In the matter of Syria, the moral simplicity and clarity have been overwhelmed by overthinking the strategic complications – always the companion and the alibi for passivity. The Assad tyranny is living on borrowed time, the very laws of gravity conspire against it. It may crush the desperate people in Bab Amr, the restive Sunni neighborhood in Homs, it may level the old resort down of Zabadani, but the tyranny has been undone. The rebellion has shattered the foundations of the dictatorship, but there is still at play, at the very heart of the regime, a conviction that the tide could yet be turned, and that the crowds and the army defectors could be brought back to that terrible “House of Obedience.”
This is what makes foreign intervention a compelling necessity. An irresistible force has clashed with an immovable object, and the stalemate will have to be broken by outsiders. The mantra that Syria is not Libya has become the refuge of those keen to avert their gaze from the slaughter. Of course Syria is not Libya, nor is it Bosnia, nor Kosovo, nor is it Rwanda. Each place is its own world, yet Syria is all these places of grief. It has within it the great tragedy of “normalcy” interrupted, of high crimes committed by those with greater brute power, of blood and kinship put to the use of terror, and of mighty outsiders looking away and hoping to be spared all exertion. Of these terrible barbarisms, Syria can be reckoned the first YouTube war of our “wired” age. Tahrir Square gave us the euphoria of a delirious crowd craving liberty, Libya had its images – a macabre one in particular, the dispatch of the tyrant - but Syria is a crowded urban society, and the cell phone cameras are everywhere. There can be no escaping the stain, no credible claim that we did not know. Homs will mark our time in the very same way that Sarajevo rebuked the 1990s.
The “sensitive” borders of Syria are no excuse for abdication. Indeed, if anything, they call for a mission of rescue that would tip the scales of power against the dictatorship. Americans may resent the burden that comes with our power, our commander-in-chief may want to keep the foreign world at bay, but there can be no escaping the responsibility that comes with our calling. The fact that we “led from behind” in Libya, and that there is chaos now in Tripoli’s streets is no excuse. We must head into the breach again. In the Obamaian world, the choices are simplified by our leaders, and in the most contrived of ways: elsewhere I described that worldview as a choice between boots on the ground or head in the sand.
The deliverance for Syria must begin with a recognition of the Syrian National Council as the legitimate government. It is high time that we broke with the excuse that there is no “return address” for the opposition as Secretary of State Clinton once opined. We must forgive and look past the disarray of the opposition – of course they are splintered and divided, and had never ruled, this is what the dictatorship had made of them. The Free Syrian Army will have to be equipped and trained, we must work with the Turks to that end. There is vast wealth in the Sunni Arab states, and genuine popular outrage at the barbarisms of the Alawi regime. American leadership can draw Turkey and the Arabs deeper into this struggle. We will have to let the United Nations be: at the Security Council we would once again face the vetoes of Russia and China; at the General Assembly we will be treated to hollow pieties. We should be done with the illusion that the Arab League disposes of genuine authority and legitimacy; that organization has always been but an expression of the disarray in Arab political life.
What of the direct use of force by the United States? It could come to that, and as they say in policy circles, all options should remain on the table. We have an air base in Turkey, at Incirlik, and the Sixth Fleet, based in Palermo. A moderate exercise of American power would break the Assad regime. We had once told tales about the might of the Serbs, but they were broken with ease. The Shabiha of the Assad tyranny are but a version of Arkan’s Tigers in Bosnia, murderers who are formidable only in the face of children and unarmed protesters. We delivered the Bosnians from the literal threat of extinction, as we did the Kosovar Albanians without losing a single American soldier. The world is blessed that so mighty a power has a conscience to match its bombers and drones and missiles. The Syrians should be entitled to our protection. A case of “Libya envy” grips them. Now and then, their spokesmen insist that they are in no need of humanitarian intervention. But a year of slaughter should suffice, our abdication plays out in plain sight.
Fouad Ajami is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and co chair of the Herb and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order, Hoover Institution
This post is part of The Caravan, a periodic discussion on the contemporary dilemmas of the Greater Middle East. Other commentary in this symposium on Syria is provided by Charles Hill, Itamar Rabinovich, Habib Malik, Russell Berman, Nibras Kazimi, Abbas Milani, Joel Rayburn, Josh Teitelbaum, Reuel Gerecht, Asli Aydintasbas, Camille Pecastaing, and Fouad Ajami.