Freedom For Syria

UPDATE: July 24, 2012 Assad Delenda Est: The Case for Aiding Syria’s Rebels

Syria is the most unpredictable of the Arab Spring compared, say, to Yemen, Egypt, Libya or Tunisia. It’s a potential sectarian nightmare once Assad is overthrown, not unlike Lebanon in the 80s or more recently Iraq.

However, the future is equally grim if Assad is not overthrown. The war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed by his forces in Homs and elsewhere must stop. It looks like it’s going to have to be the lesser of the two evils. Do what it takes to protect innocent civilians, whether that’s arming the Free Syrian Army or a full intervention with all the unforeseen consequences.

“Here’s to John McCain, leading from the front. Last week, the Arizona senator cut through all the White House doubletalk on the Syrian uprising and demanded a more active U.S. policy, including provision of arms to the Free Syrian Army as well as airpower to slow the assaults of Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime.

McCain grilled senior administration officials and military officers, and set the record straight regarding the disposition of the Syrian rebels. Over the past several weeks, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both claimed, without evidence, that al Qaeda had infiltrated the opposition. Last week McCain countered: The Syrian rebels are “not fighting and dying because they are Muslim extremists.” The administration then started to walk back its charges. What the White House really meant, said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, is that al Qaeda is looking to “exploit” the situation.

As well they might. The Syrian uprising is now a year old. There is no official toll, but the dead may number 10,000 or more. It’s gone on long enough, says McCain. With his Senate colleagues Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, McCain released a statement calling for “relief from Assad’s tank and artillery sieges. .  .  . Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but as Assad continues to intensify his assault, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower.” The three senators realize that this “will first require the United States and our partners to suppress the Syrian regime’s air defenses in at least part of the country.”

As usual, the administration had excuses for inaction. “That air defense system,” Panetta told the Senate, “is pretty sophisticated.” According to the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, it is “approximately five times more sophisticated .  .  . than existed in Libya.”

McCain bristled. “We spend almost $1 trillion a year on the military,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “And we can’t take out air defenses of Syria? That is an horrific waste of the taxpayers’ dollars.”

McCain’s right. We’re not talking about NORAD here. In 2007 the Israelis had no trouble disabling Syrian air defenses before their air raid on the Al Kibar nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert. And that was hardly the first time the Israeli Air Force ran roughshod over the Syrians. Damascus’s Russian-supplied air capabilities, defensive and offensive, are a running joke in the region.

In the June 1982 air battle over Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, it took the Israelis only half a day to destroy almost all of Syria’s Soviet-made surface-to-air-missile batteries as well as 29 Soviet-supplied aircraft. Within three days the rout was complete; the IAF downed 82 Syrian planes without a single loss of its own.

That was a victory for Jerusalem and for Washington. The confrontation showed that Soviet arms were far inferior to American weapons—even making allowance for the fact that it was Syrians at the controls. The Bekaa Valley turkey shoot, as some still refer to the 1982 debacle, was facilitated by the Syrians keeping their mobile missile systems in one place for several months because they didn’t like digging latrines.

Perhaps that example—and the memory that bad things can happen when Moscow ties its vital interests to a Syrian military whose chief capability seems to be murdering unarmed civilians—is not lost on Vladimir Putin. The recently reelected Russian president is standing by Assad, but admits he doesn’t know how much longer the regime can last.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration is putting way too much emphasis on Russia’s calculations. It’s waiting on a Putin change of heart because it fears that U.S. material support of the Free Syrian Army will convince the Russians that the conflict is a proxy war. But the Russians already perceive it as a proxy war. So do the Iranians, which is why both are pouring in as much support as they can to keep Assad afloat. The administration’s response to Russian intransigence was to hold a Friends of Syria conference in Tunisia that was so incommensurate with the bloody reality it aimed to address that even the Saudi foreign minister stormed out in disgust.

For the United States, the key issue should be countering Iran. As General James Mattis, the head of CENTCOM, said, the fall of Assad would be “the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years.” During his Senate testimony the next day, Panetta agreed that it would hurt the Islamic Republic. The good news then is that the administration is starting to see how the pieces are arrayed on the game board. The bad news is that it’s still wary about taking the other side’s pieces.

