Homs, the mother of the Syrian revolution, has fallen. US officials agonize over material support to armed rebel nationalists, while Iranian officials proclaim victory. Lakhdar Brahimi, a tireless advocate for a negotiated political transition, steps aside. He who was famously invited to step aside in August 2011 by the President of the United States has given his latest defiant response: seven more years via a forthcoming electoral hoax. Jihadist terrorists, armed and financed by private funds from the Gulf, work relentlessly toward two goals: destroying the Syrian nationalist opposition to the Assad regime; and establishing their own brands of brutal, pre-Islamic governance in parts of Syria deemed unimportant by Bashar al-Assad’s Iranian masters. Is the revolution done? Might the time be approaching, as one prominent US ex-diplomat suggested, for the United States to eat crow and crawl back to Assad?
The answer on both counts is no. Admittedly, however, an American is better suited to address the crow-eating question rather than presume the desires and capacities of Syrians, whose suffering has been unspeakable. The revolution remains the exclusive property of the Syrian people. Presumably it could continue or not, regardless of the West.
For Washington, however, to return to business as usual with the Assad regime is not in the cards: now or ever. Yes, forever is a long time. Yes, a successor to Barack Obama could hypothetically blame it all on his or her predecessor and send an ambassador back on bended knee to Damascus. But it would be a shameful undertaking, one exacting a prohibitively high political cost.
Specifically, the bill of particulars pertaining to war crimes and crimes against humanity for which Bashar al-Assad is and will forever remain responsible will never go away. Indeed, that bill is becoming more specific and graphic with each passing week.
The US permanent representative to the United Nations has alluded several times to photographic records created by the regime of detainees by the thousands it has starved, tortured, and ultimately murdered. How much more would the work of this regime have to resemble that of Hitler and his lieutenants to make the eating of crow unthinkable, let alone unappetizing?
Ambassador Ryan Crocker—perhaps the most distinguished of diplomats to serve the United States in recent years—argues that, “As bad as the [Assad] regime is, there is something worse—which is extreme elements of the opposition.” Although not saying so literally, Crocker seemed to be reflecting the binary view of the struggle for Syria—Assad versus al-Qaeda—that the regime and its supporters employ promiscuously.
Ryan Crocker is no friend of the Assad regime: he witnessed from the vantage point of Baghdad the consequences—political and humanitarian—of Assad regime support for al-Qaeda in Iraq. Why then does he adopt the binary view? Why would he ignore what some see as the essence of the Syrian revolution: a nationalist rebellion equally hostile to Iranian and al-Qaeda terrorism?
Perhaps he has concluded that the Obama administration and its allies will, in the end, do nothing of consequence to help Syrian nationalists fight and defend in two directions. If this is his reasoning, he may well be correct. Indeed, he seemed to imply that US policy toward Syria had come to settle on a sectarian outcome, suggesting that the United States “would be making a grave mistake if our policy were aimed at flipping the tables and bringing Sunni ascendancy in Damascus.” Such a policy would indeed be a grave mistake. Yet it is not the policy of the Obama administration.
There are many levels on which one may critique the administration’s approach to Syria. Sectarianism is not one of them. Although the administration may be falling short in broadcasting clearly that the United States wants a Syria of citizenship, pluralism, legitimacy, and rule of law, one will find nothing coming from administration officials endorsing any kind of a sectarian political outcome.
Indeed, when officials in Riyadh, Doha, Ankara and elsewhere in the region criticize the Obama administration’s handling of the Syrian crisis, they would do well also to take into account and acknowledge how their own sectarianism has undermined the principles and the progress of a revolution that began as a purely Syrian protest against a ruling clan combining lust for power and money with bottomless contempt for the citizenry at large. Washington is not the place where a “flipping” of sectarian “tables” is sought or even contemplated. Indeed, US officials are quite cognizant of the role the Alawite community has played in the creation of modern Syria and the terrible price being paid by that community because of the cynical use to which it has been put by the Assad-Makhluf clan.
The Syrian revolution is not an American invention. If it were it would be finished. Indeed, it never would have begun. In fact, it is deeply embedded in the minds and hearts of millions of Syrians who were content, for years, to endure incompetence and corruption so long as honor and dignity were spared. That Assad and his compatriots were unwilling to spare anything at all to retain power says nothing at all about anyone’s sectarian affiliation: not even Assad’s. Bashar al-Assad will someday face and receive justice. The Syrian revolution will have failed utterly if the “crime” to which he will answer has anything at all to do with the religious faith into which he was born: a faith that has nothing to do with war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Iran seems to have succeeded in propping up the Assad-Makhluf clan in that part of Syria important to Tehran. Iran’s intervention—supported fully by Russia—has been critically important. In practical, operational terms, it has been unopposed by Washington and by the West generally. The introduction of foreign fighters by Tehran has all but erased any near-term prospect for peaceful, negotiated political transition in Syria, a point not lost on the soon-to-depart Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi. Although the Department of State’s incessant talking point about the ebb and flow of tactical events on the ground in Syria is particularly inapt, grating, and empty, one should be cautious about reporting the death of the Syrian revolution. That reported death will likely prove to be greatly exaggerated.
Whatever disappointment and anger Syrians may feel about the striking contrast between what Tehran and Moscow have done for a family and what the West has done for them, they should never believe that Bashar al-Assad has a future with the West beyond an appointment in The Hague. To the extent Syria has been placed simultaneously at the disposal of Iran and al-Qaeda, it is his handiwork. Unless and until he subordinates himself and his clan to the political transition process agreed to by the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council, he will remain, by definition, the central problem to be overcome. It is not that he is better or worse than al-Qaeda in Syria. He is the flip side of the same debased coin.
Frederic C. Hof is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.