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Right Turn
Posted at 01:00 PM ET, 05/29/2012

Assad may hold on after all

The Post reports: “The United States and several other Western nations moved Tuesday to expel Syrian diplomats amid mounting international outrage over the massacre Friday of more than 100 villagers in central Syria, most of them women and children.The moves came as the U.N. envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, met Tuesday in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and expressed the international community’s ‘grave concern’ about the escalating violence in Syria.”

I wonder what comes after “grave concern” — maybe “super-duper worried.”

And if you are wondering what Syrian diplomats, infamous for spying on Syrian ex-pats, are still doing in the United States, you’ve not been following the glacial speed with which this administration acts.

Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies tells me, “With international consensus building (finally), it seems to me that this massacre in Houla fits the description of war crimes. Perhaps designating it as such can help mobilize the international community to actually do something about the bloodshed. But, as always, the most important element is the role of the United States. The Obama Administration, despite its stated outrage, still appears unprepared to take any action. The White House is pinning its hopes on getting Russia to put pressure on Assad to ease him out. But Russia has already chosen its path. The odds of reversing course at this point are very low.”

Well, what should we be doing? Former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams notes that if we don’t have a good understanding and relationship with Syrian rebels by now, “that’s a remarkable intelligence failure that can only reflect a policy decision not to know them. He writes:

The expulsions are symbolic. They do not hurt Assad nor do they help the Syrian people bring his bloody regime to an end any more than visits by Kofi Annan do. In February Secretary Clinton said about the killings in Syria that “world opinion is not going to stand idly by.” Three months later, it is, and so is she. . . .
There are two possible outcomes in Syria’s civil war: Assad wins, by killing enough people to crush the rebellion, in which case Iran and Syria (and the regime’s armorers in Russia) have a great victory. From this, dictators everywhere would learn that Ben Ali and Mubarak had it all wrong and simply failed to kill enough protesters. Or, Assad loses, and with him Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia lose.
This latter result does not require American troops or planes, but does require American leadership. The Saudis and the Turks will be helpful to us but they will not lead, as the past 15 months shows. And American leadership does not mean Atrocities Prevention Boards, but the coordinated supply of arms, ammunition, training, and non-lethal goods like radios and uniforms to the opposition forces. Secretary Clinton’s “world opinion” won’t scare Assad any more than Kofi Annan does. It is time to end the charades and stop hiding behind façades, and give the concrete help that will bring down this murderous anti-American regime.

Other critics of the administration’s sloth are not so optimistic about the rebels’ abilities. They chide the administration for not coming up with well-considered military options. One think-tanker opines to me via e-mail: “Providing safe zones along the Turkish border may or may not be a good thing, for example. Serious people have different views about. I’ve looked pretty closely at the Syrian air defense system, and it’s by no means a show stopper as some in the military have suggested. But while that is true, it doesn’t necessarily tell you what you should do. What matters is having a full-up strategic plan in place to remove Assad and being serious about what follows after.”

As we have seen so many times before, failure to take more decisive action earlier in a crisis and over-reliance on multilateral institutions have left us with few options. I suspect that’s precisely what President Obama wanted: Either Assad fell without our pushing him, or he’d stay since we’d have no easy means of toppling him. Either way, as Abrams put it, “It seems the White House is avoiding any entanglements that might undercut the President’s ability to trumpet the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq and, soon, Afghanistan.”

But, of course, avoiding entanglements doesn’t mean dangerous and horrible things don’t happen. In fact, things spin out of control at a faster clip without U.S. action. Not only is there a mass atrocity going on, but our strategic interests in the region — most importantly, convincing Iran that we won’t tolerate its export of terrorism and its nuclear ambitions — will be substantially set back if Assad survives.

Without U.S. action, it is looking more and more like he will hold on, although not without hundreds, if not thousands, more Syrians being murdered. Unless Iran gets the bomb, that outcome would surely be the biggest moral and strategic failure of this presidency.

By  |  01:00 PM ET, 05/29/2012

 
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