Last week in Lebanon, two Shiite clerics challenged the region’s growing sectarian divide by taking a stand against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and siding with the Sunni-majority uprising next door. The two Shiite religious figures, risking reprisals from their co-religionists in Syria’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, released a statement explaining that the future of the Middle East required a Syria “stable, free, and ruled by a democratic, pluralist, and modern state.”
With the country embroiled in a civil war, that ideal Syria is likely some ways off. But momentum seems to be decisively turning against Assad and his allies in the axis of resistance. Iran, for instance, is finally getting a taste of its own medicine. The Free Syrian Army is holding 48 Iranian Revolutionary Guard members and several Hezbollah officials hostage. Having waged a proxy war against American forces in Iraq, Iran now is tied down in Syria. The Obama White House is in a position to reap benefits from this—but it is paralyzed, even though regional allies and potential allies are clamoring for American leadership.
While the White House continues to leak conflicting accounts of its role in Syria—the CIA is on the job coordinating arms shipments and intelligence gathering; the CIA doesn’t know who makes up the opposition—news reports confirm that the Syrian rebels are frustrated by American inaction, and warn that it will damage U.S. interests. Without the administration’s support, say some Free Syrian Army commanders, they’ll be forced to turn to al Qaeda for weapons and money. No doubt some of the rebel complaints are a bargaining ploy—pay up or you’ll regret it in the long run—but the fact is that the administration is passing up an attractive and inexpensive -investment. We have a chance to help the rebels defeat their enemies, who are allies of our Iranian enemies, and we would get a head seat at the table when it is all over. And this doesn’t require American troops on the ground. Instead, what’s needed—and requested—are arms, training, and support from the air for a safe zone.
Assad has called in airstrikes on rebel positions in Aleppo. In March 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained why Muammar Qaddafi’s depredations compelled the White House to act in Libya, but Assad’s had not in Syria. After all, she reasoned, “there’s a difference between calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities [and] police actions which frankly have exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see.” If using fixed-wing aircraft on cities prompted the administration to move against Libya’s bloody tyrant a year ago, why not in Syria today?
Some of Obama’s most prominent supporters are asking the same question. Last week, the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof wrote that a consensus is starting to emerge in the liberal foreign policy establishment—including Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense William Perry and secretary of state Madeleine Albright, and former Obama official Anne-Marie Slaughter—that the White House needs to move aggressively against Assad. “I’m no hawk,” writes Kristof. But he follows Senator John McCain in calling for the White House to “work with allies to supply weapons, training, and intelligence to rebels who pass our vetting.”
So why is Obama, as Kristof writes, AWOL on Syria? A clue can be found in the administration’s relentless mantra about keeping Syrian state institutions, as Hillary Clinton put it this week, “intact.” Those institutions, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta specified, include “the military, the police . . . along with the security forces.” This is, of course, absurd. These “institutions” do not serve the state, but rather the regime, which is why they have been turned against the people. The purpose of the uprising is not only to topple the Syrian president, but to destroy these pillars, regime institutions, that have ensured Assad rule for more than 40 years.
But the Obama administration is not thinking seriously about reality in Syria. Rather, it is fretting over the specter of Iraq. Obama’s version of Iraq is a legend he can’t let go of even now. In Obama’s telling, Bush’s war in Iraq was a total fiasco, and he doesn’t want to be hobbled with what he perceives to have been Bush’s burden and blunders. The conventional liberal account of Iraq -considers one of Bush’s biggest blunders to have been disbanding the Iraqi Army and the de-Baathification campaign, requiring the United States to rebuild Iraq from the bottom up. History will judge whether Bush’s choices were the correct ones, whether it would have been better to try to make do with the remnants of Saddam’s vicious regime or not. But the Obama administration thinks it knows the answer, and reflexively warns about preserving Syrian state institutions, and about the unintended consequences of supporting the rebels. The idea is that Syria without Assad could be just as bad or worse.
Really? Iraq may not have entirely come to fruition as “stable, free, and ruled by a democratic, pluralist, and modern state.” But it’s no longer Saddam Hussein’s republic of fear that terrorizes the international community, its neighbors, and its own citizens. Nor is it anymore an enemy of the United States. Syria is, and it is an ally of our most dangerous enemy in the region. The only way that a post-Assad Syria could turn out worse is if the United States plays no role at all in its formation. If we step forward with even minimal energy on behalf of our principles and interests, we will benefit from our efforts. Even the Obama administration should now be able to see this—and to act on it.