Jeff Jacoby

If the United States has good reason to support the popular revolt in Libya -- and President Obama argued Monday night that there is "an important strategic interest in preventing [Moammar] Qaddafi from overrunning those who oppose him" -- it has considerably more reason to do so in Syria. If it made sense to speed the departure of Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak, accelerating the fall of Syria's Bashar al-Assad should be an even higher priority. If North Africa was improved when the people of Tunisia threw off their dictator, the entire Arab world would be a healthier place if a Syrian uprising toppled Assad.

So why doesn't Washington say so?

Of all the waves of protest to wash over the Middle East in recent months, none has come as a greater surprise -- and none should be more welcome -- than the turbulence in Syria. Forty years under the fearsome rule of the Assad clan were supposed to have crushed the Syrians' will to resist. Though Bashar's brutality has not yet exceeded that of his father -- in 1982 Hafez al-Assad annihilated some 25,000 civilians in the city of Hama, then literally paved over their remains -- his own reign has nevertheless been a horror-show of repression, torture, assassination, disappearances, and the near-total denial of civil and political liberties.

The result of all this was said to be a population too intimidated to make trouble. "Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt," explained an article in Foreign Affairs this month, "the regime and its loyal forces have been able to deter all but the most resolute and fearless oppositional activists." Consequently, the current upwelling of protest would "largely pass Syria by."

That essay, "The Sturdy House That Assad Built," appeared on March 7. Yet in the weeks since, thousands of Syrians have taken to the streets -- from Daraa in the south to the Latakia on the Mediterranean, and even in Damascus and Aleppo -- to cry out for freedom and reform. The dictator's troops have killed scores of protesters -- more than 150, according to some accounts. In the town of Sanamin, witnesses told Al Jazeera of seeing 20 peaceful demonstrators gunned down in under 15 minutes.

Far from stifling dissent, however, the regime's thuggishness has only aroused more of it. On Facebook, an Arabic-language page titled "Syrian Revolution Against Bashar al-Assad" has drawn nearly 100,000 supporters. Yesterday, the Syrian cabinet resigned. The House That Assad Built may not be so sturdy after all.

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for