Stop the Butcher of Damascus

by Emile Nakhleh

The horrific scenes of starving Syrians and falling barrel bombs and missiles on Homs, Aleppo, and Deraa offer evidence of Bashar al-Assad’s determination to destroy his country and massacre his people in order to stay in power.

No other Arab dictator in recent memory, including Saddam Hussein, has committed such systematic and callous brutality as Bashar al-Assad of Syria. It’s time that President Barack Obama and other Western leaders respond to Assad’s atrocities and force his ouster.

NATO acted, with Washington’s support, to save Benghazi. Homs is no different. Syria burns while Washington watches. When will Homs become the tipping point for immediate action?

Almost two years ago, several experts argued, including on this Blog, for arming the rebels in order to level the playing field. Had that happened, the regime would have fallen and the Syrian people would have been spared much of this misery.

According to media reports at the time, debate raged within the White House and the US Department of State on this issue, with Secretary of State John Kerry favoring a military solution but without putting boots on the ground. Those who argued against arming the rebels, however, prevailed.

Three reasons underpinned the non-military approach. First, arming and training the rebels would ultimately lead to “mission creep” and direct military involvement. Second, the arms, especially anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, could fall into the hands of militants and terrorist groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra. Third, the American people, including many Democrats in Congress, were opposed to another possible war in the Mid-East.

In the final analysis, what drove President Obama’s objection to a military solution was his visceral opposition to starting new wars and strong support for ending them.

Unfortunately for Syria, not arming the opposition resulted in thousands being killed and an emboldened Assad. The moderate opposition became much weaker, and radical Salafi groups, including the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS), became the face of the opposition.

A Syrian Christian family that just got out of Syria told me of the paralyzing fear that is constantly being inflicted on innocent civilians — women, children, and the elderly — as bombs and missiles rain down on their homes and shelters. One of them said they are forced to accept the horrific reality that the death of a neighbor or a relative has become ordinary and banal.

Many of these Christians, who initially supported Assad, now see his legacy as one of destruction with no remorse or care for the country or its people. They are demanding justice from this war criminal.

Geneva II is failing. In fact, it was doomed from the start because Assad, his foreign minister, and their Russian benefactors have used the meetings to buy time. Assad has no intentions to negotiate his exit from power. Anyone who thinks otherwise is naïve or complicit.

Russian President Vladimir Putin used Geneva as a convenient crutch because a forceful international action on Syria could muddy his Winter Olympics. He wanted the world to focus on Sochi, not Homs. Starving Syrians should not sully his Olympian dreams; unfortunately, the world went along.

The op-ed President Obama and the French President Francois Hollande wrote in the Washington Post Feb. 10 barely addressed the constant, heart-wrenching suffering of the Syrian people. The two leaders called on the international community to “step up its efforts to care for the Syrian people, strengthen the moderate Syrian opposition, and work the Geneva II process toward a political transition that delivers the Syrian people from dictatorship and terrorism.”

This rhetoric will not move Assad to abdicate and turn the reins of power to an interim government. Geneva II is already stalled, but Assad continues to use it as a fig leaf to cover his atrocities. He is pounding his country to smithereens while world leaders watch.

Whenever civilians flee their towns to places on the Lebanese border, such as Arsan, regime planes and missiles follow them and wreak havoc regardless of which side of the border they are on.

The “international community” will not act on its own without American leadership and resources. The United States, therefore, in concert with its NATO allies must take several steps immediately.

First, declare a no-fly zone over all of Syria as a warning to Assad to stop the regime’s aerial bombardment and the killing of innocent civilians. If missile attacks do not cease within 24 hours, NATO should bomb missile sites.

A Syrian Christian told me, “Assad owns the skies over Syria and unless that changes, he will not stop his butchery.”

Second, arm the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups with adequate weapons, including anti-tank and anti aircraft rockets. Recent conflicts such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us that some of the weapons that are provided to legitimate rebel forces sometime fall in the hands of radical jihadis and Salafis. We should expect a similar possibility in Syria. As the disparate rebel groups unify, however, they would become more effective on the battlefield and a more formidable fighting force. This in turn would weaken the radicals.

Third, through private channels, perhaps from Jordan and Saudi Arabia, inform radical groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, that ISIS and other terrorist groups would not be tolerated, currently or in a post-Assad Syria.

Mainstream rebel groups should ostracize and reject ISIS as part of the opposition or as a potential player in a post-Assad Syria. Opposition leaders within Syria and outside it should collect information on ISIS activists and mark them for arrest and deportation once Assad falls. If Jabhat al-Nusra will not reject ISIS or terrorism, it too should be targeted for arrest and deportation.

Fourth, organize an immediate, massive, multi-state humanitarian aid effort to bring food, medicine, water, blankets, and other necessities to Syrians trapped in cities and towns across the country. If Assad prevents supplies from reaching the needy, he should be told in no uncertain terms that force would be used to protect aid deliveries.

