Syrias blood-soaked tyrant, Bashar al-Assad, is finally right about something. He recently told an Argentine newspaper that he doubts the joint Russian-American peace initiative will stop the bloodshed in his country. Of course it wont. Syrias civil war is an existential fight to the death between the Alawite minority that dominates the regime and the revolutionary Sunni Muslim majority that will be smashed if it loses. The peace initiative would merely be a naive waste of time, then, but circumstances might conspire to make it something worse than that: from the proverbial Arab Streets point of view, by cooperating with Moscow and refusing to back the rebels, Washington appears to support the Assad dictatorship.
I recently returned from Beirut, where I once lived, and was dismayed to discover that, with few exceptions, just about everyone in Lebanons otherwise pro-Western camp thinks the Obama administration is backing Assad, and by extension Iran and Hezbollah. Sometimes they make this point through insinuation. The international community thinks its okay for the Syrian regime to receive weapons and money from outside while the Free Syrian Army gets nothing, said Mosbah Ahdab, a former member of parliament. Everybody here is wondering whats going on.
Samy Gemayel, a current member of parliament and son of former Lebanese president Amine Gemayel, was more blunt. The current government in the United States is friends with Bashar al-Assad, he said. When I challenged him, he only backed down a little. Not a friend, he said, but the people in the administration arent aggressive against Assad. Some of them have good relations with Assad, people like John Kerry. Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanese-born scholar at Chatham House in the United Kingdom, added: When you support the dictator whos oppressing people, youre also the enemy. The United States has more soft power in the region than before, but youre going to lose it in Syria. I heard variations on this complaint every day for almost a month.
Theyre wrong, of course. Washington doesnt support Bashar al-Assad. But its not hard to figure why it looks that way from Beirut. The United States has demolished three murderous governments in the greater Middle East and South Asia in the last ten years—the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Saddam Husseins Baath Party state in Iraq, and Muammar el-Qaddafis lunacracy in Libya. One of these regime changes took place on President Barack Obamas watch, so everyone knows hes just as capable of terminating a despot as was President George W. Bush. They think that since President Obama can quickly get rid of Assad, the fact that he wont means that the White House likes him right where he is. It doesnt help that Washington is sponsoring a joint initiative with Vladimir Putin, who really does want Assad to remain in the saddle, and at a time when Russia is gearing up to send advanced Yakhont missiles to Syria.
The reasons Washington isnt moving aggressively against the Syrian regime are straightforward. Americans are weary of war and especially unwilling to insert themselves into Iraqi- and Lebanese-style sectarian blood feuds. And unlike Qaddafi, Assad has powerful friends. If the United States widens the conflict, Iran and Hezbollah might widen it further. They might even drag in the Israelis, igniting the worst conflagration east of the Mediterranean since the Iran-Iraq war. Washington is also concerned that Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, might become over time no less a menace than Assad has been all these years. So the Obama administration is cautious, and for good reason.
But that isnt coming across. We went through the same thing in Iran when the inspiring but ill-fated Green Revolution broke out in 2009. Obama was so determined to pursue a grand bargain with the Islamic Republic that he could hardly bring himself to utter a word of encouragement to the most potent homegrown anti-regime movement since Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979.
True, the president cant change the world with magic words; if only a superpowers historical role were that simple. The Iranian regime wont crumble if Obama yells at Tehran from the Oval Office; neither will Assads. But dont discount moral clarity. In 1987, when President Ronald Reagan spoke at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and demanded that Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall, everyone knew where he stood. No one in Eastern Europe thought he was objectively pro-Soviet because he neglected to mount an invasion. To this day, the United States enjoys more goodwill in Eastern than in Western Europe, precisely because the victims of Communist repression understood that the West sympathized with them, even if it didnt storm in and liberate them.
Extreme caution is called for in Syria, but that hardly changes the fact that it is in Americas national interest to see Assad removed. This man has more American blood on his hands than anyone in the Arab world who hasnt been killed yet. He is a totalitarian state sponsor of international terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida. His government has exported chaos and violence, not just to Israel, but also to every one of its neighbors. His regime is part of the Iranian-Hezbollah axis, which may well go nuclear. Calling for his ouster doesnt require undaunted courage. It wont yield results by itself, but the White House, and the United States as a whole, without even realizing it, are paying a price for refusing to do even this much.
Its hard enough for Americans to find goodwill in the Arab world, but it isnt impossible. None of the people I spoke to in Beirut who groused about Washingtons perceived support for Assad are anti-American. Ive known some of them for almost a decade. All are political liberals who more or less share our values, which largely explains why they oppose the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis in the first place. There is no upside to alienating these people.