Voices from Syria seek help vs. ‘killing machine’ – By Clifford D. May
Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, members of the resistance movement inside Syria last week were able to have a secure conversation with a small group of foreign-policy mavens in Washington. What they told us boils down to this: A revolution is under way. On one side is the dictator Bashar al-Assad backed by Iran’s rulers, Hezbollah and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. On the other side are ordinary Syrians facing bombs and bullets with the kind of courage exhibited in Tiananmen Square. Meanwhile, those who should be their allies dither.
“Why is Syria not as important as Egypt and Libya?” asked “Muhammad,” one of the resistance leaders on the Skype call connecting the offices of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies with an undisclosed location outside Damascus. “We are facing a killing machine.”
Indeed, the Assad regime is estimated to have slaughtered more than 7,000 Syrian men, women and children to date. “We are not asking for any boots on the ground,” he added. What do they want instead? Supplies, equipment, secure communications technology — and, yes, the means to defend themselves, their families, their homes and their communities.
Recent upheavals in the Middle East, mislabeled “the Arab Spring,” have so far brought change only to countries where those in power had been cooperating with the U.S. — Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. By contrast, the 2009 uprising against Iran’s anti-American theocrats was brutally suppressed while Western leaders lifted not a finger and said barely a word. If Assad manages to remain in power, the lesson will be: It has become less dangerous to be America’s enemy than to be America’s friend.
Muhammad called the diplomatic dialogue over Syria that has been taking place at the U.N. a “farce.” Another resistance leader — “Abu Alnour” was the name he went by — said that the Arab League also has proved useless and, besides, cannot be trusted. As for Turkey, Muhammad said it is “only capable of words, it seems.”
The U.S. continues to be seen as their last, best hope because, Muhammad said, Americans are “the only ones who protect democracy and human rights in the world.”
What these besieged revolutionaries may not appreciate is how disillusioned many Americans have become. In recent memory, American power has been deployed to defend Kuwaitis, Bosnians, Kosovars and, yes, Iraqis and Afghans. We did not necessarily expect deep affection in return, but we were hoping for better than the animus that is directed toward us by so many in the Islamic world (an increasingly accurate label).
All of which misses this point: Americans should assist the revolutionaries in Syria based on strategic self-interest at least as much as altruism. Assad is an enemy of the United States. He facilitated the killing of hundreds of Americans in Iraq and arranged the assassinations of pro-Western Lebanese leaders who dared defy Syrian domination.
And he is the handmaiden of Iran, the most significant national-security threat facing the U.S. today. Perhaps soon to be armed with nuclear weapons, Iran’s rulers intend to lead what they see not as an Arab Spring but as a global Islamic ascendency and jihad against the West. However, because they are Persian and Shia, they need a bridge into the Arab and Sunni worlds. Assad has been providing that bridge. Assad’s downfall would represent a major strategic defeat for Tehran. It also would fan the suppressed flames of revolution within Iran where, thanks to increasingly tough sanctions, the economy is in steep decline.
Iran’s rulers get it. That’s why the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, is reportedly in Syria, along with hundreds of what might be accurately labeled Iranian storm troopers, advising and training Assad’s forces how to more efficiently kill demonstrators and smash the Free Syrian Army.
The day after our Internet conversation, at least 137 civilians, including 11 children, were killed by government forces. Hadi al-Abdullah of the Syrian General Revolutionary Council, based in Homs, told a reporter for Al Arabiya that missiles were being launched from a nearby military college and that helicopters were “targeting all those who are trying to help the wounded.” He asked: “Is this not a massacre?”
Of course, it was. But what is mislabeled the “international community” is highly selective about which massacres require action and which may be regretted and dismissed. Our friends in Syria are right: If Americans won’t provide leadership — protecting civilians while advancing our national interests — no one will.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.
Sunday, February 19, 2012