Argument

Step Up in Syria, Mr. President

Step Up in Syria, Mr. President

As the United States contemplates whether to intervene in Syria, one cannot but look back and wonder how a brutal despot managed to turn a peaceful revolution into one of the ugliest civil wars of this generation.

We all know how it started. The people of the southern city of Daraa spontaneously took to the streets in March 2011, asking for retribution after their children were tortured by the regime’s internal security forces. And for over six months, as demonstrations spread across the country, Syrians kept peacefully protesting for justice and systemic reforms. The regime’s excessive use of force reflected its brutal nature, but Syrians were equally stubborn in seeking a life of freedom, justice, and dignity.

This did not begin as a violent uprising. As Syrians faced bullets with their bare chests in those early days, the demonstrators kept chanting "peaceful, peaceful" and "the Syrian people are one." But the atrocities of the regime and its supporting gangs, the shabiha, eventually forced the Syrian people to take up arms.

The United States now faces a critical decision about whether it will make Bashar al-Assad’s regime pay for its latest atrocity — the use of chemical weapons on a Damascus suburb, which killed hundreds of innocent people. If the United States and the international community fail to deal with the ongoing war — and in particular the latest chemical attack — it will send a disastrous message to tyrants across the globe that the world will stand idly by while they slaughter their citizens.

The West should do more than deal with this single attack: It needs to lead a new process to protect Syria and the broader Arab world from fragmentation. It can do so by supporting the forces of moderation, harnessing the spirit of those Syrian protesters who took to the streets early in the revolution calling for peaceful change. The current strategy has led to results directly opposed to Western interests: It has kept the Syrian regime alive and capable of wreaking havoc across the region, radicalized the opposition, and allowed larger Iranian involvement in the Middle East. It is time to change course.

There has already been international intervention in Syria — on the side of the regime. In stark contrast to the many countries that expressed moral sympathy with the Syrian people, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah have not hesitated to bolster Assad’s killing machine. They have provided financial aid, heavy weapons, and military personnel to better assist Assad in killing his own people.

Even as Assad used long-range rockets and modern fighter jets to demolish whole neighborhoods, he cynically portrayed his brutal campaign as a battle against Islamic extremists. He invited the world to choose him as the lesser of two evils, with some success. With the help of Iran and Hezbollah, he continued to deliberately transform a revolution that seeks liberation from a brutal regime into a sectarian conflict — provoking dangerous spillover violence in a region already wracked by religious tensions, especially with the Palestinian issue still unresolved.

At the beginning of the revolution, top figures of the Syrian regime clearly threatened to burn the country to the ground in order to stay in power. More than two years later, it is clear they have made good on their promise: Over 100,000 lives have been lost, over 200,000 people have been injured and many more are imprisoned, and almost a third of the Syrian population is displaced either inside or outside the country. The number of Syrians who have sought shelter in Lebanon now constitutes a quarter of the Lebanese population. And even as Assad fulfills his promise, with the help of Iran and Hezbollah, the world simply watches.

It is inconceivable that Assad would accept the kind of political transition envisioned in the Geneva process, given this state of affairs. In fact, if the current situation is allowed to continue, there is every reason to believe that the tragedy in Syria will continue unabated.

The world — and the West in particular — has a great moral obligation to stop Assad’s hateful campaign. In the 21st century, no government should be allowed to use such horrible weapons against its own citizens. The recent, horrific chemical weapons attack is the direct result of the impunity that the Syrian regime is enjoying. Assad has proved that he is willing to slaughter Syrians by the thousands and destroy millennia-old cities to maintain his grip on power. He is a danger to the Syrian people — and to the entire globe.

Beyond the humanitarian case, the United States has a strategic interest in ending the conflict in Syria. The continuation of the war is breeding terrorism and leading to the expansion of Iranian hegemony in the region. These results are contrary to U.S. strategic interests, and the idea that a continuation of the war is somehow in the interests of Washington is absurd. The continuation of the war and this humanitarian tragedy is but an invitation for problems to fester and spread — not just in Syria, but in the Middle East and beyond.