The Obama administration desperately wants the brutal reign of Syria’s Bashar Assad overthrown, but fears that aiding the dictator’s foes would backfire if the wrong — that is, fiercely jihadist — rebels grab power.
Therefore, Washington has chosen a middle path, providing logistical support to the rebels and, through diplomatic channels, pressuring Iran, Russia and even Iraq to stop helping Assad.
Increasingly, however, that path seems equally treacherous, largely because other nations in the region are sharply split on how to deal with Syria, and therefore whatever steps the United States takes will almost certainly alienate one set of American allies or another.
And on Thursday, the crisis worsened as mortar shells struck a Damascus University café, killing at least 10 students and wounding 29 others. As was the case a week ago when a bomb destroyed a mosque in the Syrian capital, killing a prominent pro-Assad cleric, the regime immediately blamed the rebels. Predictably, they in turn accused the government of carrying out both bombings in order to discredit those trying to unseat the dictator.
Once the uprising began two years ago, few believed Assad, whose family has ruled Syria since 1970, had the wherewithal to cling to power this long. It may be that he has the support of a significant portion of the Syrian population, even if only because he is seen as simply the lesser of two evils.
Nobody can predict what will happen if the rebels — a disorganized bunch if ever there was one — finally prevail. Their various groups have different (and at times competing) agendas, and not all of them look favorably upon the United States.
Given these circumstances, the administration’s reluctance to get directly involved would appear to make sense, but sooner or later the United States may need to directly help the rebels; otherwise, any existing anti-American sentiments will only grow stronger.
Assad is an Alawite, a minority Muslim sect that claims 22 million Syrians, but it amounts to only 12 percent of the nation’s population. The Sunni Muslims constitute 74 percent (and Christians 10 percent), so it is understandable that the Alawites, long accustomed to preferable treatment, fear what might happen if the rival Sunnis gain power. Assad also reportedly has the support, however reluctant, of the secular merchant class which doesn’t know what to expect if the rebels win.
Frederic C. Hof, a former adviser to the Obama administration on the Syrian situation and now a senior fellow of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, recently published a paper on sectarian mass violence in Syria for the Center for the Prevention of Genocide of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“When Assad chose violence over conciliation, he deployed both official armed units and criminal gangs that were overwhelmingly Alawite to do his bidding,” Hof wrote. “Most of Syria’s military has remained on the sidelines, disgorging defectors. By reacting as he did, Assad transformed peaceful protest into armed resistance and plunged Syria into a sectarian cauldron in which civilians are increasingly targeted for violence and outright killing based on their religion.”
The regime’s tactics, he added, have given rise to a radical, jihadist presence alongside the mainstream rebels, and both their tactical proficiency and anti-Alawite sectarianism have scared all Syrian minorities. These jihadists have only reinforced Washington’s reluctance to rush to the aid of the rebels.
The situation became even more complicated recently when the opposition movement chose Ghassan Hitto as its interim prime minister. Hitto, an American citizen who recently lived in Texas, is nevertheless seen as sympathetic to the militant Islamist cause, and the Syrian rebels courted by the United States have sharply criticized his selection.
All this suggests that the administration’s strategy has been ineffective at either forcing Assad out or generating pro-American sentiment.
The 2012 presidential election wasn’t decided on foreign policy issues, but between the uprising in Syria, the tensions between Israel and her Arab neighbors and the disintegration of Egypt’s stability, the White House faces a daunting, difficult hand. But the evidence suggests the White House’s cautious strategy hasn’t worked.