Nearly a year into Syria's agony, the Arab League last week dispatched a small group of monitors headed by a man of the Sudanese security services with a brutal record in the killing fields of Darfur. Gen. Mohammed al-Dabi, a trusted aide of Sudan's notorious ruler, Omar al-Bashir, didn't see anything "frightening" in the embattled city of Homs, nor did he see the snipers on the rooftops in the southern town of Deraa.
A banner in Homs, held up by a group of women protesters, saw into the heart of the matter: "All doors are closed, except yours, Oh God." Indeed, the solitude of the Syrians, their noble defiance of the most entrenched dictatorship in the Arab world, has played out against the background of a sterile international diplomacy.
Libya had led us all astray. Rescue started for the Libyans weeks into their ordeal. Not so for the Syrians. Don't look for Bashar al-Assad forewarning the subjects of his kingdom—a veritable North Korea on the Mediterranean—that his forces are on the way to hunt them down and slaughter them like rats, as did Moammar Gadhafi.
There is ice in this ruler's veins. His people are struck down, thousands of them are kidnapped, killed and even tortured in state hospitals if they turn up for care. Children are brutalized for scribbling graffiti on the walls. And still the man sits down for an interview last month with celebrity journalist Barbara Walters to say these killer forces on the loose are not his.
In a revealing slip, the Syrian dictator told Ms. Walters that he didn't own the country, that he was merely its president. But the truth is that the House of Assad and the intelligence barons around them are owners of a tormented country. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, was a wicked genius. He rose from poverty and destitution through the ranks of the Syrian army to absolute power. He took a tumultuous country apart, reduced it to submission, died a natural death in 2000, and bequeathed his son a kingdom in all but name.
Thirty years ago, Assad the father rode out a ferocious rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood, devastated the city of Hama in Syrian's central plains, and came to rule a frightened population that accepted the bargain he offered—political servitude in return for a drab, cruel stability.
Now the son retraces the father's arc: Overwhelm the rebellion in Homs, recreate the kingdom of fear, and the world will forgive and make its way back to Damascus.
A legend has taken hold regarding the strategic importance of Syria—bordered by Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq—and the Assad regime has made the best of it. Last October, the Syrian ruler, with a mix of cunning and bluster, played off this theme: "Syria is the hub now in this region. It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake. Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans? Any problem in Syria will burn the whole region."
There is no denying the effectiveness of this argument. The two big autocracies in the world—Russia and China—have given this regime cover and sustenance at the United Nations. A toothless resolution brought to the Security Council last October was turned back, courtesy of these two authoritarian states, and with the aid and acquiescence of Brazil, India and South Africa. (So much for the moral sway of the "emerging" powers.)
For its part, the Arab world treated the Syrian despotism rather gingerly. For months, the Arab League ducked for cover and averted its gaze from the barbarisms. Shamed by the spectacle of the shabiha (the vigilantes of the regime) desecrating mosques, beating and killing worshippers, the Arab League finally suspended Syria's membership.
An Arab League "Peace Plan" was signed on Dec. 19, but still the slaughter continued. The Damascus dictatorship offered the Arab League the concession of allowing a team of monitors into the country. Bravely, the Syrians came out in large numbers last week to greet them and demonstrate the depth of their opposition to the regime. Some 250,000 people reportedly greeted them in the northern city of Idlib; 70,000 defied the regime in Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus. Nevertheless, the killings went on.
The Western democracies have been hoping for deliverance. There is talk in Paris of "humanitarian corridors" to supply the embattled Syrian cities with food and water and fuel. There has been a muted discussion of the imposition of a no-fly zone that would embolden and protect the defectors who compose the Free Syrian Army.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been a true cynic throughout. An erstwhile ally and patron of Assad, he finally broke with the Syrian ruler last fall, saying "You can remain in power with tanks and cannons only up to a certain point." But the help Ankara can give is always a day away. The Syrian exiles and defectors need Turkey, and its sanctuary, but they have despaired of the false promises given by Mr. Erdogan.
The U.S. response has been similarly shameful. From the outset of the Syrian rebellion, the Obama administration has shown remarkable timidity. After all, the Assad dictatorship was a regime that President Obama had set out to "engage" (the theocracy in Tehran being the other). The American response to the struggle for Syria was glacial. To be sure, we had a remarkable and courageous envoy to Damascus, Ambassador Robert Ford. He had braved regime bullies, made his way to funerals and restive cities. In the bloodied streets, he found the not-so-surprising faith in American power and benevolence.
But at the highest levels of the administration—the president, the secretary of state—the animating drive toward Syria is one of paralyzing caution. Deep down, the Obama administration seems to subscribe to the belief that Assad's tyranny is preferable to the alternative held out by the opposition. With no faith in freedom's possibilities and power, U.S. diplomacy has operated on the unstated assumption that the regime is likely to ride out the storm.
The tenacity of this rebellion surprised Washington, and due deference had to be paid to it. Last month, Frederic Hof, the State Department's point man on Syria, described the Damascus regime as a "dead man walking." There was political analysis in that statement, but also a desire that the Syrian struggle would end well without Washington having to make any hard choices.
Syrian rulers and protesters alike ought to be able to read the wind: An American president ceding strategic ground in the Greater Middle East is no threat to the Damascus regime. With an eye on his bid for re-election, President Obama will boast that he brought the Iraq war to an end, as he promised he would. That applause line precludes taking on Syrian burdens. In Obamaland, foreign policy is full of false choices: either boots on the ground or utter abdication. Libya showed the defect of that choice, yet this remains the worldview of the current steward of American power.
Hafez al-Assad bequeathed power to his son, Bashar. Now Bashar, in turn, has a son named Hafez. From this bondage, the Syrian people are determined to release themselves. As of now, they are on their own.
Mr. Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and co-chair of Hoover's Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.