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Published on February 13th, 2014 | by Emile Nakhleh


Stop the Butcher of Damascus

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by Emile Nakhleh

The horrific scenes of starving Syrians and falling barrel bombs and missiles on Homs, Aleppo, and Deraa offer evidence of Bashar al-Assad’s determination to destroy his country and massacre his people in order to stay in power.

No other Arab dictator in recent memory, including Saddam Hussein, has committed such systematic and callous brutality as Bashar al-Assad of Syria. It’s time that President Barack Obama and other Western leaders respond to Assad’s atrocities and force his ouster.

NATO acted, with Washington’s support, to save Benghazi. Homs is no different. Syria burns while Washington watches. When will Homs become the tipping point for immediate action?

Almost two years ago, several experts argued, including on this Blog, for arming the rebels in order to level the playing field. Had that happened, the regime would have fallen and the Syrian people would have been spared much of this misery.

According to media reports at the time, debate raged within the White House and the US Department of State on this issue, with Secretary of State John Kerry favoring a military solution but without putting boots on the ground. Those who argued against arming the rebels, however, prevailed.

Three reasons underpinned the non-military approach. First, arming and training the rebels would ultimately lead to “mission creep” and direct military involvement. Second, the arms, especially anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, could fall into the hands of militants and terrorist groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra. Third, the American people, including many Democrats in Congress, were opposed to another possible war in the Mid-East.

In the final analysis, what drove President Obama’s objection to a military solution was his visceral opposition to starting new wars and strong support for ending them.

Unfortunately for Syria, not arming the opposition resulted in thousands being killed and an emboldened Assad. The moderate opposition became much weaker, and radical Salafi groups, including the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS), became the face of the opposition.

A Syrian Christian family that just got out of Syria told me of the paralyzing fear that is constantly being inflicted on innocent civilians — women, children, and the elderly — as bombs and missiles rain down on their homes and shelters. One of them said they are forced to accept the horrific reality that the death of a neighbor or a relative has become ordinary and banal.

Many of these Christians, who initially supported Assad, now see his legacy as one of destruction with no remorse or care for the country or its people. They are demanding justice from this war criminal.

Geneva II is failing. In fact, it was doomed from the start because Assad, his foreign minister, and their Russian benefactors have used the meetings to buy time. Assad has no intentions to negotiate his exit from power. Anyone who thinks otherwise is naïve or complicit.

Russian President Vladimir Putin used Geneva as a convenient crutch because a forceful international action on Syria could muddy his Winter Olympics. He wanted the world to focus on Sochi, not Homs. Starving Syrians should not sully his Olympian dreams; unfortunately, the world went along.

The op-ed President Obama and the French President Francois Hollande wrote in the Washington Post Feb. 10 barely addressed the constant, heart-wrenching suffering of the Syrian people. The two leaders called on the international community to “step up its efforts to care for the Syrian people, strengthen the moderate Syrian opposition, and work the Geneva II process toward a political transition that delivers the Syrian people from dictatorship and terrorism.”

This rhetoric will not move Assad to abdicate and turn the reins of power to an interim government. Geneva II is already stalled, but Assad continues to use it as a fig leaf to cover his atrocities. He is pounding his country to smithereens while world leaders watch.

Whenever civilians flee their towns to places on the Lebanese border, such as Arsan, regime planes and missiles follow them and wreak havoc regardless of which side of the border they are on.

The “international community” will not act on its own without American leadership and resources. The United States, therefore, in concert with its NATO allies must take several steps immediately.

First, declare a no-fly zone over all of Syria as a warning to Assad to stop the regime’s aerial bombardment and the killing of innocent civilians. If missile attacks do not cease within 24 hours, NATO should bomb missile sites.

A Syrian Christian told me, “Assad owns the skies over Syria and unless that changes, he will not stop his butchery.”

Second, arm the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups with adequate weapons, including anti-tank and anti aircraft rockets. Recent conflicts such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us that some of the weapons that are provided to legitimate rebel forces sometime fall in the hands of radical jihadis and Salafis. We should expect a similar possibility in Syria. As the disparate rebel groups unify, however, they would become more effective on the battlefield and a more formidable fighting force. This in turn would weaken the radicals.

Third, through private channels, perhaps from Jordan and Saudi Arabia, inform radical groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, that ISIS and other terrorist groups would not be tolerated, currently or in a post-Assad Syria.

