The reformer has responded to the democratic stirrings in his country with a war against its children. The murder and mutilation of Hamza Ali al-Khateeb is only the most shocking instance of Bashar al Assad’s mercilessness. The Syrian uprising originated in March as an expression of anger at the arrest and torture of fifteen boys, who were accused of scrawling anti-government graffiti in the town of Dara’a, which has now earned a place of honor in the geography of modern dissent. The crowd that demonstrated for the release of the boys was fired upon, lethally, by Syrian security forces. In April, witnesses reported that the hooligans of the mukhabarat were beating children. One man who was caught in the crackdown in Dara’a recounted that he shared a cell with three hundred seventy people and seventy of them were children. I take these terrible particulars from “We’ve Never Seen Such Horror”: Crimes Against Humanity by Syrian Security Forces, a remarkable report issued by Human Rights Watch last week. The document gives evidence also of the Assad regime’s other obscene acts against its people. A crowd chanting, “Peaceful, peaceful,” was met by “an ambush.” “Security forces were everywhere,” a witness said, “in the fields nearby, on a water tank behind the checkpoint, on the roof of a nearby factory, and in the trees, and the fire came from all sides.” Another person on the scene recalled that “they were deliberately targeting people. Most injuries were in the head and chest.” There was also organized government violence against medical workers: “I saw a man who tried to pull the wounded guy away, but security forces continued to shoot. ... They again shot the wounded guy, this time in the head, and hit the rescuer as well. ... Another man tried to take a dead body away on the motorcycle, but as he tried to approach, he got shot in the shoulder, then again in the leg, and when he fell off and other people made a move toward him, a sniper hit him in the head, and I believe he died.” The conclusion reached by “We’ve Never Seen Such Horror” is that “Human Rights Watch believes that the nature and scale of the abuses committed by the Syrian security forces, the similarities in the apparent unlawful killings and other crimes, and evidence of direct orders given to security forces to ‘shoot-to-kill’ protestors, strongly suggest these abuses qualify as crimes against humanity.”
The day after Human Rights Watch accused the government of Syria of crimes against humanity, Hillary Clinton declared that “the legitimacy that is necessary for anyone to expect change to occur under this current government is, if not gone, nearly run out.” Nearly? What else does the Syrian tyrant have to do to persuade the American secretary of state that the purpose of his regime is not reform? The clumsiness of this administration in the saga of Arab democratization sometimes seems irremediable. Only a few weeks ago the president delivered a grand address at the State Department in which he reoriented American policy, which had been chilly and slow, firmly in the direction of the promotion of democracy. Some even called it Obama’s neoconservative moment. The president rejected “a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of [American] interests” (which he weirdly imputed to the Bush administration) in favor of “a set of core principles”—universal rights, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, gender equality, and “the right to choose your own leaders”—and proclaimed that “our support for these principles is not a secondary interest—today I am making it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions.” Obama’s speech was stirring, but it was strange. Nothing in his response to the Arab revolts—or almost nothing: he was indeed moved by the fate of Benghazi, though the fate of Tripoli seems to exercise him less—prepared one for the intensity of its idealism. Having been unaccountably cool, Obama became unaccountably hot. About Syria, he remarked that “the Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way.” Of course Assad had already demonstrated by his actions that he rejects such a choice. Obama’s “get out of the way” about Assad reminded me of his “must go” about Qaddafi. The president is still dogmatically spooked by American support for regime change, even when it is not the work of Americans, but of Syrians or Libyans (or Iranians). As Assad’s atrocities multiply, I see no “concrete actions,” no consequential American response to them.
This is, strictly speaking, doubly unfortunate, because the undoing of Bashar al Assad would vindicate both our values and our interests. Foreign policy crises come in three varieties. There are those that broach American values but not American interests, and those that broach American interests but not American values, and those that broach American values and American interests. Sometimes the values-interests calculus is not clear, but the question of American action still turns on some interpretation of it. I know of nobody who believes that we should not act when our interests (or our vital ones, however they are defined) are at stake but our values are not. Most of the debates about humanitarian intervention, by contrast, the quarrels between “realists” and “idealists,” concern those cases, and they are sickeningly plentiful, in which our values are at stake but our interests are not, or at least not significantly. But Syria is one of the easy cases in which we have moral and strategic incentives for action. The moral case against Assad is obvious; but his defeat would represent also a defeat for Iran, and Hezbollah, and Hamas, his allies, and therefore a strategic achievement for us and our allies. He thwarts our regional designs at every turn. He impedes an Israeli-Palestinian peace. He aids and abets terrorism. He turns to North Korea for a nuclear facility. We should do whatever we can to assist his people in deposing him. I recognize the view that stability in Syria may be preferable to the political and religious and tribal chaos that may ensue from Assad’s fall, but the days of stability in Syria seem to have passed. The unbelievably brave people in the streets of Syria’s cities and towns do not deserve to be so lonely in the world. If a new Middle East is being born, its attitude toward America and Americanism will be substantially determined by what it remembers about our part in its birth.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article originally ran in the June 30, 2011, issue of the magazine.