Fifth, declare Assad and his closest associates as international war criminals and initiate indictment proceedings at The Hague. Assad’s foreign minister Walid al-Muallem should be told privately that he too could be indicted as a war criminal if he does not defect from the regime. The message should be equally conveyed to other senior members of the regime, both civilian leaders and military.

Sixth, the UN Secretary General should direct Lakhdar Brahimi to begin working with the opposition on a post-Assad constitution, electoral law, and a representative governmental structure that would be put in place once the Assad regime collapses. The charade of Geneva II should end.

The draft constitution, which must be approved by a popular referendum openly and freely, should be based on the principles of inclusion, tolerance, freedoms of speech and assembly, and human rights, especially for women and minorities. No single party, including the Ba’th Party, should be allowed to dominate the political landscape.

Let us be clear: Arming the rebels does not mean direct US involvement in the Syrian civil war. Regardless of the expected public opposition to the proposed steps, President Obama cannot possibly continue to exalt America’s values and moral standing while Syria burns.

Photo: Beirut, Lebanon, February 11 (UNHCR) — More than 1,100 civilians have taken advantage of a three-day “humanitarian pause” this weekend to flee the besieged Old City of Homs in western Syria.

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. Mr. Nakhieh, with all due respect, why not let the Syrian people elect whom they want as their leader and then count how many Christians, Sunnis, Shia, Druze and others of Syria’s religious and ethnic mosaic really support Assad.

    No one ever said he was a ‘nice guy’- in fact his Secret Service and prisons were just the thing for GW Bush’s CIA rendition program- but it is a brutal war that was started by the West and its allies and proxies, and planned well in advance by the US-NATO and their special ops in conjunction with Soros-funded NGOs, and the mainstream media, as part of their choreographed “Arab Spring”. Moreover, it never had anything to do with human rights, it was an expansive imperial misadventure to achieve a multiplicity of geopolitical objectives, so Assad bashing seems a bit disingenuous at this stage. My, god, I’m almost ready to hear it from Samantha Power or Hillary Clinton, (or Stephen Fry) that Assad is a self-hating transgendered lesbian who lost it, and now wants to destroy his own country and people in furtherance of his constitutional duty as President to defend it against those who would shred Syria and kill and maim its people. It is a tragedy of huge proportions, and one for which the West must be held accountable and pay to fix, and it could start by cutting off funds and arms to the jihadists and mercenaries- and lean on the Saudis, Qataris, Turks and Israelis to do the same- to wind down the violence, remove the foreign fighters from Syria and negotiate an amnesty. Once that happened the most serious impediments to a relief effort would be removed. Up to now, the rebels have been capitalizing on the humanitarian crisis as much as the Government is being blamed for it.

    As for the sentiment of the Christian community, I’d like to see John Kerry in a one-on-one debate with Mother Agnes Mariam, or the Armenian Catholicos of Cilicia or the Greek or Syrian Orthodox Prelates or one or more of the Presbyterian ministers in Syria. (For example, take a look at the website for the Presbyterian Synod of Syria at: )
    It sounds more like they want the West to stop feeding the violence, so that things will have a chance to settle down, so the country can heal and rebuild again.

    Please, we’ve heard enough propaganda and crocodile tears from the victimizers, and heard it for too long, to be able to digest more of the same.

  2. It is pointless dredging up where we all might have been; we have to deal with where we are now.
    The idea of arming jihadist even more is crazy. They will not listen to anyone; they are intent on jihad – holy war – and they will not stop until they have imposed sharia law and salafist beliefs on Syria as an initial down-payment on converting the entire world into a fanatic Islamic state.
    America, Israel, Qatar, Turkey and the Sauds have been involved in arming and training the jihadists.
    America failed utterly to learn from their mistakes in Afghanistan, where they armed and trained the jihadist Taliban there. Look where that got them. They are making the same mistake in Syria now.
    I am no great fan of Assad. I too feel he is a butcher – but the alternatives are even worse. At the end of the day, there has to be a political solution, which means the guns have to fall silent and the people of Syria must be allowed to return back to their homes and livelihoods.
    Fueling unending conflict does not help.

  3. This Council on Foreign Relations member is off base, it seems the ones who love war will not stop until the whole world is under their evil control. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, next Iran, the Ukraine and Africa.

  4. Mr. Nakieh’s disingenuous rantings are irrelevant to the Geneva II negotiations since he has no standing as he is not a party contemplated by Geneva I. However, they do invite a set fair and pragmatic proposals in their stead. In the meantime, one might refer to the recent article by Franklin Lamb, titled “How Not to Get Aid into Homs” which spotlights the flaws in the UN draft resolution proposed by the U.S. and the West’s complicity in the ongoing savagery and obstruction of relief efforts in Syria.
    (See: )

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