Mainstream rebel groups should ostracize and reject ISIS as part of the opposition or as a potential player in a post-Assad Syria. Opposition leaders within Syria and outside it should collect information on ISIS activists and mark them for arrest and deportation once Assad falls. If Jabhat al-Nusra will not reject ISIS or terrorism, it too should be targeted for arrest and deportation.

Fourth, organize an immediate, massive, multi-state humanitarian aid effort to bring food, medicine, water, blankets, and other necessities to Syrians trapped in cities and towns across the country. If Assad prevents supplies from reaching the needy, he should be told in no uncertain terms that force would be used to protect aid deliveries.

Fifth, declare Assad and his closest associates as international war criminals and initiate indictment proceedings at The Hague. Assad’s foreign minister Walid al-Muallem should be told privately that he too could be indicted as a war criminal if he does not defect from the regime. The message should be equally conveyed to other senior members of the regime, both civilian leaders and military.

Sixth, the UN Secretary General should direct Lakhdar Brahimi to begin working with the opposition on a post-Assad constitution, electoral law, and a representative governmental structure that would be put in place once the Assad regime collapses. The charade of Geneva II should end.

The draft constitution, which must be approved by a popular referendum openly and freely, should be based on the principles of inclusion, tolerance, freedoms of speech and assembly, and human rights, especially for women and minorities. No single party, including the Ba’th Party, should be allowed to dominate the political landscape.

Let us be clear: Arming the rebels does not mean direct US involvement in the Syrian civil war. Regardless of the expected public opposition to the proposed steps, President Obama cannot possibly continue to exalt America’s values and moral standing while Syria burns.

Photo: Beirut, Lebanon, February 11 (UNHCR) — More than 1,100 civilians have taken advantage of a three-day “humanitarian pause” this weekend to flee the besieged Old City of Homs in western Syria.

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About the Author


Emile Nakhleh is an expert on Middle Eastern society and politics and on political Islam. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a Research Professor at the University of New Mexico. He previously served in the Central Intelligence Agency from 1993-2006, first as scholar in residence and chief of the Regional Analysis Unit in the Office of Near Eastern and South Asian Analysis and subsequently as director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program. Until 1993 Nakhleh taught at Mount St. Mary's University, where he was the John L. Morrison Professor of International Studies. Nakhleh's publications include, among others, A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America's Relations with the Muslim World (2009), Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing Society (1976 and 2011), and The Gulf Cooperation Council: Policies, Problems, and Prospects (1986). Nakhleh holds a PhD from American University, an MA from Georgetown University, and a BA from Saint John's University, Minnesota.

8 Responses to Stop the Butcher of Damascus

  1. avatar John Dowdle says:

    Bob: there are times in this life when you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
    Syria is just one of those situations. External intervention will almost certainly make it worse. Indeed, it could be argued that it already has, just as it did in the case of Afghanistan.
    Let us not forget that Syria was one of the so-called coalition of the willing when it came to invading Iraq in order to topple Saddam Hussein. Look at the mess that has left behind. 30 plus people today alone murdered by car bombs in Iraq.
    Toppling Assad will also almost certainly make a really bad situation infinitely worse.
    Why should anyone outside of Syrian society be involved in this situation?
    Why does the USA seem to believe it has any responsibility for what is happening there?
    Is this another example of Israel and AIPAC pulling the strings from behind the scene?
    Why are you and other Americans so determined to be the monkey for Netanyahu’s organ grinding?

  2. avatar Bob says:

    The author is not known as a warmonger as the comments above claim. Indeed he has been considered a dove so the fact that he comes out in favor of military support is significant. And he spent years on the political Islam brief and is a native Arabic speaker from a Christian Palestinian family. Suffice it to say he knows a little more about “jihad” and its context here than most. The U.S. doing nothing does not mean others will stand down. It just means we will have no influence at all as a conflict that is growing in its impact across the region continues to spread. True enough that wise nations avoid repeating mistakes but equally true they should not overreact and swing too far in the opposite direction. This festering boil will affect America eventually even if we do nothing. By then the impact will be worse.

  3. avatar Norman says:

    Here we go again, with the C.I.A. & Saudis going to supply the Jihadis in Syria with advanced weapons. Seems the warmongers have won this round. I wonder if the Israelis were consulted prior to this decision? If not, oh well.

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