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Why Has the U.S. Been So Soft on Bashar Assad?

I don’t know where to begin. So let me start with Bashar Al Assad—whose father, Hafez, Jimmy Carter wrote he had higher regard for than any other leader in the Middle East. Barack Obama never said anything quite that hagiographic about the son. But Hillary Clinton, his pliant chief diplomat, told “Face the Nation” on Sunday that the Syrian president was considered by members of Congress from both parties to be a “reformer.” How many senators and representatives will own up to Hillary’s characterization? It is hokum. The hokum started long ago. One can locate it in time: June 14, 2000, in a New York Times article by Susan Sachs headlined, “The Shy Young Doctor at Syria’s Helm.” Doctor this and doctor that. And, of course, “Dr. Bashar.” There is nothing like a first name to humanize a tyrant. “Fidel,” for example. And more: general practitioner, ophthalmologist, director of the Syrian Society for Information Technology.

Most Syrians have expressed public confidence in Dr. Assad, even while conceding that he is young and inexperienced. They know him as the director of the Syrian Scientific Society for Information Technology, which offers computer courses, though only a small percentage of Syrians can afford luxury items like computers.
Thanks to an orchestrated campaign in the state news media to credit him with fighting corruption and promoting a more open economy, Dr. Assad also is seen as a beacon of hope for a new, more relaxed Syria.
He recently told The Washington Post that he personally favored lifting all of hidebound Syria's restrictions on what people read, watch on television or discover on the Internet.
"As a point of principle, I would like everybody to be able to see everything," he was quoted as saying. "The more you see, the more you improve." But others, Dr. Assad added, have their reservations.

It went on more or less like this for maybe seven or eight years when the reality purveyors suddenly caught on that the dictator’s boy was a dictator himself. Until, that is, this last weekend with the aforementioned discovery of the secretary of state that he was a “reformer.”

The president must have felt similarly because he constantly pressed on Israel the view that Assad was a reasonable and trustworthy man. Or was it that he believed the United States and the Jewish state were so tainted by their histories of haughty dealings with Arabs that Israel certainly needed to take the first perilous steps to conciliate its northern neighbor? I am inclined to the second explanation. In a way, though, he’d boxed himself into a corner. Having forced both Israel and the Palestinian Authority into the cul de sac of settlements as the pivotal issue among the parties (a matter already implicitly but not definitively resolved between the two antagonists), the president needed another key to unlock and unblock the conflict. No scenario looked especially hopeful, not at least to true realists. But the White House thought it had insufficient cachet with the Damascus dictator. So, rather than pressing Syria to stop its arms deliveries to Hezbollah, it began to press Israel on the Golan.

Why Obama thought the Golan Heights could be the big opener in the peace process is anybody’s guess. The fact is that the Palestinians do not care a fig for the Golan, and an Israeli concession on it would not be seen as—and would not be—a concession to anyone but the Ba’athists. Who, of course, cannot be trusted on anything. Which is one reason why Jerusalem was not inclined to experiment on a big swath of high ground that had been the source of death and destruction for first two decades of statehood. I believe that it would actually be more difficult for international interlocutors to persuade the Israelis to give up the Heights than to relinquish parts of east Jerusalem, one reason being that this territory is and was virtually without Syrians, except Syrian soldiers, in 1967: a few Druze, yes; two tens of thousands of Israelis now, yes. Here the principle must be, like the principle from all just wars, that to the aggressed-upon victor belongs the spoils. 

In any case, Assad’s always shaky rule over Syria is now exposed as just that. And just that because it is not based on anyone’s consent but on coercion and domestic terror. The governing 12 percent minority of the Alawite sect is Syria’s equivalent to Saddam Hussein’s clan of Tikriti Sunnis, both having ruled cruelly and bloodily. Indeed, the Assads have nursed a particular grudge against the Palestinians, almost all of them. They had little truck with Arafat and sided in the intra-Palestinian wars with the secular “socialist” schismatics who’d headquartered themselves in Syria’s capital. This did not preclude the first family from enabling the internal sectarian bloodletting that is the program of both (Sunni) Hamas in Gaza and (Shia) Hezbollah in Lebanon, which incidentally Damascus still deems its own. I have not mentioned the ambitions of these terrorist groups against Israel.

