- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By "A Syrian-American"
Best Defense guest column
The Bashar al-Assad regime now faces itself with the dilemma of quelling a quickly proliferating armed insurgency that has fused with a popular uprising. Cities like Homs, Zabadani, Rastan, and Idlib have become modern day ghettos, sealed off by special task forces of elite units and paramilitary squads specifically recruited to cleanse neighborhoods and towns of those who dare to resist the Baathist diktat.
By many definitions, Syria has become ensnared in a full-fledged civil war. But beyond the narrative of internal strife, when one takes a careful look at a map of where the uprisings are taking place and the towns that have effectively ceased to recognize the government, a competing narrative emerges not of internecine conflict but one of national unity — a whole country that has been brought together in opposition to the Assad family’s self-declared right to rule.
The people in this archipelago of resistance cling to a hope — perhaps foolishly — that their cause will win the day. Like any illegitimate occupational force, the Assad loyalist army can only control the ground occupied by its Soviet-era tanks. Take out the saturation of paramilitary, heavy artillery, and special forces units in the cities, and the popular rebellion will reach critical mass.
For Syrians attempting to survive, there is no illusion of life under the Assad tyranny. The executions of captured defectors, and the past executions of leading non-violent activist heroes like Ghaith Mattar speak to the reality that there can be no reconciliation with the mass murderers of the Baath Party.
The delusions of dialogue and a negotiated settlement with the Assad apparatus have long faded. One cannot negotiate, let alone reason, with a government that makes mass killings its domestic policy. In every way, the ideology and the solution being employed by Bashar al-Assad and his confidants are neo-fascist in function and form.
Reaching the tipping point to this conflict will require a determined shove by the international community. There are broader regional interests in play, and a rebel victory can prove to be a damning blow to Iranian hegemonic aspirations that have claimed the lives of freedom-seeking Syrians in addition to the Americans who have fallen victim to Iranian-supplied weaponry throughout the region. The rebels now claim that they are fighting the same Hizballah and Iranian revolutionary guard forces in Syria that have wrought so much havoc across the world for the West.
Hundreds of civilians have needlessly died since U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay’s presciently warned the U.N. General Assembly that the ongoing assault and shelling by Bashar al-Assad’s forces against the city of Homs presented a "harbinger of worse to come." Among the dead are journalists who perished attempting to show the world just how real, and how tragically correct, Pillay had been — and just how wrong the assembly of global leadership have proved in their stupor.
To further punctuate the consequences of paralysis, Pillay rightly cautioned the General Assembly that the failure of the U.N. to enact "collective action" was actually "emboldening" the Assad regime to escalate the violence against his own people. Since the U.N. human rights report presented by Pillay was published, the regime, sadly, has launched a second concerted campaign to retake rebel-held territory in the north while simultaneously pouring hundreds of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles into the strategic mountain town of Zabadani on the Lebanese border.
By the time you read these words, more cities will have come under siege. Hoping that the world will see them, the residents of the town of Ar Rastan, an essentially liberated town, have written in large rock formations the words "S.O.S," hoping that they would be seen from the sky. Their eyes turn upwards not just in the hope of salvation from the nightmare that many are now living, but in the desire for a lifeline that provides support beyond tired platitudes.
The U.S. State Department even published satellite imagery of the formations of artillery batteries and tanks that are pummeling cities en masse. Perhaps it was done to shame the regime and its allies. The real shame is now borne by those who watched those armor columns and the screaming 120 mm shells slam into the homes of the innocent — and did nothing.
The imperative for bold American action has never been stronger. While the Qataris and the Saudis have openly called for the funding and material aid of the rebels, the Turks have made it clear that they are not willing to go all in without some degree of U.S. backing. As uncomfortable as it may be, an end-game in Syria will require a level of U.S. involvement, whether be it direct or through an indirect approach.
Moral clarity can be best guided by this realization: this regime has concluded that in order to control the ghettos that have risen against it, they must be razed. The late Hafez al-Assad did this to one city in the past, Hama, that rebelled against his authority in 1982. Today, the younger Assad faces many more situations, and is displaying an equal determination to destroy them all.
And so the world now has a front-row seat to the play-by-play gradual demolition of homes, neighborhoods, and of whole families — their liberation cut short by a vengeful, cruel, and cynical regime. The aftermath, as it were, is already visible for all to see in horrid detail. Yet western leaders continue to balk at taking a bold position, fearing that supporting the rebels in any form could somehow enable religious extremists and Al Qaeda.
Secretary Clinton was wrong when she suggested that supporting rebel forces could benefit al Qaeda. Yes, it is true that al Qaeda’s leader Ayman Zawhiri declared his solidarity with the rebels and called on jihadis to support their cause. But in his distant Waziristan cave, the disconnected Zawhiri is a feckless general commanding phantom legions. There is no room for an Islamic Emirate in Syria. Liberation is not a slippery slope to rule by the clerics. The fighters are not looking to replace a mustached dictator with a bearded one. The Muslim Brotherhood is widely viewed in suspicion by the revolutionary councils and rebel fighters alike. It makes little sense to cede the ground to the jihadis in Syria when their program carries little credibility among the rebels and the majority Sunni Arab populace. It will be municipal elections and the desire to reawaken a civic involvement that is truly invested in their country’s future that will occupy the daily concerns of Free Syrians — not the resurrection of the caliphate.
The end of the Assad regime will not immediately usher in a grand new era of democracy and functioning governance, but the sooner the first steps are taken towards this transition, the more any negative fallout can be mitigated and safely contained. This will be good for Syria, the region, and more broadly Western interests.
To achieve their vision for victory, from Homs to Deraa, the revolutionary councils that guide the day-to-day insurrectionist activity and the rebel networks they support are looking to the U.S., EU, and the Gulf countries for aid. There is growing disillusionment of the timid international response and of the apparent lack of willingness by the West to support the revolution. According to rebel reports, even those Syrians who volunteered to fight U.S. forces in Iraq have expressed their support for receiving American aid to fight the regime.
Some Western commentators have opined that opposition groups on the ground are disorganized and incapable of overthrowing the regime. They are wrong. The capability to take on Assad forces exists and the possibility of a rebel victory is real, but this outcome becomes more realistic in the near future if enabled and supported with material aid.
The rebels have proven their bona fides; regime security forces even with overwhelming firepower took weeks before they could enter the Baba Amr neighborhood in Homs — and that’s just one neighborhood. As any rebel force does, the one in Syria fights and retreats and fights again as it gathers additional strength from its popular support. But there are no Benghazis here. Alone they can at best put forth a heroic stand that will lead to a prolonged stalemate. With aid, they can end the violence, and the Assad-sponsored killing fields, by ending the regime.