Cliff May

Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, members of the resistance movement inside Syria last week were able to have a secure conversation with a small group of foreign policy mavens in Washington. What they told us boils down to this: A revolution is underway. On one side is the dictator Bashar al-Assad backed by Iran’s rulers, Hezbollah, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. On the other side are ordinary Syrians facing bombs and bullets with the kind of courage exhibited in Tiananmen Square. Meanwhile, those who should be their allies dither.

“Why is Syria not as important as Egypt and Libya?” asked “Muhammad,” one of the resistance leaders on the Skype call connecting the offices of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies with an undisclosed location outside Damascus. His comments were translated by FDD Fellow Ammar Abdulhamid, a prominent Syrian dissident who was forced into exile in 2005. “We are facing a killing machine,” Muhammad added. Indeed, the Assad regime is estimated to have slaughtered more than 7,000 Syrian men, women and children to date. “We are not asking for any boots on the ground,” he added. What do they want instead? Supplies, equipment, secure communications technology -- and, yes, the means to defend themselves, their families, their homes and their communities.

Recent upheavals in the Middle East, mislabeled “the Arab Spring,” have so far brought change only to countries where those in power had been cooperating with the US: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. By contrast, the 2009 uprising against Iran’s anti-American theocrats was brutally suppressed while Western leaders lifted not a finger and said hardly a word. If Assad manages to remain in power, the lesson will be: It has become less dangerous to be America’s enemy than to be America’s friend.

This formulation, I suspect, goes a long way to explaining Russia’s staunch backing of Assad. Putin is sending a message to his fellow autocrats everywhere: Moscow, unlike Washington, can be counted on when the chips are down.

The resistance leaders we spoke with sounded determined: They will not give up, even if it costs them their lives. But they also are frustrated: They are facing helicopters, armor and artillery. They have only small arms – and not enough for all those willing to fight.


Cliff May

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