Amidst the many dangers posed by the political conflagration now engulfing the Arab world, we are presented with a unique opportunity in Syria. In Egypt, the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak has empowered the Muslim Brotherhood. The Sunni jihadist movement which spawned al-Qaeda and Hamas is expected to emerge as the strongest political force after the parliamentary elections in September.
Just a month after they demanded Mubarak’s ouster, an acute case of buyer’s remorse is now plaguing his Western detractors. As the Brotherhood’s stature rises higher by the day, Western media outlets as diverse as The New York Times and Commentary Magazine are belatedly admitting that Mubarak was better than the available alternatives.
Likewise in Libya, even as US-led NATO forces continue to bomb Muammar Gaddafi’s loyalists, there is a growing recognition that the NATO-supported rebels are not exactly the French Resistance. Last Friday’s Daily Telegraph report confirming that al-Qaeda-affiliated veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are now counted among the rebels the US is supporting against Gaddafi, struck a deep blow to public support for the war.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s admission Sunday that Gaddafi posed no threat to the US and that its military intervention against Gaddafi does not serve any vital interest similarly served to sour the American public on the war effort.
After al-Qaeda’s participation in the anti-Gaddafi rebellion was revealed, the strongest argument for maintaining support for the rebels became the dubious claim that a US failure to back the al-Qaeda penetrated rebellion will convince the non-al-Qaeda rebels to join the terrorist organization. But of course, this is a losing argument. If supporting al-Qaeda is an acceptable default position for the rebels, then how can it be argued that they will be an improvement over Gaddafi?
The anti-regime protests in Syria are a welcome departure from the grim choices posed by Egypt and Libya because supporting the protesters in Syria is actually a good idea.
Assad is an unadulterated rogue. He is an illicit nuclear proliferator. Israel’s reported bombing of Assad’s North Korean-built, Iranian-financed nuclear reactor at Deir al-Zour in September 2007 did not end Assad’s nuclear adventures. Not only has he refused repeated requests from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect the site, commercial satellite imagery has exposed four other illicit nuclear sites in the country. The latest one, reportedly for the production of uranium yellowcake tetroflouride at Marj as Sultan near Damascus, was exposed last month by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.
Assad has a large stockpile of chemical weapons including Sarin gas and blister agents. In February 2009 Jane’s Intelligence Review reported that the Syrians were working intensively to expand their chemical arsenal. Based on commercial satellite imagery, Jane’s’ analysts concluded that Syria was expending significant efforts to update its chemical weapons facilities. Analysts claimed that Syria began its work upgrading its chemical weapons program in 2005 largely as a result of Saddam Hussein’s reported transfer of his chemical weapons arsenal to Syria ahead of the US-led invasion in 2003.
The Jane’s report also claimed that Assad’s men had built new missile bays for specially adapted Scud missiles equipped to hold chemical warheads at the updated chemical weapons sites.
As for missiles, with North Korean, Iranian, Russian, Chinese and other third-party assistance, Syria has developed a massive arsenal of ballistic missile and advanced artillery capable of hitting every spot in Israel and wreaking havoc on IDF troop formations and bases.
Beyond its burgeoning unconventional arsenals, Assad is a major sponsor of terrorism. He has allowed Syria to be used as a transit point for al-Qaida terrorists en route to Iraq. Assad’s Syria is second only to Iran’s ayatollahs in its sponsorship of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian Authority.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders live in Damascus. As Hezbollah terror commander Imad Mughniyeh’s assassination in Damascus in February 2008 exposed, the Syrian capital serves as Hezbollah’s operational hub. The group’s logistical bases are located in Syria.
If the Assad regime is overthrown, it will constitute a major blow to both the Iranian regime and Hezbollah. In turn, Lebanon’s March 14 democracy movement and the Iranian Green Movement will be empowered by the defeat.
Obviously aware of the dangers, Iranian Revolutionary Guards forces and Hezbollah operatives have reportedly been deeply involved in the violent repression of protesters in Syria. Their involvement is apparently so widespread that among the various chants adopted by the protesters is a call for the eradication of Hezbollah.
Mention of Lebanon’s March 14 movement and Iran’s Green Movement serves as a reminder that the political upheavals ensnaring the Arab world did not begin in December when Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia. Arguably, the fire was lit in April 2003 when jubilant Iraqis brought down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.
The first place the fire spread from there was Syria. Inspired by the establishment of autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq, in May 2004 Syria’s harshly repressed Kurdish minority staged mass protests that quickly spread throughout the country from the Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria. Assad was quick to violently quell the protests.