The White House believes against all evidence that a diplomatic solution to the crisis can be found. Sure, it would be helpful if Putin told Assad that his time was up, but Putin’s in no hurry to abandon his own throne in Moscow; why would he ever urge Assad to step down in Damascus? And why would Assad listen to him if he did?

Regional players are finally coming out strongly against Assad. Last week former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri denounced the regime and its Lebanese partner, Hezbollah. That Hariri—who has frequently been threatened by Assad and his allies, and whose father Rafik was allegedly killed under Assad’s orders—has taken to the podium is yet more evidence that smart money in the region is betting on Assad’s eventual collapse.

But if the White House wants to spur defections from the Assad regime and promote a swift collapse, it should stop waiting for the Russians and go around them, as well as the air defenses they sold to the Syrians. Take a few tanks or artillery pieces off the board and there will be plenty of defections from the Syrian military. Target the presidential palace in Damascus, headquarters of military intelligence, and the barracks of the notoriously vicious intelligence arm of the Syrian Air Force, and then there will be a surge of momentum for a diplomatic solution.

If the Obama administration insists on leading from behind, it should fall in behind John McCain, now running point on a Syria policy that would actually succeed.”

On Syria, Follow McCain

“Lastly, there’s Syria. Its tyrant, Bashar al-Assad, is still the strong horse. The mostly peaceful uprising against him has now lasted the better part of a year, but he and his loyalists are willing to kill as many people as they think they have to to maintain control. For them, ruling Syria isn’t just about power. It’s an existential fight for their very survival.

The Assad family and most of its Syrian allies are Alawites, a heterodox religious minority that branched off from Twelver Shia Islam almost a thousand years ago. Today they have as much in common with Christians and Gnostics as they do with Muslims, who consider them infidels. They believe human beings were once stars. They worship the moon and the sun. They drink wine in some of their rituals. The core of their religion is secret and forever closed to those not born into it.

“If you’re looking for a pleasant religion that harmonizes with the natural elements,” Theo Padnos recently wrote in the New Republic, “this is the faith for you.” Yet Alawite leaders managed, through the Arab Socialist Baath Party, to transform Syria into a totalitarian prison state with their own elite as its wardens.

When France ruled Syria after World War I, the Alawites petitioned the imperial authorities for a state of their own on the shores of the Mediterranean. “The Alawites refuse to be annexed to Muslim Syria,” Suleiman al-Assad, grandfather of Syria’s current president, wrote in a petition to France in 1943. “In Syria, the official religion of the state is Islam, and according to Islam, the Alawites are considered infidels. . . . The spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation.”

They did have their own semi-autonomous region for a while, and they called it the Alawite State. They even had their own flag. You can see it on Wikipedia. But the French Mandate authorities later submerged them into Syria again, and rather than suffer as second-class minorities in a realm dominated by Sunni Muslims, they conquered the country and made everyone but themselves second-class citizens.

If and when the Assad regime falls, the Alawites, who make up only about twelve percent of the population, will again be exposed to death and annihilation, not only for being “infidels,” but in revenge for constructing and supporting a monstrous political system. God only knows what will happen to the nation’s Christian, Kurdish, and Druze minorities.

The Alawites, not to mention Syrians in general, could get lucky. Syria isn’t destined to go the way of Lebanon, Iraq, and the former Yugoslavia and suffer sectarian communal warfare. There are real signs of restraint and maturity in the land. So far only a few from the Sunni majority have picked up rifles and attacked the regime as the rebels of Libya did. There have been no pogroms against Alawites, and I’m not aware of any intention to start them if the regime goes the way of Qaddafi’s. Syrian politics below the level of the state resisted militarization during a time of mass violence for an admirable length of time. That isn’t nothing. But the sectarian monster nevertheless stalks the country again. The future will be a grim one if that monster isn’t locked up and quickly, if and whenever the government finally meets its demise.”

Arab Spring or Islamist Winter?

The Arab Spring


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: