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Assad Must Go

Dec 5, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 12 • By MAX BOOT
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The “realist” case for Bashar al-Assad—and before him, for his father, Hafez—was that he was supposedly a pillar of stability. The Assads, we were told, were all that stood between Syria and chaos. If that was ever true, it definitely is not true now. Assad’s heavy-handed attempt to repress a revolution is not cowing the protesters. Instead it is leading growing numbers of them to take up arms. Soldiers are defecting to the Free Syrian Army, which in recent days has reportedly attacked an intelligence headquarters outside of Damascus and a Baath party headquarters inside the capital.

Photo of Syrian protesters demonstrating against Bashar al-Assad

Syrian protesters demonstrating against Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, November 12


Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, is descending into civil war with, in the words of a New York Times correspondent, “supporters and opponents of the government blamed for beheadings, rival gangs carrying out tit-for-tat kidnappings, minorities fleeing for their native villages, and taxi drivers too fearful of drive-by shootings to ply the streets.” This could be a vision of what all of Syria might become if Assad continues to cling to power—as he shows every sign of trying to do.

Indeed, Assad recently vowed defiance to the Sunday Times of London, telling a reporter he “will not bow down” despite growing international pressure, such as the European Union’s decision to stop buying Syrian oil and the Arab League’s decision to suspend Syria from membership. It is not only Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, and other Westerners who are telling Assad to step down. The same message is coming from the leaders of neighboring Turkey and Jordan. Even Hamas, long headquartered in Damascus, is backing away from Assad. His actions are beyond the pale for a terrorist group—that tells you something.

The tough economic sanctions imposed by Europe—the major buyer of Syrian oil—will reduce Assad’s revenues and, over time, undermine his hold on power. But Assad retains the support of the Iranian regime, which is assisting and advising him in his war against his own people. He also has the backing of much of the Alawite minority, which dominates Syria’s military and government. With such backing, he could try to cling to power indefinitely even as the country collapses around him and the death toll—already at 4,000 or more—continues to climb.

The West could just sit back and watch this slow-motion catastrophe unfold. But doing so runs the risk of deepening fissures, in particular between Alawites (a Shiite offshoot) and the majority Sunnis, that could take decades to heal. We also run the risk that regional players will become more deeply embroiled in backing competing sides in what is fast becoming a Syrian civil war. If parts of Syria slip outside anyone’s control (as occurred in Iraq from 2003 to 2007), they could become havens for Sunni extremists such as al Qaeda.

On the other hand, if Assad goes, it will be a historic opportunity for a strategic realignment that takes Syria out of the Iranian camp and denies Hezbollah its main source of supply. It is almost certain that any Sunni regime that succeeds Assad will not be as close to Tehran as he has been. And, if we help bring about Assad’s downfall, we will have leverage with his successors that we would otherwise lack.

In some ways the current moment recalls the Balkans of the early 1990s—another situation where the West (and in particular the United States) tried to ignore a human-rights catastrophe but eventually intervened. That intervention stopped the killing and produced a delicate but durable peace accord. Might outside intervention be equally successful in Syria? It very well could be, which is why, despite the understandable reluctance in Washington to mount another Libya-style operation, it is time to start thinking seriously about what can be done to hasten Assad’s downfall. Obama has done a good job so far of isolating and sanctioning Syria, but more action is necessary.

For a start, we should abandon the rhetoric and mindset of moral equivalence reflected in statements such as the one issued by State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner after reports of the Free Syrian Army’s attack on the Baathist party headquarters. While placing the bulk of blame on the Assad regime, Toner also said that “we are very concerned” about the attack and “we certainly don’t condone this kind of violence .  .  . in any way, shape, or form.” We don’t? Why not? Isn’t the use of force legitimate to overthrow a regime that has time and again shown its willingness to slaughter civilians in the street? It certainly was in Libya. Why not in Syria?

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