The Magazine

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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The Middle East is also unstable because faithful Muslims feel injustice acutely. Although this is poorly appreciated in the West, Islam has been a religion of rebellion as much as it has been a faith of “oriental despots.” As modern Middle Eastern societies have become more religious, they have become more rebellious. This Islamic “protestantism” now coincides with the anomie and anger of the Facebook generation, who are intimately connected to the West. 

In Syria, most protesters have probably come from the average Sunni faithful, the non-college-educated men and women of the smaller towns who have no commercial ties to the regime, as do the Sunni elite of Aleppo and Damascus. The protesters have proven astonishingly brave. And their calls for self-government have been crystal clear. They have​—​so far​—​been amazingly resistant to calls for attacks on the ruling Alawite community. It’s hard to believe that this moderation will last, however, if the regime’s savage reprisals against the Sunni demonstrators continue. 

It is sad that the American ambassador in Syria, Robert Ford, has been trying to encourage the protesters to engage the regime. It beggars the imagination that Thomas E. Donilon, Obama’s über-realist national security adviser, thinks Bashar has any intention of liberalizing, let alone democratizing, his rule. If Assad survives, he’ll most likely turn his draconian police state into an Orwellian one. And if Assad survives, Obama loses. Iran, Hezbollah, and all the bad actors in the Middle East (most of whom have offices in Damascus) are going to rejoice.

Although the administration realizes the importance of Turkey for Syria’s future, it has not tried arduously to encourage the Turks to counter and undermine Damascus. But if the Alawite regime cracks and some sort of democratic government follows, then the Turks, who so far have forcefully condemned Assad, can rightly claim to have advanced democracy in the region. 

This ought to be viewed as a dream scenario for the United States: The most powerful Muslim state of the Middle East becomes the most influential advocate of democracy. This would be a revolutionary turn for the ruling Justice and Development party in Ankara. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu both had sought friendly relations with Assad. But the savagery of his crackdown turned opinion in Turkey, then in the midst of a parliamentary election. 

Turkish public opinion became intensely hostile to Damascus. Turkish newspapers started talking about the “Alawite [read Shiite] dictatorship” in Damascus, enflaming Sunni Turkey’s distaste for things Shiite. Davutoglu’s nonsectarian, pro-Muslim, “neo-Ottoman” policy of good relations with all of Turkey’s Middle Eastern neighbors has been coming apart because a democratizing Turkey actually does care about self-government beyond its borders. It cares, too, about Sunnis getting killed and tortured by Shiite heretics. 

There are many things that the Obama administration should be doing that it isn’t: using the presidential bully pulpit against the Assad regime, deploying the American ambassador in Damascus as a shield and voice for the opposition (if Ford gets expelled, he gets expelled), organizing the Western diplomatic community in Damascus to do whatever it can to aid the opposition, offering substantial technical support to the Turks to extend a Wi-Fi-ed broadband as far over the Syrian border as possible, and working with Paris to implement energy sanctions that might severely impair the Assad regime. But the most important thing it could do now is encourage Turkey to stand firm against Syria. 

Ideally, we should want to see the Turks establish a buffer zone or safe haven on the Syrian side of the border (Ankara sometimes did this in Iraq to counter nefarious Kurdish activity). Such a Turkish intervention, which would likely be backed by the French, would be convulsive inside Syria and would signal to the military that Ankara had irreversibly chosen sides. It would also signal to the Sunni elite of Aleppo, just 26 miles from the Turkish border, that their essential Turkish trading partner had drawn a line in the sand. 

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