Syria at Four Years

In March 2011 Bashar al-Assad elected to respond to peaceful protests against police brutality with lethal violence. Was this a choice he made freely and consciously? Or was he obliged by his security chieftains to beat, shoot, incarcerate, and torture protesters? It hardly matters. As President of the Syrian Arab Republic he bears full responsibility for every act of force—official and not—committed in his name and under his authority. Thanks to good foreign friends and irresolute foreign foes, the body count he began to build four years ago continues to mount.

The decision to resort to mass murder in response to demonstrators demanding dignity and justice instantly sacrificed the one thing the Assad regime (father and son) had tried to build for forty years: political legitimacy. Syrians had many complaints about the manner in which they were governed: rampant corruption; chronic incompetence; brutal treatment for those who objected too strenuously. The best and the brightest of Syrians simply left: a brain drain from which the United States, Canada, France, Australia, and other democracies have benefitted greatly. Still, there was in Syria until mid-March 2011 a broad belief that the young president probably meant well and deserved a chance to make things better—that he was not personally to blame for the system’s abusive dysfunction and that he had the right to serve as the country’s chief executive.

All of this went away in the spring of 2011. Bashar al-Assad sacrificed his right to speak for Syrians on matters of war, peace, and anything else related to governance. Had he acted differently—had he gone to Deraa, sat with the aggrieved, compensated the victims, punished their oppressors, and proclaimed to all Syrians his duty and determination to protect them—matters could have been significantly different. Some observers believe that had he done so he would have been ousted or decisively marginalized—perhaps with a bullet—by regime elements fully invested in a corruptly murderous system. Others think he would have been borne aloft on a tide of popular gratitude and support. We will never know. All that can be said with certainty now is that he is responsible and accountable for the tidal wave of war crimes and crimes against humanity set in motion four years ago under his authority.

Speaking to the press on March 12, the US Department of State spokesperson marked the fourth anniversary of Syria’s torment with the following words: “Tens of thousands remain in Assad’s prisons, where they are subjected to torture and inhumane conditions. For four years, the Assad regime has answered Syrians’ calls for freedom and reform with unrelenting brutality, authoritarianism, and destruction. As we have long said, Assad must go and be replaced through a negotiated political transition that is representative of the Syrian people. And as President Obama reiterated last month, it is not possible to fully stabilize Syria until Assad, who has lost legitimacy, is transitioned out.”

The words have the merit of truth. They have not, however, been accompanied by appropriate action by the United States and its allies. In the absence of action, millions of Syrians and many of their neighbors thoroughly disbelieve the words themselves. Leaders who cloak themselves with the words “Never Again” when decrying past failures to stop or at least mitigate mass murder have managed to carve out for themselves a Syria exception.

A policy that, since August 2011, has been rich in rhetoric about people stepping aside, red lines that must not be crossed, barrel bombs that are monstrously inhumane, starvation sieges that are unconscionable, torture and sexual abuse that reflect pure depravity, and humanitarian relief that simply must be permitted has, in the absence of accompanying deeds, sacrificed US credibility just as surely as Assad sacrificed his legitimacy. And now President Barack Obama reaps the political and foreign policy whirlwind as he tries to secure a potentially useful nuclear agreement with an Iranian adversary who has, by facilitating mass murder, secured the seat of he who “must go,” he who has “lost legitimacy,” and he who must be “transitioned out.” Tehran has wielded a big stick while speaking softly: something the United States once believed was an American characteristic.

President Obama has dismissed (reportedly with a barnyard epithet) the arguments of those who have consistently counseled policy alternatives aimed at producing better results than those prevailing today. The president and his advisors have repeatedly cited slippery slopes and mission creep that would, in their view, mechanistically mandate an Iraq-like invasion and occupation. They have routinely dismissed alternatives they see as unlikely to produce instantly ideal conditions, implying that between invasion and talk there is nothing. They have even argued that the regime’s rape of Syria falls short of genocide, thereby erasing any sense of moral failure to stop what they presume to be merely mass murder.

So regime helicopters continue, with absolute impunity, to unload barrel bombs on densely populated residential areas. Those on the receiving end of these daily massacres wonder if it is truly beyond the capacity of the United States and its allies to stop, or at least complicate, the unopposed delivery of this particular abomination. Indeed, those on the receiving end are probably well beyond wonderment by now and very much into the realm of hard-and-fast conclusions about what the West really has in mind for Syria and Syrians. It is easy for White House officials to be dismissive of “conspiracy theories.” It is not so easy for Syrians and their neighbors to disbelieve their eyes and ears when the barrel bombs impact. It is easy for those familiar with the administration to understand the gap between talking and doing. It is hard for outsiders to accept as fact that there is no American grand plan: that bad things actually happen because of what one may charitably label “unintended consequences.”

For four years, the Assad regime has brutalized Syria. By so doing, it cleared the way for ISIS to occupy a significant part of the country. For four years, the United States has decried the situation, calling on Assad to leave, warning that no military solution exists, blaming the United Nations Security Council for inaction, and pleading for a negotiated political transition. For four years Iran and Russia have fueled the premier humanitarian catastrophe of the twenty-first century while Washington and its allies have watched, countering proposed policy alternatives with alibis and straw-man arguments, hoping something good might turn up. Instead, we have unspeakable suffering falling disproportionately on civilians, especially children. We have regional friends and allies under terrible stress. And now we have ISIS.

Perhaps the choice made by Assad in March 2011 can, at long last, be countered effectively by new Western policy choices. Perhaps the battle against ISIS offers, in Syria, an opportunity for the West to create facts on the ground that would make a negotiated political transition a live possibility instead of the emptiest of talking points. Perhaps a fifth anniversary of Syria the slaughterhouse can be avoided.

Frederic C. Hof is a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: A rebel fighter shoulders a weapon as he moves with others towards their positions in the Selma region of the Jabal al-Akrad area in Syria's northwestern Latakia province March 15, 2015. (Photo: REUTERS/Alaa Khweled)