The Least Bad Option in Syria
Until a few weeks ago, political leaders in the United States and Western Europe had claimed with monotonous regularity that the government of Syria was on the verge of collapse. “Assad’s rule is coming to an end. It is inevitable,” Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, told a Senate committee in November 2011. “Assad’s going to be gone; it’s just a question of time,” then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in November 2012. “I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse ... it is only a question of time,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said last December. Only three months ago President Barack Obama averred that he was confident the Assad regime in Syria would fall. “It’s not a question of if, it’s when,” he said in Amman, Jordan, on March 22. Similar predictions from mainstream punditry are too numerous to quote.
All this was in stark contrast with our assessments from two years ago (“On current form it is an even bet that [Bashar] will survive, which is preferable to any likely alternative,” I wrote in the May 2011 issue of Chronicles), and from February 2012 (“The regime of Bashar al-Assad is… not in any immediate danger of collapsing; if there is no foreign intervention it may survive”). It was reiterated most recently in March of this year, two weeks before Obama’s statement in Amman (“The rebels are unable to bring down the government of President Bashar al-Assad, foreign political support and military supplies notwithstanding”).
I was right and Obama, Clinton et al were wrong. The proponents and opponents of Western intervention now agree that the tide has turned. Sen. John McCain, a hawk par excellence, declared that “Bashar al-Assad is winning” while visiting rebel-held territory last month to urge U.S.-led intervention. The fact that Bashar is winning has prompted other, more levelheaded commentators to insist that we should stay out of Syria. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) warns that our record of arming “rebels” has resulted in a disaster in Libya and elsewhere. Writing in the National Review, Andrew McCarthy (former Assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the “Blind Sheik,” Omar Abdel Rahman) ridiculed McCain’s call for yet another war. While rubbing elbows with Syria’s motley jihadists last month, McCarthy wrote, the increasingly senile Arizona Senator said that they “are just trying to achieve the same thing that we have shed American blood and treasure for well over 200 years”:
Yeah, just like in Benghazi. And in Egypt, where a pogrom against Christians is underway, and the Muslim Brotherhood government McCain joins Obama in supporting has just installed a sharia constitution. And in Iraq, where Sunnis and Shiites are back to slaughtering each other under the sharia constitution our State Department helped them write. And in Afghanistan, where, under a similar American-sponsored sharia constitution, the Taliban bides its time while the U.S.-backed Islamist forces turn their guns on their American trainers. And in Turkey, where an Islamic-supremacist regime jails its political opponents, supports terrorist organizations, undermines sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, and gradually suffocates what was once a pro-Western democracy.
“Liberty is not spread by fueling sharia supremacists,” McCarthy concluded – and he used to be a proponent of military intervention, once. The Financial Times also used to favor intervention, but now its columnists admit that “the fact that Mr. Obama is refusing to respond to calls for ‘tough action’ in Syria is not a sign that he is a weak leader,” it is a sign of his prudence. Writing in the Boston Globe, America’s leading foreign policy realist Andrew Bacevich warned that, on Syria, the U.S. Government “is manifestly clueless and powerless.”
The Syrian rebels are far from powerless, but they are utterly out of their depth. Their most recent announcement that they will not attend the proposed Geneva conference on the crisis unless their fighters receive new supplies of arms and ammunition is a sign of despair. They will not get anti-aircraft weapons they crave because no Western power will deliver such weapons to the bearded human flesh-eaters, the rhetoric in Washington, London and Paris notwithstanding. Their real message is that the fall of Qusayr has changed the equation so radically that the rebels do not want to attend any conference at a time of evident and increasing battlefield weakness. That weakness will be even more evident when Aleppo is cleared of rebel forces, which I predict will happen in the next two to three weeks.
Foreign intervention is bad in principle if no vital American security and economic interests are at stake. In Syria this is manifestly not the case. Foreign intervention is bad in particular if its likely outcome is worse than the status quo. In Syria it is clear that the only likely alternative to Bashar is a nosedive into terrorist jihadist mayhem. That is infinitely worse from the vantage point of U.S. interests, geopolitically as well as morally, than what we have now in Damascus. Bashar is certainly no John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry, but he is the least bad option.