The number of people killed in Syria will soon reach genocidal levels. Tens of thousands of civilians, including children, women and the elderly, have been massacred by the Assad regime since spring 2011. That jihadi militias are present and have perpetrated war crimes of their own is not under dispute, but it would be a grossly inaccurate to say that a majority of the anti-Baathist demonstrators want a Taliban-style emirate. This political reality is easily grasped by seasoned observers and expert analysts, but it still manages to elude prevailing international perception.
The conflict in Syria is having significant regional and international repercussions because it is a catastrophic human tragedy. This fact alone obliges the international community to step or an entire population could be eradicated. International law, indeed, the UN Charter itself, demands intervention by the IC. A coordinated strategy is needed to rescue millions of innocent civilians trapped in this widening conflict.
A few months before the Arab Spring began and six before the Syrian revolution started, my book “The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East” was released. I noted therein that the Syrian people’s ire over political suppression by the Assad regime had reached a tipping point. I predicted that a popular majority in Syria would eventually rebel against the Baathist police state, emulating the Cedars uprising in Lebanon in 2005 against the Syrian occupation and the Green Revolution in Iran against the Khomeinist regime, Assad’s staunchest ally in the region. Past suppression would be the causative factor for Syrian Sunnis and for Kurds it would be their prolonged mistreatment as an ethnic minority.
Eventually Syrians breached their wall of fear and flooded the streets of Syria in the spring of 2011. Insurgents in Dara’a in the south and Homs in the west were following the lead of the Egyptians and Tunisians who toppled Mubarak and forced Bin Ali into exile. They assumed that mass demonstrations would bring US-led international community pressure to bear on Assad, forcing him to resign. Syrians and Arabs had watched President Obama increase diplomatic pressure on Cairo and Tunis and assumed he would do the same to Damascus. When Gaddafi launched his tanks on Benghazi and Tripoli’s neighborhoods in 2011, a Washington-led NATO air and sea campaign depleted the dictator’s strategic weapons caches, freeing opposition forces to advance on the ground, leading the downfall of Anwar Sadat’s “crazy man.”
By then, Syrian demonstrators were being brutalized, children tortured and hundreds of citizens killed each week. When compared to the administration’s response to mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square and Tripoli, however, its response to the tragedy unfolding in Syrian was nominal at best. Months passed before US diplomatic pressure was strong enough to bring economic sanctions. But by the time diplomatic pressure on Syria was comparable to that leveled on Hosni Mubarak, Syria looked a lot like Libya. Washington showed up late, very late. Bashar Assad’s storm troopers were already butchering thousands of civilians in cities and villages across Syria and a “Free Syria Army” had already formed and joined battle against the regime.
Once it became apparent that the revolution was becoming a quasi-civil war, the US took over the UN Security Council demanding an initiative on Syria. But the Russian delegation claimed that Moscow had been deluded on Libya by UN Resolution 1973. Moscow’s China-backed veto prevented any reference to a Chapter 7 resolution, a condition sine qua non for military action against the Assad regime.
Once again, the Obama administration was tardy in seeking a mandate for a no fly zone or humanitarian corridors to help civilians. Any safety zone needs to be protected by UN forces, which requires Chapter 7 authorization. Last spring, the situation on the ground moved toward dramatic consequences. The rebels scored additional tactical victories, entered more cities and towns, seized borders and checkpoints, and as we’ve seen lately, launched strikes against the Assad leadership. Thus the opposition moved forward with minimal support from regional allies. Nevertheless, without an international, or Western-Arab strategic initiative, opposition forces are facing slaughter at the hands of a superior military, which, despite numerous defections, is crushing the burgeoning enclaves of rebels and expanding violence against civilians.
Why didn’t the Obama administration act forcefully and strategically on Syria? They must have known that quick action would have enjoyed European Union — mostly French, Turkish and Arab — support. The main reason for the delay has been White House fear of a widening regional conflict. Assad is an ally of the Iranian regime and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Many in the Iraqi government secretly back the Assad-Iran-Hezbollah trifecta. Still, Washington fears that any military action in Syria might bring retaliation — not from one but from four regimes. This being an election year, it seems that the Obama campaign wants to avoid a military campaign in a country that is part of an Iranian-led regional alliance. And because there is no White House containment plan for Iran, the administration feels itself unable to engage in Syria.
The inability to depose Assad is the result of US inaction on Iran and Hezbollah. This diplomatic dereliction has emboldened the Syrian dictator who knows he can act with impunity until at least November 6, and he is acting accordingly. Administration inaction has resulted in a dramatic increase of civilian casualties in Syria, death and mayhem that is easily observable on the Internet and YouTube on a daily basis. Another effect of US diplomatic paralysis is penetration of the Syrian opposition by armed jihadist networks. Al Qaeda affiliates, although small in number, have been bragging about tactical victories against the regime, convincing more Islamists to join their ranks. Initially liberal and secular, opposition leadership is halting between the Western paralysis and the Assad regime’s ruthlessness. Meanwhile the pro-Iranians are spreading in Iraq and the pro-Syrians are taking action against the March 14 pro-Western coalition in Lebanon.
In the final analysis, the Obama Administration has failed to rescue a population being slaughtered by an ally of Iran. Some suggest that this may a policy rather than a non-policy, reminiscent of the US attitude towards the Iranian demonstrators in June 2009. Other observers suggest that an undeclared White House doctrine on the Middle East intends to turn North Africa over to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Levant to Iran.
One hopes Washington would quickly change direction on Middle East policy by devising a strategy to weaken Assad and strengthen the opposition, while ensuring that the secular and liberal camps inside the rebel ranks receive most of the support. Is such a strategic plan being crafted inside the Beltway now? Washington always has contingency plans, but the pressing question involves a policy decision. Does one exist? If we do not want to see intolerable Syrian suffering until after the US election, national and international pressure should be focused on the White House to initiate a humanitarian campaign to protect Syrian civil society. If Syria is to be free, Washington must change direction. Otherwise we will have to wait for a change of administration and Mitt Romney’s alternative to Obama’s unwillingness to challenge Iran, the main backer of Assad.
Dr Walid Phares is an advisor to the US Congress on Terrorism and the Middle East and the author of The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East. He is serving now as a Foreign Policy and National Security Adviser to Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney and one of his three co-chairs for the Middle East.