September 1, 2011

Libya was not a robust showing of liberal-internationalist conviction: The single greatest factor behind the West’s armed intrusion was the surreality of Moammar Gaddafi. If the “colonel” had not been such a nut, if he had bothered to maintain the armed forces on which he squandered his country’s oil wealth, Western concern for the Libyan people would probably have been much less muscular.

Nevertheless, President Obama used American power to liberate a Muslim people. Like George W. Bush, Obama came into office with a narrower, “humbler” conception of America’s interests abroad. In his first visit to the region, he confused the majesty of Islam with the dignity of Muslim potentates. Sept. 11, 2001, transformed Bush. We must wait to see whether the Great Arab Revolt has permanently changed Obama.

Syria will be his real test. The arguments for supporting Syrian protesters are easily as strong as those mustered to save the people of Benghazi. After months facing the regime snipers’ machine guns, tanks and torture, demonstrators are openly calling for foreign intervention. And the regime’s strategic sins against the United States are far greater than those committed by the Libyan Nero. Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah — the two terrorist powerhouses of the Middle East — are Damascus’s closest friends. Almost every Arab terrorist group, spawned in the hothouses of Islamic militancy and Arab nationalism, has had a presence in Damascus. The ruling Assad family has been the great enabler of terrorism against the United States — from the 1983 Beirut bombings to the 1996 attack on Khobar Towers, and quite possibly to Sept. 11 via the operational carte blanche given to Imad Mughniya and Hezbollah. Mughniya, Iran’s dark Arab prince who served as Tehran’s liaison with Arab terrorists, and Hezbollah likely aided al-Qaeda in the 1990s. More so than any Sunni-led Arab state, the Assad regime has reveled in its “front-line” hostility toward Israel.

For decades foreign policy “realists” dreamed of severing the Assads and Syria’s ruling Shiite Alawite clan from Iran and marrying them to the peace process. This delusional aspiration — it ignored the sectarian and religious reality of Syrian politics — appears dead. Addicted to viewing the region through a Palestinian-Israeli lens, Obama may finally look strategically at Syria.

Unlike Iran, the Assad regime could be hurt rapidly and perhaps decisively by sanctions. The regime probably doesn’t have a lot of hard currency — it appears to be burning through dollar reserves to maintain its currency and security services. Without constant cash injections from Iran, which may be slow given Tehran’s economic difficulties, hyperinflation in Syria is a real possibility.

Obama wouldn’t necessarily have to lead from the front. The European Union is slowly but surely developing tougher sanctions. The E.U., which purchases most of Syria’s oil, just passed an embargo, effective Nov. 15, on importation of Syrian crude. Implementing further comprehensive measures against Syria’s energy sector and central bank and Iranian commercial entities heavily invested in Syria may require the presidential bully pulpit and some arm-twisting of European allies and the Turks. But Bashar al-Assad’s bloody oppression gives Washington the high ground. What seemed impossible five months ago is becoming practicable.

And the Syrian opposition has unified sufficiently to be an effective recipient of Western aid. Funds for striking workers, a wide variety of portable encrypting communications equipment and, critically, a cross-border WiFi zone that extends to the city of Aleppo, the commercial hub of Syria just 23 miles from Turkey, could greatly aid the opposition’s resistance. Covert action takes two to tango: Let the Syrian opposition tell us what it needs. Washington shouldn’t be more “virtuous” than the people dying. Even the unthinkable — Western military action — has become more likely because of Libya. If the Sunni-Alawite sectarian split in Syria worsens, it’s not that hard to imagine a scenario in which Sunni Turkey will be forced to provide a refugee haven across the Syrian border. A NATO-backed no-fly, no-drive, no-cruise zone could follow. And the realignment of Turkey, which under the Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been seriously flirting with Damascus and Tehran, back toward Europe and the United States would also be a blessing for the region.

Barack Obama is the son of an African Muslim and an American woman who dedicated her life to the Third World. He is tailor-made to lead the United States in expanding democracy to the most unstable, autocratic and religiously militant region of the globe. The president obviously hasn’t seen himself as that kind of “friend of Islam.” But the Great Arab Revolt is transforming the way Arab Muslims see themselves. It may do the same for Barack Obama.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of “The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East.” Mark Dubowitz is the executive director of FDD, where he heads projects on sanctions and the use of technology to encourage democratic change.