The Wall Street Journal June 13, 2012
Syria continues to sink deeper into a civil war that we were told would break out if the U.S. and its allies intervened to oust Bashar Assad. So the West has stayed out, but the killings have multiplied to include at least four massacres in two weeks, and now Russia is escalating its military aid to the Assad regime to include attack helicopters. Even “leading from behind” worked better than this.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continued her intervention of words Tuesday, disclosing that “We are concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria.” Russia’s foreign minister responded on Wednesday by saying the U.S. arms other countries in the region—which doesn’t do much for Syria’s opposition, which is carrying a gun to a tank and artillery fight.
This is the same Russia that has protected Mr. Assad from even the mildest U.N. sanctions. Readers may also recall that Russia and Syria were Exhibits A and B of Mr. Obama’s policy of engaging with countries that supposedly only disagreed with America because Dick Cheney was Vice President. Four years later, Syria remains Iran’s best ally and is slaughtering its own people, while Russia of the famous “reset” in relations is resorting to its Cold War vetoes of collective Western action.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called on the U.N. Security Council to enforce U.N. envoy to Syria Kofi Annan’s cease-fire, by military force if necessary. That would be the same cease-fire that Mr. Assad agreed to honor in April but has since violated every day. The Russians and Chinese can veto any such U.N. move, and they will no doubt shudder at the moral denunciations that follow from Western editorial pages that still oppose U.S. intervention.
The reality is that Mr. Assad and his protectors aren’t going to accept any cease-fire or peace plan until it is the peace of the grave for his opponents. This is an existential fight for survival by a hard regime backed by even harder regimes that don’t want to lose a client. Mr. Assad isn’t going to accept a “transition”—Mrs. Clinton’s policy word of choice for Syria—until he is dislodged by force.
Mr. Assad the ophthamologist can see even without eyeglasses that Mr. Obama has no desire to intervene militarily to stop the slaughter. That perception alone gives Damascus a freer hand to carry out the very massacres Mrs. Clinton and her colleagues condemn. A similar scenario played out in Bosnia in the 1990s, until NATO intervened with air strikes that ended the war at little cost in Western lives. That intervention only happened after the killing of thousands in Srebrenica, a toll that Syria has already exceeded.
The Administration’s stated case against military intervention is that it would make the humanitarian situation worse, though we doubt that is how they see it in the massacre towns of Houla and Qubeir. There’s also the fear that we don’t know enough about the Syrian opposition and what it might do if it came to power. But as with Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, it’s hard to imagine how Syria under new leadership could be worse for U.S. interests than the Assad clan.
If the realists are right that Iran is America’s greatest threat in the region, then ousting Iran’s best friend would be a strategic victory. On the other hand, if Mr. Assad murders enough people to survive, he will be even more beholden to Iran and Russia, and more inclined to make trouble for Lebanon, Turkey, Israel and the Gulf Arab states. If he prevails, the rest of the region—and the world—will also know that he did so despite insistent but irrelevant calls from the U.S. that he had to go. American credibility and influence will be weaker for it.
Intervening in Syria does not mean reprising the war in Iraq. A Bosnia-style air campaign targeting elite Syrian military units could prompt the general staff to reconsider its contempt for international opinion, and perhaps its allegiance to the Assad family. Short of that, carving out some kind of safe haven inside Syria would at least save lives.
The best argument against intervention at this point is Mr. Obama himself. Only a U.S. President can lead a coalition of the willing outside of the U.N., as well as persuade the American people, and Mr. Obama clearly doesn’t want to do it. Diffident leadership made the Libya campaign take longer and look harder than it should have, and Syria would be more difficult.
Mr. Obama wants his Syrian nightmare to go away before the election, and with Russian helicopters and Mr. Assad’s efficient butchery, it might.