Syria’s blood-soaked tyrant, Bashar al-Assad, is finally right about something. He recently told an Argentine newspaper that he doubts the joint Russian-American peace initiative will stop the bloodshed in his country. Of course it won’t. Syria’s civil war is an existential fight to the death between the Alawite minority that dominates the regime and the revolutionary Sunni Muslim majority that will be smashed if it loses. The peace initiative would merely be a naive waste of time, then, but circumstances might conspire to make it something worse than that: from the proverbial Arab Street’s point of view, by cooperating with Moscow and refusing to back the rebels, Washington appears to support the Assad dictatorship.
I recently returned from Beirut, where I once lived, and was dismayed to discover that, with few exceptions, just about everyone in Lebanon’s otherwise pro-Western camp thinks the Obama administration is backing Assad, and by extension Iran and Hezbollah. Sometimes they make this point through insinuation. “The international community thinks it’s okay for the Syrian regime to receive weapons and money from outside while the Free Syrian Army gets nothing,” said Mosbah Ahdab, a former member of parliament. “Everybody here is wondering what’s going on.”
Samy Gemayel, a current member of parliament and son of former Lebanese president Amine Gemayel, was more blunt. “The current government in the United States is friends with Bashar al-Assad,” he said. When I challenged him, he only backed down a little. “Not a friend,” he said, “but the people in the administration aren’t aggressive against Assad. Some of them have good relations with Assad, people like John Kerry.” Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanese-born scholar at Chatham House in the United Kingdom, added: “When you support the dictator who’s oppressing people, you’re also the enemy. The United States has more soft power in the region than before, but you’re going to lose it in Syria.” I heard variations on this complaint every day for almost a month.
They’re wrong, of course. Washington doesn’t support Bashar al-Assad. But it’s not hard to figure why it looks that way from Beirut. The United States has demolished three murderous governments in the greater Middle East and South Asia in the last ten years—the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party state in Iraq, and Muammar el-Qaddafi’s lunacracy in Libya. One of these regime changes took place on President Barack Obama’s watch, so everyone knows he’s just as capable of terminating a despot as was President George W. Bush. They think that since President Obama can quickly get rid of Assad, the fact that he won’t means that the White House likes him right where he is. It doesn’t help that Washington is sponsoring a joint initiative with Vladimir Putin, who really does want Assad to remain in the saddle, and at a time when Russia is gearing up to send advanced Yakhont missiles to Syria.
The reasons Washington isn’t moving aggressively against the Syrian regime are straightforward. Americans are weary of war and especially unwilling to insert themselves into Iraqi- and Lebanese-style sectarian blood feuds. And unlike Qaddafi, Assad has powerful friends. If the United States widens the conflict, Iran and Hezbollah might widen it further. They might even drag in the Israelis, igniting the worst conflagration east of the Mediterranean since the Iran-Iraq war. Washington is also concerned that Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, might become over time no less a menace than Assad has been all these years. So the Obama administration is cautious, and for good reason.
But that isn’t coming across. We went through the same thing in Iran when the inspiring but ill-fated Green Revolution broke out in 2009. Obama was so determined to pursue a grand bargain with the Islamic Republic that he could hardly bring himself to utter a word of encouragement to the most potent homegrown anti-regime movement since Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979.
True, the president can’t change the world with magic words; if only a superpower’s historical role were that simple. The Iranian regime won’t crumble if Obama yells at Tehran from the Oval Office; neither will Assad’s. But don’t discount moral clarity. In 1987, when President Ronald Reagan spoke at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and demanded that Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall, everyone knew where he stood. No one in Eastern Europe thought he was objectively pro-Soviet because he neglected to mount an invasion. To this day, the United States enjoys more goodwill in Eastern than in Western Europe, precisely because the victims of Communist repression understood that the West sympathized with them, even if it didn’t storm in and liberate them.
Extreme caution is called for in Syria, but that hardly changes the fact that it is in America’s national interest to see Assad removed. This man has more American blood on his hands than anyone in the Arab world who hasn’t been killed yet. He is a totalitarian state sponsor of international terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida. His government has exported chaos and violence, not just to Israel, but also to every one of its neighbors. His regime is part of the Iranian-Hezbollah axis, which may well go nuclear. Calling for his ouster doesn’t require undaunted courage. It won’t yield results by itself, but the White House, and the United States as a whole, without even realizing it, are paying a price for refusing to do even this much.
It’s hard enough for Americans to find goodwill in the Arab world, but it isn’t impossible. None of the people I spoke to in Beirut who groused about Washington’s perceived support for Assad are anti-American. I’ve known some of them for almost a decade. All are political liberals who more or less share our values, which largely explains why they oppose the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis in the first place. There is no upside to alienating these people.
Michael Totten is a contributing editor at World Affairs and City Journal. His third book, Where the West Ends, was published last year.