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.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4397) }}

What We're Following See More »
WEST WING REDUX
Allison Janney Takes to the Real White House Podium
9 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Carolyn Kaster/AP

STAFF PICKS
When It Comes to Mining Asteroids, Technology Is Only the First Problem
10 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Obama Reflects on His Economic Record
11 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Reagan Families, Allies Lash Out at Will Ferrell
12 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."

Source:
PEAK CONFIDENCE
Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
14 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”

Source:
×