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.
Muhammad called the diplomatic debate over Syria that has been taking place at the UN a “farce.” Another resistance leader -- Abu Alnour was his nom de guerre -- said that the Arab League also has proved useless and, besides, cannot be trusted. As for Turkey, Muhammad said it is “only capable of words, it seems.”
The United States continues to be seen as their last, best hope because, Muhammad said, Americans are “the only ones who protect democracy and human rights in the world. They are the only ones who actually do that. So we are hoping that they will review their position.”
What these besieged revolutionaries may not appreciate is how disillusioned many Americans have become. In recent memory, American power has been deployed to defend Kuwaitis, Bosnians, Kosovars and, yes, Iraqis and Afghans. We did not necessarily expect deep affection in return but we were hoping for better than the animus that is directed toward us by so many in the Islamic world (an increasingly accurate label).
Some Americans have become skeptical of Muslims who claim to be democrats. Others have come to believe that there are Muslim freedom fighters – but that they are too small a minority to be significant. Recent developments in Egypt, where Muslim Brothers and Salafis won an overwhelming majority of the votes in recent elections – and now are holding hostage Americans who came to Egypt to assist with democratic reform -- have reinforced such views.
All of which misses this point: Americans should support the revolutionaries in Syria based on strategic self-interest at least as much as altruism. Assad is an enemy of the United States. He facilitated the killing of hundreds of American in Iraq, and arranged the assassinations of pro-Western Lebanese leaders who dared defy Syrian domination.
And he is the handmaiden of Iran, the most significant national security threat facing the United States today. Oil-rich and perhaps soon to be armed with nuclear weapons, Iran’s rulers intend to lead what they see not as an Arab Spring but as a global Islamic Ascendency and a Jihad against the West. However, because they are Persian and Shia, they need a bridge into the Arab and Sunni worlds. Assad has been providing that bridge. Syria also has been Iran’s land link with Hezbollah which, thanks to Iranian money and weapons, is now the dominant force in Lebanon.
Assad’s downfall would represent a major strategic defeat for Tehran. It also would fan the suppressed flames of revolution within Iran where, thanks to increasingly tough sanctions, the economy is in steep decline.
Iran’s rulers get it. That’s why the head of Iran's elite Quds force, Qassem Suleimani, is reportedly in Syria, along with hundreds if not thousands of what might be accurately labeled Iranian storm troopers, advising and training Assad’s forces how to more efficiently kill demonstrators and smash the Free Syrian Army. Syrian resistance leaders say the Quds force is assisting with everything from monitoring protesters’ use of text messages to training snipers.
“We are in communication with people inside the regime who … are passing on information about Iran’s and Hezbollah’s involvement,” said Muhammad “There is an actual training camp run by Hezbollah near Damascus. The people who maintain security inside Damascus, many of them are Hezbollah members.”
Assad’s forces, said Abu Alnour, need such foreign assistance because they are “demoralized. They cannot take over territories, and the only reason that the soldiers are fighting is because they are afraid of getting shot as defectors if they don't.”
Ammar Abdulhamid added: “We are talking about people who are well-positioned. When they make the decision to defect, they want to make sure that there is a place to go to, there is protection for them and their families, and at the same time, they want to feel assured a little bit that the international community has made up its mind about the Assad regime.”
That would require, at a minimum, the establishment of safe zones, perhaps protected by a NATO-led no-fly zone as was established in Libya. Marc Ginsberg, a Democrat who served as ambassador to Morocco under President Clinton, recalled that when the rebel-held city of Benghazi was threatened, President Obama “marshaled his top officials to explore every conceivable avenue to thwart Gaddafi's forces.”
By contrast, Ginsberg added, “while the appalling massacre of innocent civilians escalates daily across Syria, and images from Homs and other Syrian cities are far worse than anything witnessed in Libya …President Obama has so far not evidenced much in the way of Libya-style resolve.”
The day after the internet conversation, at least 137 civilians, including 11 children, were killed by government forces. Hadi al-Abdullah of the Syrian General Revolutionary Council, based in Homs, told a reporter for Al-Arabiya that missiles were being launched from a nearby military college and that helicopters were “targeting all those who are trying to help the wounded.” He asked: “Is this not a massacre?”
Of course it was. But what is mislabeled the “international community” is highly selective about which massacres require action and which may be regretted and dismissed. Our friends in Syria are right: If Americans won’t provide leadership – protecting civilians while advancing the West’s security interests -- no one will.