The administration’s policy toward Syria is shaping up to be the greatest missed opportunity of Barack Obama’s presidency. His failure of vision and nerve, paired with an acute Republican fatigue with the Middle East and foreign policy in general, has allowed Syria to drop off Washington’s radar screen. But if Syria were to break the right way and the regime in Damascus were to fall, the most tenacious state-sponsor of terrorism in the Arab world—Tehran’s strongest ally and the lifeline to the terrorism-loving Lebanese Hezbollah—would be taken out. Alas, an administration that came into office only a little less eager to engage Damascus than Tehran seems stuck in its stillborn Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the turmoil of the Great Arab Revolt.
There is some reason to believe that the White House now knows Bashar al-Assad’s Syria is not essential for solving the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio. And clearly, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton want to help Syrian protesters; both give the impression, however, that they don’t really think they can.
Further, the uncertainties of the Arab Spring and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s air war in Libya have spooked the administration. Its “realist” tendencies are well known, and “realism” powerfully comes to the fore when a president doesn’t know what to do—or believes that the United States can do little. The safest and easiest bet then is to do nothing—the essence of most “realist” policy.
Such “prudence,” “restraint,” and “patience”—the administration is fond of these words—can be commendable when a situation is messy or murky. But neither applies in Syria. This is an easy call: We have a chance to eliminate one of America’s worst enemies in the region—the linchpin of Iran’s alliances and terrorist apparatus. We have a chance to traumatize Tehran: The world will look a lot more precarious to supreme leader Ali Khamenei and a lot more hopeful to the millions behind Iran’s pro-democracy Green Movement if Bashar al-Assad goes down. The importance of Syria to Iranian foreign policy and internal politics cannot be overstated.
Through Syria, we have a chance to convulse the politics of Lebanon, where Hezbollah, revolutionary Iran’s only Arab offspring, now reigns supreme. The organization does not own the majority Shia community of Lebanon; the potential political diversity of the Shia has been stymied by Hezbollah’s military and economic power, which depend on its ties to Damascus and Tehran. The Sunnis of Syria, some 75 percent of the population, have long chafed under the harsh rule of the Alawites, who are nearer 15 percent. Empowered, the Sunnis are unlikely to be nice to Hezbollah, which has run roughshod over Lebanon’s Sunnis, with their close, historic ties to Syria’s Sunni community.
If Assad falls, Hezbollah will have no choice but to hunker down and avoid any conflict with Israel.If even the most rudimentary, morally repugnant, Islamist-felicitous, Israeli-cursing democracy arose in Damascus, we still might see the Arab world realign decisively toward representative government. Egypt, Iraq, and Syria have been the engines of modern Arab thought; if they all embrace popularly elected governments, Middle Eastern Muslims may evolve in a direction that will make both state-sponsored terrorism and al Qaeda-type extremist movements unsustainable. The most modern Arab societies—Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Algeria—have been brutalized so badly by secular Arab police states that this process will not be quick or easy.
Yet it has been perverse to watch American liberals and conservatives fret about unleashing Islamists through the downfall of dictatorships when it was those very dictatorships that largely created the zealots. The administration certainly suffers from this Islamist-run-amok anxiety, which dovetails nicely with the State Department’s infatuation with enticing an Alawite-dominated Syria into the peace process. But this anxiety is a strategic cul-de-sac.
Arab police states ethically upended their societies as they sought to “modernize” them. Representative government offers a way for these societies to regain their moral balance—to have the great debates about the role of religion in society that were simply shut down by the lawless Westernizing dictators who have done so much to give secularism a bad name in the region. The West is stable because it enjoys (after much blood, sweat, and tears) an organic, responsive, and law-abiding relationship between the citizens and their elected leaders. The Middle East is unstable because its authoritarian regimes are essentially lawless (the kingdoms are in slightly better shape than the “republics” because royal structures retain social layering and conventions that buffer and restrict the ruler’s behavior).