Last week the Obama administration’s point man on Syria, Frederic Hof, went to Capitol Hill to apprise the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East of recent developments. Nine months into the uprising against a regime that has already killed 5,000 protesters, Bashar al-Assad, said Hof, is a “dead man walking.”
That’s not just the White House’s assessment, of course. Much of the international community sees it the same way. Even Hamas thinks that Assad has his back to the wall, which is why this long-term Damascus tenant is now looking to relocate. For the administration, said Hof, “the real question is how many steps remain” before Assad arrives at this final destination. In other words: How many more people will a dead man walking, desperate and with little left to lose, bring down with him before he gives up the ghost?
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in February, observers have contended that Bashar is scarcely as bloody-minded as his father. Hafez al-Assad was renowned for slaughtering tens of thousands in a three-week-long siege of Hama in 1982. Sure, the argument goes, Bashar’s security services and paramilitary forces have tortured, raped, and murdered the civilian population at will, but he could never get away with razing an entire city as his father did. After all, times have changed. Bashar’s depredations are all captured on YouTube. The whole world is watching.
Thus the Obama administration backs the Arab League initiative, which would dispatch monitors to Syria, and put “witnesses on the ground.” “Our view,” Hof said, “is that it is much less likely that this regime will do its worst if there are witnesses present.”
It is true that the Syrian regime has stage-managed the foreign media—granting, for instance, Barbara Walters an exclusive interview with Assad while barring reporters from the country. But this hardly means that Assad is scared of being exposed as a murderer. A central part of Damascus’s counterinsurgency doctrine, rather, is to broadcast its ruthlessness as widely as possible: It posts its own YouTube videos of regime atrocities to show what’s in store for anyone who walks out into the street. The regime is waging a campaign of terror against the opposition. “Witnesses” do not deter terror. They are instead a requisite of any successful terrorist operation—stay out of our way, the terrorists say, or we’ll kill you, too. The more people watching, the better to convince the world that the terrorist will stop at nothing to achieve his aims.
Assad still thinks he can win. He is getting help from significant quarters, like Iran, Hezbollah, and now Russia. Moscow last week drafted a U.N. Security Council resolution that condemned the regime’s violence—and the opposition’s. Russia’s call for dialogue between Assad and the opposition is a direct challenge to the American policy that Obama articulated in August: Assad must go. The White House, by choosing not to lead, gave the Russians an opening to make trouble.
When it comes to Syria, the administration has gone into the strategic equivalent of college basketball’s four-corners’ offense: Spread out the ball-handlers and run down the clock. If the White House assumes that Assad is on his way out, why should it commit any resources to easing his passage?
Yet playing out the clock is not a strategy for which any American administration is well suited. Washington has to be aggressive on offense simply because its interests are spread out across the world and are therefore susceptible to subterfuge in myriad regional contexts.
No doubt the Russians are eager to keep selling the Syrians weapons, even as their draft resolution would place an embargo on arms to the opposition. But there’s a larger game for Moscow, as well: As it was during the Cold War, Syria is an arena in which Russia can take on Washington.
The Obama White House hit the reset button with Russia, which the Russians see as a sign of weakness. After accusing Hillary Clinton of inciting violence during the course of Russia’s parliamentary elections last week, Vladimir Putin had the administration in a defensive posture. Clinton may not like Russia’s draft resolution on Syria, but she’s said she’ll work with it. And why not? If the Russians want to condemn the opposition’s violence, it is the administration that paved the way. As Hof said last week, the White House wants “to prevent this peaceful uprising from morphing into armed insurrection that would discredit the opposition, reinforce the regime’s narrative, complicate international support, and most likely lead to a bloody and protracted conflict.”
But the conflict is already bloody and already protracted. And the administration has complicated the situation by imagining that there is a legitimacy to the regime outside the presidential palace in Damascus. Everyone else in the world is following the real story, including U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-moon, who last week pleaded, “In the name of humanity, it is time for the international community to act.” The subject of his address was not Moscow. It was the superpower in suspended animation.