Like Gaddafi today, seven years ago Assad deployed his air force against the Kurds.
Scores were killed and thousands were arrested. Many of those arrested were tortured by Assad’s forces.
The discrimination that Kurds have faced under Assad and his father is appalling. Since the 1970s, more than 300,000 Kurds have been stripped of their Syrian citizenship. They have been forcibly ejected from their homes and villages in the north and resettled in squalid refugee camps in the south. The expressed purpose of these racist policies has been to prevent territorial contiguity between Syrian, Iraqi and Turkish Kurds and to “Arabize” Syrian Kurdistan where most of Syria’s oil deposits are located.
The Kurds make up around 10 percent of Syria’s population. They oppose not only the Baathist regime, but also the Muslim Brotherhood. Represented in exile by the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria, since 2004 they have sought the overthrow of the Assad regime and its replacement by democratic, decentralized federal government. Decentralizing authority, they believe, is the best way to check tyranny of both the Baathist and the Muslim Brotherhood variety. The Kurdish demand for a federal government has been endorsed by the Sunni-led exile Syrian Reform Party.
This week the KNA released a statement to the world community. Speaking for Syria’s Kurds and for their Arab, Druse, Alevi and Christian allies in Syria, it asked for the “US, France, UK and international organizations to seek [a] UN resolution condemning [the] Syrian regime for using violence against [the Syrian] people.”
The KNA’s statement requested that the US and its allies “ask for UN-sponsored committees to investigate the recent violence in Syria, including the violence used against the Kurds in 2004.”
The KNA warns, “If the US and its allies fail to support democratic opposition [groups] such as the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria and others, [they] will be making a grave mistake,” because they will enable “radical groups to rise and undermine any democratic movements,” and empower the likes of Hezbollah and Iran.
Led by Chairman Sherkoh Abbas, the KNA has asked the US Congress to hold hearings on Syria and allow representatives of the opposition to state their case for regime change.
Opponents of regime change in Syria argue that if Assad is overthrown, the Muslim Brotherhood will take over. This may be true, although the presence of a well-organized Kurdish opposition means it may be more difficult for the Brotherhood to take charge than it has been in Egypt.
Aside from that, whereas the Brotherhood is clearly a worse alternative in Egypt than Mubarak was, it is far from clear that it would be worse for Syria to be led by the Brotherhood than by Assad. What would a Muslim Brotherhood regime do that Assad isn’t already doing? At a minimum, a successor regime will be weaker than the current one. Consequently, even if Syria is taken over by jihadists, they will pose less of an immediate threat to the region than Assad. They will be much more vulnerable to domestic opposition and subversion.
Even if Assad is not overthrown, and is merely forced to contain the opposition over the long haul, this too would be an improvement over what we have experienced to date. In the absence of domestic unrest, Assad has been free to engineer and support Hezbollah’s coup d'etat in Lebanon, develop nuclear weapons and generally act as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s sub-contractor.
But now, in a bid to quell the anti-regime protests, Assad has been forced to deploy his military to his own towns and villages. Compelled to devote his energies to staying in power, Assad has little time to stir up fires elsewhere.
The first beneficiary of his weakness will be Jordan’s King Abdullah who now needs to worry less about Assad enabling a Hamas-Muslim Brotherhood-instigated civil war in Jordan.
Depressingly, under the Obama administration the US will not lift a finger to support Syrian regime opponents. In media interviews Sunday, not only did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rule out the use of force to overthrow Assad, as his troops were killing anti-regime protesters, Clinton went so far as to praise Assad as “a reformer.”
The US retreat from strategic rationality is tragic. But just because President Barack Obama limits American intervention in the Middle East to the places it can do the most harm such as Egypt, Libya and the Palestinian conflict with Israel, there is no reason for Israel not to act independently to help Assad’s domestic opponents.
Israel should arm the Kurds. Israeli leaders and spokesmen should speak out on behalf of Syria’s Kurds from every bully pulpit that comes their way. Our leaders should also speak out against Assad and his proliferation of missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu should ask the UN to speed up the release of the indictments in the investigation of the late Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman should call on the UN to behave honestly and indict Assad for ordering Hariri’s murder.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak should release information about Syria’s transfer of weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah. The government should release information about Syria’s use of terror against the Druse. Netanyahu must also state publicly that in light of the turbulence of the Arab world generally, and Assad’s murderous aggression against his own people and his neighbors specifically, Israel is committed to maintaining perpetual sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
We are living through dangerous times. But even now there is much we can do to emerge stronger from the political storm raging around us. Syria’s revolt is a rare opportunity. We’d better not squander it.