Last week, US President Barack Obama drew a “red line” for Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad. “We have been very clear to the Al Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised,” he said. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
Eighteen months into the Syrian slaughter, Obama finally happened on a barbarism he would not countenance. Fighter jets and helicopter gunships had been pounding the city of Aleppo, and the dictator had made it clear that the cruelty meted out to Homs could be Aleppo’s fate as well. Massacres had become the rule of the day, more than two dozen torture centres had turned Syria into a hellish land, and now finally a red line had been drawn. Al Assad “hasn’t gotten the message,” Obama says. But the truth is that the Syrian ruler some months back concluded that he could kill with abandon, and that powers beyond wouldn’t come to the rescue of the Syrian people. The cruel fate of Daraya, a working-class Sunni town a few miles southwest of Damascus, tells of a Syrian regime free of any scruples or worries about the outside world. Over the past week, hundreds perished in Daraya, women and children killed execution-style. The Local Coordination Committees, a reliable group that has been monitoring and documenting the protests, put the death toll in that town at 630, a mini-Srebrenica in many ways.
It was one thing to run out the clock on the Syrians, but that didn’t suffice. The sophistry and the cynicism that covered up the abdication assumed that all, at home and abroad, were incapable of seeing through the pretence. Thus, help was always on the way, just another round of deliberations at the United Nations Security Council away. We exhausted and stretched the language of outrage — our diplomacy ran out of adjectives, as Sen. John McCain so aptly put it. Our cavalry would turn up if only the Syrian opposition would overcome its differences. Then there was the spectre of the jihadists: They were converging on Syria, and surely, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, we wouldn’t want to be on the side of Ayman Al Zawahiri and AlQaida. The best is the enemy of the good: There was no way of determining in advance what kind of regime would emerge in the aftermath of Al Assad, hence we should be forgiven our caution. What might look like moral callousness in Houla and Aleppo should then be considered strategic wisdom.
The ways of the world are what they are: The custodians of American policy had placed their wager on the attention span of spectators to the Syrian slaughter. Crimes, however monumental, become routine. Wait out the initial outrage and people move on, they weary of calamities. Besides, the policy of the Obama administration had skilfully depicted the choice in Syria between boots on the ground or total indifference. Now it could be argued that this is a false choice, that there is a great deal that could be done short of dispatching the Marines to the shores of Latakia. From the very beginning of this war between the Syrian ruler and the vast majority of his people, it was well understood that Turkish policy deferred to America’s preferences, so close is the relationship between Obama and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey could have tipped the scales with a no-fly, no-drive zone on the Syria-Turkey border. A buffer zone would have given would-be defectors from the Syrian army protection and encouragement. Sunni recruits have been eager to desert the Alawite regime, shamed and violated by the cruelties inflicted on ordinary civilians. But all the talk of such a zone has been in vain. No green light came from Washington, and Turkish policy grew timid and hesitant. The Syrian downing of a Turkish F4 fighter plane in late June was a moment of great consequence in this crisis. No retribution came from Turkey, or from its patrons in Washington. It didn’t really matter whether the plane had been shot down over Syrian or international waters. This was a chance to punish the dictator and embolden his people. Instead, the myth of Prime Minister Erdogan, the new darling of “the Arab street” and the standard-bearer of Sunni Islam in the regime, was laid to rest. The Syrian people were on their own, and they had come to a stark recognition of their solitude.
One mantra of the Obama administration has been that Syria isn’t Libya, that the former has more difficult and sensitive borders. But these borders call for a more assertive American policy. The feuds of Syria were bound to spill into neighbouring lands. Lebanon is, of course, the most sensitive of these neighbours to the Syrian contagion. That delicately balanced country is on the verge of a relapse into its old, deadly ways. Loyalists of Al Assad battle his opponents, while kidnappers and masked men roam free in Beirut. It is a veritable hell in the northern city of Tripoli, where a conservative Sunni majority is at war with an Alawite enclave. There are tremors of Syria making their way into Iraq, as well, playing on the fault lines between the Sunni sympathisers of the Syrian rebellion and its Shiite opponents. A swifter outcome to this fight for Syria would have been both a strategic and a moral imperative. The US didn’t have to carry the burden alone. Turkey and the Sunni Arab states would have been assured that the US was in this fight, as well. But Obama has only now chosen to speak out on Syria and to draw a line that the dictator in Damascus never intended to cross.
Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of “The Syrian Rebellion,” recently published by Hoover Institution Press.