In a tangled Sunday dispatch from Washington, Mark Landler reports that the “deepening chaos in Syria ... could dash any remaining hopes for a Middle East peace agreement, several analysts said.” In truth, however, there was almost no hope for such an agreement even before the challenge in the streets. Anyway, which seasoned analysts? The one he quotes is Martin Indyk, who almost always believes that tout va bien, but especially when things are going horridly.

Well, we don’t really know how badly or, for that matter, how well things are going. Still, there is something exhilarating in the Libyan rising against one of the two or three leading political crackpots of the age. And the support of that rising by Western democracies through NATO. That Obama was less than resolute in this enterprise is something we have come to expect. Of course, liberal Democrats have tried to make a virtue of the failing. The National Security Network issued an exemplary statement: “The effective handoff to NATO command and growing Arab state participation show that the United States can lead by letting others out in front.” This is double talk ... or maybe agitprop. The Arab League actually beat a hasty retreat from its much publicized endorsement of a no-fly zone over Libya. As for “growing Arab state participation,” all that this means is Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Hey, let me admit, that’s still more than anyone had reason to expect. A cool accounting of what’s been accomplished through “Odyssey Dawn” can be read in yesterday’s PolicyWatch by Jeffrey White, published by the Washington Institute.

As for Egypt, I cling to the hope that its people will realize social and economic progress with some political and legal justice. But if the new government is overwhelmed by the Muslim Brotherhood, neither of these (in any case) dicey hopes will be realized. The Brotherhood is actually a movement of the restoration of ideals and policies, some more than a millennium old, others going back only centuries, which either way inhibited education, industry, gender equality, elementary fairness. The Shia revolution in Iran is the very model for its Sunni enemy on the Nile. If Cairo reneges on its treaty with Israel, Egypt will find itself in another drama out of which it will not emerge either victorious or prosperous. An article by Barry Rubin in Monday’s Jerusalem Post argues that “another Israel-Hamas war is inevitable” precisely because the theology of Egypt itself will be transformed under Islamist rule.

Just yesterday I received an e-mail from a dear (and brilliant) Moroccan friend in Marrakech musing on the present or rather future state of Arab affairs. He writes: “If they don’t care about Israel as their disciplined and civilized neighbor they will, as usual, accomplish nothing.” Of course, independent Arab intellectuals are a rare species in the world they inhabit. So this is not a widely held point of view. And it is sparsely held especially in Syria where the Muslim Brotherhood has deep and broad rooting. Take your choice: Assad is allied with Hezbollah and Iran, militant Shi’ism on the march. Assad’s embittered enemies are soldiers of the Sunni sword. Obama tried his luck with Assad as, forgive the recollection, he also did with Dr. Ahmadinejad. The president then followed the Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, in his royal bankrolling effort to lure the eye doctor away from Nasrallah. Even the dynast’s billions couldn’t do the trick. Barack Obama will not reflect on how in just a bit over two years he got himself and America into this fix.

POST-SCRIPT:  Yes, it is remarkable how President Assad has eluded the opposition of the big powers to his actually frantic efforts to secure an atomic arsenal.  The only European power that has any historic interest in Syria is France. When the Brits established their 20th century empire in Iraq, France did it in Syria (and Lebanon). In any case, Sarkozy plays his hands very carefully and chintzily. Libya is all it can handle now and, of course, Libya is also closer to home ... but not as close as it is to Italy. (You may remember that the island of Lampedusa, now in the news so much as the destination point for bedraggled Libyan refugees, was the home of Giuseppe de Lampedusa, the author of the novel The Leopard and the setting for Visconti's film of the same name, starring Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale and Burt Lancaster.  Ah, those were the days!) No such romance associated with Syria, a dure and bitter place always.

In this morning's Jerusalem Post, Caroline Glick lays out the humanitarian grievance against Assad's Syria.  And the Israeli grievance, as well.  And how Jerusalem might deal with it.

Martin Peretz is the editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.