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The Syrian Challenge

This administration never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Jul 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 41 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Neither Erdogan nor Davutoglu would want to do this; but Turkey might feel obliged to if the demonstrations continue, regime savagery and the number of refugees increase, and Sunni Syrian military units start to peel off (the regime so far has been able to maintain military discipline among Sunni soldiers while using predominately Alawite units and militias as shock troops against the protesters). Even though supporting Turkish military action is undoubtedly a bridge too far for President Obama, not to mention his “realist” national-security team, the administration should do itself a favor and sympathetically discuss this contingency with Ankara. One of Assad’s most critical objectives now is to turn the Turks back towards him. If he can take Ankara out of play​—​which, given the semiofficial nature of the Turkish press, would curb most of the Turkish media’s anti-Alawite coverage​—​then Assad could neutralize the Sunni elite. If Aleppo stays loyal, then the protest movement may be killable. 

As much​—​even more​—​than Egypt, Syria has incubated the ideas that have shaped the Middle East since the collapse of the Ottoman and European empires. In a critical way, modern Syria is the polar opposite of modern Egypt. A solid Egyptian identity launched the people of the Nile into modern Arab politics. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism was an easy extension of his profound patriotism, which depicted the fatherland as the cutting edge of “the Arab nation.” A weak, almost nonexistent, Syrian national identity, when it collided with the supercharged “isms” of the twentieth century, hurled the heterodox people of Syria into an especially mean-spirited Arab nationalism, which ravaged the country. Like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, Syria is rebelling against all that went wrong since the country became conscious of itself. Rebellious Syrians, like so many other Arabs (and Iranians), are trying to re-attach their patriotism, their faith, and their personal pride to -ideals and politics that aren’t so violent, fearful, and corrupt. 

Like all Arabs outside of Israel, they have no real experience with democracy; like all the Arabs along the Mediterranean, they have been permeated with Western ideas. They are yearning for freedom and opportunity, which is just across the sea, tantalizingly accessible via television, the Internet, and family members in the West. 

Syria is the most important state to be convulsed by the Great Arab Revolt. It offers the prospect of a devastating setback to America’s worst enemies. And the Obama administration hasn’t yet blown it. Time remains, thanks to the courage of ordinary Syrians. Yet the Turkish window​—​the most important operational opportunity​—​may be closing. American power cannot effectively be deployed unless Washington senses that a great victory can be won. Does President Obama have this strategic sense? Does he know how to marry power politics to idealism?

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and the author of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East (Hoover Institution Press).

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