Syria does not sit atop an ocean of oil, as does Saudi Arabia. It does not have a huge population, as does Egypt. It does not wield economic and military clout like Turkey.
But under the oppressive rule of Bashar Assad, Syria has been the primary agent of Iran’s jihad within the Arab world. It has been the patron of Hezbollah, the militia that is carrying out a slow-motion coup in Lebanon. It has been a welcoming host to Hamas and other terrorist groups whose most immediate target is Israel.
Over the past four months, Syrians have been taking to the streets in courageous displays of defiance, demanding the resignation of Assad and an end to the dynasty begun by his father, Hafez Assad, 40 years ago. In response, the regime’s security forces have killed as many as 1,600 men, women and children. Almost 10 times that number have been arrested. And yet, to the surprise of many, the protestors refuse to be suppressed.
If Assad falls, the Arab Spring becomes a much sunnier season. Iran’s theocrats, Hezbollah and Hamas would all be weakened. Lebanon would have another chance. Israel would feel a little safer. Do President Barack Obama and his advisors get this?
Assad himself is a curious figure: a 45-year-old British-educated ophthalmologist who inherited his father’s power after his older, smarter brother died in a car accident. His wife, Asma al-Assad, is more likely to wear Prada than a burqa.
For years, leading lights in Congress were convinced that Assad was a moderate — or at least could be induced to moderation. Assad also has been viewed as the key to a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The basis for such visions was never apparent.
They persisted even after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, when Assad welcomed terrorists from all over the Muslim world and then sent them over the border to spill American and Iraqi blood, crimes for which he has never been held accountable.
For all these reasons, it’s time to hope for change that would begin by assisting the astonishingly brave Syrians fighting and dying to oust Assad — an outcome unambiguously in the U.S. interest.
Assad’s ouster would be consequential. So, too, would be Assad’s survival. If there are any strategic thinkers inside Obama’s White House, Hillary Clinton’s State Department and what is about to become David Petraeus’ CIA, they will grasp that — and act upon it.
Scripps Howard News Service contributor Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.