Golan Heights as part of a full peace agreement the Damascus regime loses a legitimacy based on its war footing, or that without war against Israel, Syria no longer gets to burnish its prestige by bargaining with Washington. Consider instead the nature of the regime: A ruling clique whose snipers shoot its own children is not going to make peace with its own people, let alone with Israel.
The other problem with the fantasy of a Syrian peace track is that the peace process no longer exists. Obama unwittingly threw it under the bus when he abandoned Egypt President Hosni Mubarak, who kept the peace with Israel for more than 30 years at some personal risk to his own life. By trashing Mubarak, the White House showed that the so-called peace process isn’t really all that important to Washington. In Egypt, winning the love of the masses meant siding with the young social media activists-cum-populists and the Muslim Brotherhood when they wanted to pull down a U.S. ally who supported the most consequential peace treaty between the Arabs and Israel.
Nonetheless, the Obama White House has no other tricks up its sleeve in the Middle East. The Palestinian track has become reduced to Washington, the one-time regional power-broker, now petitioning Abbas to refrain from unilaterally announcing statehood. The hopelessness of the Israeli-Palestinian track is one reason why the administration keeps insisting Assad live up to his billing in Washington as a “reformer.” In reality, Assad put away any thought of reform a little less than a year after he took power following his father Hafez’s death in 2000. The so-called Damascus Spring was short-lived because Assad, only 35 at the time, knew then what the 82-year-old Mubarak would only understand when it was too late—opening the door to reform gives your opponents enough leverage to push it wide open and toss you out.
In the aftermath of Mubarak’s downfall, no Arab regime has failed to observe the lesson. Hence, instead of reforming a vicious political system that permits Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa family to treat the country’s Shia majority as second-class citizens, the government of Bahrain called in a 4,000-strong Gulf Cooperation Council force to terrorize Shia. Instead of reforming their medieval system, the Saudi royal family merely bought off their subjects with a $93 billion bribe.
When Obama officials call Assad a reformer, they are not making excuses for Assad but for themselves. Were they to admit to themselves and others that the Syrian president is a serial murderer of his own people as well as of Americans and their allies around the region, including Iraqis, Lebanese, Israelis, and Palestinians, Washington might have to design a new Syria policy. But in place of a rational intellect and a moral center, all the White House has is an imaginary peace process, a pipe dream that requires the “reform-minded” Bashar al-Assad to come to his senses and engage with Washington.
America’s special treatment of Syria long precedes the Obama Administration, as I’ve noted. U.S. diplomats have been coloring the Assads (the son and before him the father) in favorable hues ever since the family came to power. “Hafez always keeps his word” was the favored slogan of U.S. envoys for years, even as the Syrian president’s terrorist assets killed U.S. citizens and allies. American policymakers just back from Damascus liked to describe Hafez as a tough bargainer who can talk for hours straight without permitting his interlocutors to go to the bathroom. That is to say, U.S. officials turned the degradation that Hafez served them into a gourmet meal.
In the end, concern over who follows Assad is just another way of covering for the inadequacies of Washington’s Syria policy. It doesn’t matter who rules Syria—whether it’s ruled by the country’s well-educated merchant class, the Islamists, or, while unlikely, a broad multi-sectarian coalition of liberal democrats. Maybe, as one Lebanese journalist told me recently in Beirut, no one will rule Syria for some time. One likely scenario for Syria is that it will return to its pre-Assad character, scored by coups and counter-coups, a country that is a problem only for itself and incapable of exporting its problems to its neighbors as Damascus has done for the past 40 years—with Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, as well as Israel.
Sure, things can always get worse, especially in the Middle East. But not in Syria. It can’t get any worse than the Assads’ regime, or, rather, what could be worse? A regime that actually fires those chemical warheads at Israel, or activates its secret nuclear program and builds a bomb? The only limits the regime in Damascus knows are those that have been imposed from without, and not often enough by Washington. The end of this cancer might go a long way toward healing an American policymaking community whose Syria policies have been riddled with moral sickness for almost half a century.
Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).