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Taking Out a Tyrant

3:20 PM, Aug 11, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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What’s peculiar about the administration’s deliberations on Syria is that its expressed belief that it has a very limited ability to shape the outcome is at odds with its fear of an impending civil war that might be made worse by strong American words. The fact is, there are no diplomatic or political instruments at hand that can forestall the incipient bloodshed. The regime has waged war against much of its Sunni population for almost half a year now, and while the opposition has to date been peaceful, Assad’s security forces have incurred thousands of vendettas that will most likely be paid in gore. There is fighting now, and there is going to be more fighting. There is little that American policy can do to rewrite the history of the last five months, the last forty years of Assad rule, or many hundreds of years of sectarian enmity.

What the Obama administration can do, says Slim, is put forth something like an update of Woodrow Wilson’s 14-points, focusing on Middle East minorities. “The U.S. ambassador stands with the protestors at Hama, which is great,” says Slim. “But what about going to Lattakia and standing with the Alawites? The point should be that just because the U.S. is against the Assad regime doesn’t mean it’s against the Alawites. Just because it’s against Hezbollah doesn’t mean it’s against Lebanese Shiites. And because it’s allied with the Bahraini regime doesn’t mean it’s against Bahrain’s Shia.”

It’s a noteworthy moment in the region when anti-Israel sentiment places well behind anti-Alawite and anti-Shia slurs in the popular Sunni-majority discourse. The Arab Spring has given the lie to Arab unity and Arab nationalism, an ideology first advocated by, among others, American missionaries to the Middle East who recognized that Middle Eastern minorities—from Shia and heterodox Muslim sects, to Christians and Jews—were all too often treated like second-class citizens. Early Arab nationalist ideologues had hoped that defining all the inhabitants of the region according to certain shared linguistic and historical features would obviate the violence that so often came from sectarian differences.

Arab nationalism may not entirely be dead, even yet, but its failures are clear. The violence we are witnessing today in Syria—the slaughter of Sunnis and the minorities’ fear of Sunnis, the Alawite regime’s determination to destroy all of Syria if it means the Alawite community’s survival—is the logical outcome of trying to erase differences. There’s no country, no social experiment in history better able to provide an example to the Middle East that it is possible to live with your neighbor’s difference and even flourish than the United States. We don’t side with sects, but with individuals and against repressive regimes. It would be great if the president were to deliver that message to Assad.

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