by Emile Nakhleh
Watching the Syrian debate in Washington, one is dismayed by the focus on whether Sarin gas has been used or not. As if 80,000 dead and over two million refugees are not a sufficient reason for the administration to act.
Some foreign policy experts have publicly counseled President Obama to remain steadfast against getting involved in Syria either because such involvement is fraught with uncertainty or because it could make things worse. Such advice reflects a lack of expertise in minority dictatorial regimes in the region or a callous adherence to Realpolitik.
Diplomacy and so-called negotiations have not and will not work because minority autocratic regimes—whether brutal as in Syria and or a bit less so as in Bahrain—have not shown any genuine interest in including their people in running the country. Power sharing usually equates with accountability and transparency, which neither the Syrian Alawite ruling clique nor the Bahraini Al-Khalifa family are eager to pursue.
Minority rulers in Syria and Bahrain view their respective countries as their fiefdoms. As such, they consider themselves immune from public scrutiny and are not required to consult with their people in the decision making process.
The Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi peace plans for Syria presumably based on negotiations have failed because Assad has refused to negotiate with “terrorists,” a word he uses to describe all opposition forces. On-going attempts by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart to start talks between the Assad regime and the opposition also are destined to fail because of Assad’s determination to fight to the finish.
The Bahraini anemic “dialogue” also has reached a dead end because of the monarchy’s lukewarm commitment to the whole process of dialogue. In a recent media interview, King Hamad described pro-reform activists in Bahrain as “terrorists.” He likened them to “those involved in the Boston bombings.” In the same interview, he denied the existence of weekly protests in Bahrain. With this mindset, it’s no wonder the much-touted dialogue has gotten nowhere.
The Obama administration must act now in Syria for moral and national interest reasons. Now, not till another “red line” is crossed by the regime. Such action does not necessarily mean involvement with boots on the ground. It does mean, however, helping level the playing field for the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups in their uprising against the preponderant power of the regime.
In addition to non-lethal support, the US and its Western allies should provide the opposition with heavy weaponry to counteract the regime’s tanks and airplanes.
Hesitancy to act now threats American long-term strategic interests in the region and poses a serious moral dilemma for the Obama administration. It also raises a number of questions:
How many more thousands of Syrians must to be killed before the regime crosses the so-called red line? Why should the red line be determined by a few canisters of Sarin gas and not by 80,000 dead? Who has the moral legitimacy to decide which is which before the international community declares enough is enough? And why is death by conventional weapons less abhorrent than death by a chemical weapon, such as Sarin gas?”
From a national-interest perspective, the United States and its Western allies must help bring down the Assad regime sooner than later. Such an outcome will certainly result in breaking up the anti-Western tripartite axis of Iran, Syria, and Hizballah.
Some foreign policy experts who oppose any form of involvement have advanced the specious argument that getting involved in the Syrian conflict would make things much worse and would embroil the whole region in the conflict.
The fact is Assad’s brutality continues to kill more Syrians, and Iran and Hizballah remain deeply involved in supporting the regime. Turkey, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon are already being affected by the conflict. Iran and Saudi Arabia seem to view the Syrian civil war as a proxy war between them.
What is even more alarming for the West is the recent public admission by Hizballah’s head Hassan Nasrallah that his organization is fighting on Assad’s side. Claiming that Hizballah would not allow the Assad regime to fall, Nasrallah indicated Assad would provide Hizballah with “game-changing” weapons. According to media reports, such weapons could refer to long-range rockets or chemical weapons.
Obtaining and potentially using such weapons would certainly drag Syria’s neighbors into the conflict regardless of whether or not the West would arm the opposition with more lethal weapons.
Equally disturbing is the growing role and presence of Sunni radical jihadists in Syria. Their significance will rise as the conflict remains unresolved. Many of these so-called jihadists are not Syrian. The longer the conflict continues, however, the more they are able to penetrate the country and fill the power vacuum caused by the brutality of the regime and its diminishing authority.
The West must act before al-Qa’ida and affiliated franchise terrorist organizations acquire a foothold in Syria and claim the country their own. By empowering the Free Syrian Army through advanced weaponry to face down the regime, the jihadists would become marginalized and their influence as the primary fighting force would wane.
The situation in Syria is already bad and promises to get much worse. Contrary to the advice of experts and talking heads, arming the opposition with adequate weapons to bring down the regime sooner rather than later arguably could improve the situation and save Syria from further destruction. It could also show Iran and Hizballah that banking on a discredited brutal dictator is a losing proposition.
For peace talks to have the slimmest chance of success, Assad and his closest senior supporters within the regime must leave the country. This is a necessary step before Syrian stakeholders could contemplate a post-Assad Syria. Unfortunately, however, the history of minority dictatorial regimes tells us that such regimes rarely if ever yield power voluntarily or peacefully.
Assad does not contemplate a “retirement” in the Saudi “Palace of the Deposed” in Jedda or in a Russian dacha by the Black Sea. With this in mind, any talk of a peaceful settlement leading to regime change in Syria is no more than a pipedream.
Photo: Boys in Al Raqqa, Syria, Apr. 11, 2013. Credit: Beshroffline/cc by 2.0