Congratulations to President Barack Obama for finally calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. It was past time, but we applaud the president’s statement as well as the administration’s capable diplomacy that brought the major Anglo-European democracies on board.
However, Assad’s fall would not only be good for the future of Syria. It would also very much be in the interest of the United States. Syria identified itself as an American adversary long ago. Yet the Obama administration, like others before, was predisposed to ignore Syrian malfeasance — including its support for terror and its collaboration in killing U.S. troops in Iraq — in the hopes that it could persuade the Assad regime to change.
Obama believed, as some of his advisers and staffers had long argued, that there was a deal to be had with Damascus. By wedging Syria away from Iran, the administration would weaken Tehran and make it more susceptible to a combination of American pressure and engagement. Moreover, by bringing Syria back to the negotiating table with Israel and reinvigorating the peace process, Obama would establish his bona fides with the Arab masses, for whom he imagined the Arab-Israeli conflict was the central issue.
The Arab Spring put an end to those plans. What most concerned Arab citizens were local matters — their own cities, villages, homes and workplaces, where their regimes ran roughshod over their liberties.
The administration justified its relative silence about Syria by alleging it did not know who might follow Assad. Calling on Assad to leave required a shift in thinking. Certain passages in the president’s statement suggest that its author is still agonizing over the decision. “The United States,” said Obama, “cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria. It is up to the Syrian people to choose their own leaders, and we have heard their strong desire that there not be foreign intervention in their movement.”
The White House does not need to broadcast that American military power is limited at present. There are no longer more than 100,000 U.S. combat troops across the Syrian border in Iraq to present the sort of credible threat to the Assad regime that forced him to withdraw his troops from Lebanon in April 2005.
No one understands more clearly than Assad that, with commitments in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration is unlikely to deploy American soldiers to stop Syrian security forces from killing Syrian civilians. Still, if you advertise that you cannot and will not use force, you are stripping yourself of a tool that is especially useful when dealing with a state that sponsors terrorism to advance its policy goals.
Assad is not about to go quietly. He will fight, and so will his Iranian allies, whose 30-year investment in Hezbollah may depend on the survival of the regime in Damascus that arms Iran’s Lebanese asset.
The administration should prepare for the worst. The attacks last week in Israel near the Sinai border may well be a sign of events to come. Those operations were organized out of Gaza, with the support — at least tacit and perhaps active — of Iran’s proxy Hamas.
Obviously the Syrian people will choose their own leaders, as they have during the course of the uprising. But the White House would do well to recognize that the goal of the Syrian opposition — Assad’s exit — runs parallel to American interests. And now that we have embraced that goal, we need to achieve it.
Lee Smith a senior editor of The Weekly Standard, from where this article is adapted.