Cliff May

Syria does not sit atop an ocean of oil, as does Saudi Arabia. It does not have a huge population as does Egypt. It does not wield economic and military clout like Turkey. But under the oppressive rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria has been the primary agent of Iran’s ruling jihadis within the Arab world. It has been the patron of Hezbollah, the militia that has been carrying out a slow-motion coup in Lebanon. And it has been a welcoming host to Hamas and other terrorist groups whose most immediate target is Israel.

Over the past four months, Syrians have been taking to the streets in courageous displays of defiance, demanding the resignation of Assad and an end to the dynasty begun by his father, Hafez al-Assad, 40 years ago. In response, the regime’s security forces have killed as many as 1,600 men, women and children. Almost ten times that number have been arrested. And yet, to the surprise of many, the protestors refuse to be suppressed.

If Assad falls, the Arab Spring becomes a much sunnier season. Hezbollah and Hamas would be weakened. Lebanon would have another chance. Israel would feel a little safer. Most significantly, as Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former officer in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations and a Middle East analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), phrased it: “The world will look a lot more precarious to supreme leader Ali Khamenei and a lot more hopeful to the millions behind Iran’s pro-democracy Green Movement if Bashar al-Assad goes down. The importance of Syria to Iranian foreign policy and internal politics cannot be overstated.”

Do President Obama and his advisors get this? For years, Assad has been what one might call the Great Alawite Hope. The Alawites are a Shi’te offshoot and a minority within Syria – under 15 percent of its 22 million souls. Orthodox Shi’ites have sometimes denounced the Alawites as heretics. Among the reasons: Alawites proclaim the divinity of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, and don’t strictly observe the customary Muslim prohibition on alcohol. But Tehran’s theocrats are tolerant of those who pay obeisance and serve their interests. Consider Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, their favorite infidel. Where is it written that fanatics cannot be pragmatic?

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.