Why Assad Will Win

The U.S. is giving up on the Arab Spring, and the Syrian dictator knows it.

This undated photo posted on the official Instagram account of the Syrian Presidency purports to show Bashar Assad visiting with soldiers in Baba Armr, Homs province, Syria.
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
Aug. 21, 2013, 12:41 p.m.

Bashar al-As­sad is, fi­nally, hav­ing a very good week.

The latest al­leg­a­tions of chem­ic­al-weapons use against the Syr­i­an dic­tat­or don’t mat­ter nearly as much as oth­er dra­mat­ic de­vel­op­ments — in par­tic­u­lar, the United States’ will­ing­ness to stand aside while As­sad’s auto­crat­ic brethren in the Egyp­tian junta cold-bloodedly killed some one thou­sand pro­test­ers, sup­por­ted by the Saudis and Gulf states.  

And this week, the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mar­tin De­mp­sey, fi­nally said plainly what Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have been think­ing privately since June, the last time Wash­ing­ton said its “red line” had been crossed and pledged mil­it­ary aid to the Syr­i­an rebels — then did noth­ing. In a let­ter to Rep. Eli­ot En­gel, D-N.Y., De­mp­sey said flatly that U.S. aid to the rebels know would just end up arm­ing rad­ic­al, pos­sibly al-Qaida-linked groups. And Obama wasn’t go­ing to al­low that to hap­pen.

What it all means is that we may now be at a his­tor­ic turn­ing point in the Ar­ab Spring — what is ef­fect­ively the end of it, at least for now. As­sad, says Syr­ia ex­pert Joshua Land­is, is surely tak­ing on board the les­sons of the last few weeks: If the United States wasn’t go­ing to in­ter­vene or even protest very loudly over the killing of mildly rad­ic­al Muslim Broth­er­hood sup­port­ers, it’s cer­tainly not go­ing to take a firmer hand against As­sad’s slaughter of even more rad­ic­al anti-U.S. groups. “With a thou­sand people dead or close to it, and Amer­ica still de­bat­ing wheth­er to cut off aid, and how and when, that’s got to give com­fort to As­sad,” says Land­is, a pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Ok­lahoma. “The Egyp­tians brushed off the United States and said”¦. Well, we don’t want to end up like Syr­ia. And Amer­ica blinked. And Is­rael and the Gulf states were in there telling them to hit the pro­test­ers hard.”

What began, in the U.S. in­ter­pret­a­tion, as an in­spir­ing drive for demo­cracy and free­dom from dic­tat­ors and pub­lic cor­rup­tion has now be­come, for Wash­ing­ton, a coldly real­politik cal­cu­la­tion. As the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion sees it, the mil­it­ary in Egypt is do­ing the dirty work of con­front­ing rad­ic­al polit­ic­al Is­lam, if harshly. In Syr­ia, the main ant­ag­on­ists are both de­clared en­emies of the United States, with Bashar al-As­sad and Ir­an-sup­por­ted Hezbol­lah align­ing against al-Qaida-linked Is­lam­ist mi­li­tias. Why shouldn’t Wash­ing­ton’s policy be to al­low them to en­gage each oth­er, thin­ning the ranks of each?  

And by all ac­counts, the ad­min­is­tra­tion and the Pentagon simply don’t want to risk the “blow­back” that could oc­cur if the As­sad re­gime col­lapses and ser­i­ous weapons fall in­to the hands of al-Qaida. As one Wash­ing­ton-based mil­it­ary ex­pert points out, As­sad is just not enough of a threat to U.S. in­terests. “Look at how long it took us to de­cide to back the mu­ja­hedeen in the 1980s against the So­viet Uni­on. Syr­ia is not the So­viet Uni­on,” the ex­pert says.

De­mp­sey, in his let­ter, said that de­cid­ing what to do about Syr­ia “is not about choos­ing between two sides but rather about choos­ing one among many sides.” He ad­ded that “the side we choose must be ready to pro­mote their in­terests and ours when the bal­ance shifts in their fa­vor. Today, they are not.”

On Wed­nes­day, in a re­play of what happened a year ago, the ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­peared to push for more time in as­cer­tain­ing wheth­er As­sad had used chem­ic­al weapons. White House spokes­man Josh Earn­est said the ad­min­is­tra­tion was “deeply con­cerned by re­ports that hun­dreds of Syr­i­an ci­vil­ians have been killed in an at­tack by Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment forces, in­clud­ing by the use of chem­ic­al weapons,” but was work­ing “to gath­er ad­di­tion­al in­form­a­tion.”

This is fa­mil­i­ar ground. Back in June, Deputy Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Ben Rhodes said in a state­ment that the ad­min­is­tra­tion would start sup­ply­ing the Syr­i­an rebels’ “Su­preme Mil­it­ary Coun­cil” and “con­sult­ing with Con­gress on these mat­ters in the com­ing weeks.” But there is little evid­ence that any mil­it­ary aid has reached the rebels.

Pres­id­ent Obama’s biggest prob­lem in terms of his cred­ib­il­ity is that he’s wed­ded to a “nar­rat­ive” that won’t stand up to scru­tiny any longer, says Land­is. “We star­ted this off say­ing it was about demo­cracy and free­dom. We’ve stuck to that in­ter­pret­a­tion. We didn’t say this is about eco­nom­ic mis­man­age­ment and poverty,” which is what the protests were largely about.  But now “nobody be­lieves they’re demo­crats any­more. That’s the prob­lem. What we saw in Egypt sig­nals that Amer­ica has changed its mind and has backed away from the Muslim Broth­er­hood and all these Is­lam­ic groups. And the Syr­i­an rebel groups are to the right of the Muslim Broth­er­hood.”

Ad­vant­age, As­sad.

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