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Lead from the Front

Jan 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 19 • By LEE SMITH
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Last week, Syrian security forces withdrew from Zabadani, a town near Damascus where defectors from the army and other antiregime elements had been exchanging heavy fire with the army. In Lebanon, some democracy activists believe that an opposition victory in a major Syrian city will energize Bashar al-Assad’s enemies, dooming his regime at last.

Photo of Demonstrators against Bashar al-Assad in Homs on January 13

Demonstrators against Bashar al-Assad in Homs, January 13

NEWSCOM

Now we’ll see. In any case, this is where the real action is. The Syrian uprising is not being driven by the Syrian National Council, or the Muslim Brotherhood, or the other exile outfits busy drafting manifestoes, calling for conferences, and fighting among themselves for power and privilege. The future of Syria, and perhaps much of the region, will be decided by the fighting in Syria itself.

There are other signs it’s coming to a head. Maybe, says a Lebanese journalist, the fact that the regime is targeting Homs shows its days are numbered. Homs is a midsized city in western Syria that’s been one of the centers of the nearly yearlong uprising against Assad. For months now the regime has been pounding away at Homs. If Assad and his ruling Alawite sect are forced to withdraw from Damascus, they will seek refuge in the Alawite regions in the mountains and along the coastal plain, where the Iranians are already building a port. From there Assad will need to open up a passage to Hezbollah areas in northern Lebanon, which will be more accessible if he levels Homs.

Lebanon’s pro-democracy activists are certain of the outcome they want next door; they just don’t have the means to achieve it. Neither of those is true for the Obama administration, governing a superpower with expansive resources at its disposal but with no clear idea of what it wants to happen.

The White House boasts of its foreign policy successes, like killing Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda fighters, ousting Qaddafi, and leading from behind. However, aside from taking the 9/11 mastermind off the playing the field, the reality is that the record is thin, as can be seen in the context of the Syrian uprising.

The administration abandoned missile defense agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic to satisfy the Russians but has gotten little in return to justify it. In October, after Moscow and Beijing vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions against the Syrian regime, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice pantomimed outrage. Hadn’t we hit the reset button with Moscow? Two weeks ago, Russia dispatched another shipload of arms to Assad.

If the administration boasts of having brought Qaddafi to justice, why, asks the Syrian opposition, can’t the Americans apply the Libya model to Syria? Well, because Libya, for this White House, fit nicely into a domestic argument about U.S. foreign policy. By joining a NATO coalition with enthusiastic support in some European capitals, the administration could advance its position that American interests are best served by leading from behind.

As for the most pressing foreign policy issue of all, the administration has done little to halt Iran’s march toward a nuclear weapon. The only progress in the campaign has come against the administration’s wishes. Fearing that high oil prices would harm Obama’s chances of getting reelected, the White House fought the Senate, both Republicans and Democrats, over sanctioning Iran’s energy sector and central bank. Meanwhile, the real countermeasure to Iran’s regional project is precisely that asset that the administration has left dangling for almost a year now—the Syrian uprising, which wants to topple Iran’s client government in Damascus.

The Obama administration, like many before it, came into office wedded to the theory that a Syrian-Israeli peace deal would cool off the region and isolate Hamas and Hezbollah and their patron in Tehran. The Europeans likewise hoped to lure Assad from Iran’s embrace with political dialogue, trade, and investment. This theory, which occupied Western diplomats for decades, was undone when Syrian 15-year-olds scrawled antiregime graffiti on a wall in the city of Daraa, setting off the revolt.

What started inside Syria will be decided there as well. The Obama administration has panted after various Syrian opposition groups, hinting at disappointment that these exile outfits are not more cogent. But it is not the exiles who have risked their lives in the streets for 10 months. Nor is it the exiles who have neutralized Iran’s key ally. It is not the Syrian National Council that forced Hezbollah to move its -arsenal from Syria to Lebanon, or compelled Hamas to abandon the sinking ship in Damascus and seek refuge elsewhere. All this was the work of the opposition inside Syria, which galvanized Arab and international opinion against Assad. Everyone else is just riding the wave that they made possible—everyone, that is, except for the White House.

The one real shift in the Middle East that has been entirely beneficial to American interests has nothing to do with the White House. It’s time for the administration to acknowledge the gift that Syrian teenagers left in its lap and help them finish the job.

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