Why We Must Support the Syrian Opposition

As most of you are well aware, more than 9,000 civilians have been mercilessly killed by the brutal forces of Bashir al-Assad in a human rights crisis of catastrophic proportions.  As a widely circulated Youtube video documents, in just one night, in the town of Homs, twenty -five children were butchered in their beds, and twenty women were taken out and raped in the public square, in front of their husbands’ very eyes. Amnesty International has compiled a grim catalogue of torture used by the regime in a widespread and systematic attempt to suppress dissent among the civilian population. The human rights abuses detailed within that report are nothing short of egregious, and almost too revolting for most people to read. Hospitals and sources of medical supplies have been cut off. The government of Bashir al-Assad has savagely shelled out entire cities. Food and water are in short supply. The country has been closed off to journalists.  Just this past Saturday, March 31st,  Ali Mahmoud Othman, a citizen journalist who had been covering the conflict in Homs and who had assisted in evacuating journalists out of the city had been seized by the government of Bashir Assad, and is most likely undergoing severe torture. These human rights abuses against people who are demonstrating for their freedom, should, alone, be sufficient grounds for American involvement. If America, which is still the world’s democratic leader, allows this sort of brutality to continue, without eliciting anything more than a few feeble protests from us, what sort of values do we represent? Are we abdicating our responsibilities as the leader of the free, Western world? People have been speaking for some time now about an age of American decline.  If we behave in such a fashion, we are certainly going to help bring about such an age. I am aware that identifying who the true, secular democrats are within the chaotic mix of opposition in present day Syria is no easy task, but it is not true to say that the opposition is inscrutable. For more on that, I would recommend “The Institute for the Study of War’s” excellent analysis on the subject. I am also well aware that in this cynical age, of “realism” human rights and preventing a massacre do not seem to be sufficient motivation for meaningful American assistance. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the American populace is exhausted from two depleting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we have no appetite, what-so-ever, for further military intervention. Equally unfortunate, Americans always tend to generalize from the last instance, “Fighting the last war,” as the saying goes.  Watching the images of celebrating Libyan jihadists, who now dominate Libya thanks to NATO air cover, or the overwhelming election wins for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the assumption is that Syria will be the same, a triumph for radical Islam. But the reality is that this outcome is not prevented by American inaction, but guaranteed by it.  And the choice in Syria is not between Al-Qaeda and a cowed dictator like Qaddafi, or between the revolutionary Muslim Brotherhood and an ageing authoritarian “ally” like Mubarak. Syria is located in an extremely vital geostrategic region of the Middle East. It borders on Lebanon, which was once home to the proud Cedar revolution, but currently under the crushing foot of Hizballah, and it borders on Israel. With Assad in power, Syria and Lebanon remain a vast plateau from which Hizballah and other jihadists take easy aim at Israel, from which they can launch thousands of rockets whenever their Iranian paymasters give the word. We know that for approximately twenty years, Boeing 747’s have been landing in Damascus airport,  in direct flights from the Islamic Republic of Iran, filled with ammunition and equipment for the government of Bashir al-Assad, and before that his father Hafez al-Assad,  to hand directly over to Hizballah, which they supplement with military training.  The IEDs that wound and kill so many American GI’s on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan were made in Iran, and frequently detonated by jihadists transported through Syria.  The Syrian capital of Damascus houses the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the PKK and practically every other terrorist group that is listed with the State Department. The Bekka Valley has been a haven for both the narcotics and counterfeiting industries for generations. Syria is Iran’s only ally within the Sunni Arab world, and is its foothold in the fourteen-century old conflict that is now being played out between Shiites and Sunnis. Because Iran is the most dangerous and reckless nations in the world today – anything that weakens the hand of the Islamic Republic of Iran is to the advantage of America’s national security. The toppling of Assad is in our national interest. Syria is not a monolithic Islamic nation. Its people are a diverse mosaic of ethnic groups and political affiliations. Some of them are Salafists, and some are Muslim Brotherhood, that’s true. But other elements of the opposition are not.  It is these opposition elements which must be found and supported. Making that determination should be one of the primary goals of the U.S. intelligence community in this conflict. If we do not act, there are many nefarious players on the world’s stage that are more than ready, willing and able to swoop in and to fill the void.  And it will be to the benefit of Assad, or the worst among the opposition.  The presence of Al Qaeda has already been noted on the Syrian battlefields.  The dictatorial regimes of Russia, China and North Korea have not been shy with providing Bashir Assad’s regime with weapons. The Sunni regimes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar can be expected to back Salafist elements with money and weapons. Syria today is a vitally important battlefield in determining how the Middle East will emerge, not just in 2012, but for many decades to come.  Where goes Syria, there goes the rest of the Middle East. It is my belief that without American involvement, we will almost certainly see the triumph of the radical Islamists.  And our involvement should be sooner, rather than later. Hardly a person in Syria is not related to, or knows of a friend or neighbor, who has not been slaughtered by the regime.  It has been over a year now since the uprising began.  After watching so many of one’s neighbors and family members routinely and systematically tortured and killed, one is grateful for help, no matter where it comes from. And that gratitude would be much better directed towards America, rather than the radical Islamists, currently on the ascent throughout the rest of the Middle East. While I am aware that The United States recently pledged $25 million dollars in aid, and offered communications equipment during the most recent “Friends of Syria” summit in Istanbul, what is lacking is American direction and leadership. And that may not be enough. The window of opportunity to get assistance for the besieged Syrian dissidents is rapidly closing. I am certain that by now, watching all of the daily bloodshed and torture within their communities, and waiting patiently for the aid of the leader of the free, Western, democratic world, many of them are becoming soured at the United States. As the Sage Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who am I for? And if I am for myself alone, what am I?” Or, as Walter Laquer has written in his wonderful article, “The Perils of Wishful Thinking”, “If there are no certainties in world politics, there remain possibilities that can be ignored at great peril.”

About the Author

Kyle Shideler
Kyle Shideler is the Director of Research and Communications for the Endowment for Middle East Truth

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