Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Syria: Will Violence Beget Violence?

by Elliott Abrams
May 3, 2011

In a recent post, I wrote that “The spectacular news of Osama bin Laden’s killing by U.S. forces could not have come at a better time. Al-Qaeda’s message that violence, terrorism, and extremism are the only answer for Arabs seeking dignity and hope is being rejected each day in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and throughout the Arab lands. Al-Qaeda and its view of the world are being pushed aside in favor of demands for new governments, free elections, freedom of speech and assembly, and an end to corruption.”

My friend Lee Smith, a superb analyst of  the Middle East and author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, wrote me to raise a question about those words. He has a great concern, as I do, that the United States is not doing enough to pressure the Assad mafia in Damascus. We have not targeted Assad with sanctions, called for his departure from power, kicked his ambassador in Washington out or withdrawn our own from Damascus, despite the growing violence against the people of Syria.

“My concern,” Lee said, “is that…the Sunnis in Syria are now getting the idea that the only way to bring down Bashar is through violence. In due course, a Zarqawi will come to lead them and he will sow mayhem not just in Syria but throughout the region. This White House is at odds with itself—and inadvertently cooking catastrophe.”

Lee’s email points out two among the many reasons to call for a tougher policy against the Assad regime. First and more generally, if Assad murders hundreds of peaceful Syrian demonstrators and gets away with it, Syria will be teaching every dictator a lesson: “kill as many people as you need to; don’t do what Mubarak and Ben Ali did, just shoot.” If that is what Assad’s survival teaches, it will be a terrible precedent and Arab protesters will pay the price in Syria and elsewhere in the region.

Lee’s second concern is that such regime violence will evoke an equally violent response from the Sunni majority in Syria. As moderates rarely lead such violent movements, it can be expected that extremists will. Thus those who say that we should not pressure Syria because the successor to Assad may be an extremist Sunni regime are in fact offering a self-fulfilling prophecy. Here again I agree with Lee, and believe that in Syria as elsewhere in the region region violence will beget a violent response. That is all the more reason for the United States to support far more strongly the peaceful protests in Syria. And all the more reason why we will all be better off the sooner Assad’s regime collapses.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Mike Doran

    A related thought. The regime and its mouthpieces abroad are now falsely claiming that Asad is battling an armed, Muslim Brotherhood insurgency. In addition, they are taking an “apres moil le deluge” line, which unfortunately seems to be having some impact in Washington. Consequently, if the opposition to Asad does turn truly violent, it will have the unfortunate effect of lending credibility to what should be seen as a completely scurrilous line of analysis.

  • Posted by Commentator001

    Only a fool can assume that the downfall of a brutal dictator will bring peace to a region that is full of Wahabi Sunnis. A secular system like the Baath regime ensures the protection of minorities such as Christians and Shias. With Assad gone, you can expect the same kind of ethnic cleansing of Christians by Muslim extremists, who will use the ensuing chaos as a means to create a Sunni-only land, one where Saudi Arabia can easily set up shop. Is that what the West really wants? A new Saudi Arabia to replace the cradle of Christianity?

  • Posted by Jack Goldstone

    Abrams is correct — allowing Assad to stay in power by force simply perpetuates an unstable situation, which will likely turn out worse the longer it festers. The US and its allies should be using all their soft power to pressure Assad to start Saleh-like negotiations over a transition. Syria’s choice is between a managed transition or a disorderly transition; the status quo has been wholly delegitimized and cannot be maintained indefinitely by the Alawite mafia over the majority. Syria is not Bahrain, where a third of the country is religiously tied to, and fully supportive of, the minority regime, including all of the business and bureaucratic elites, and have huge external Sunni support. The Alawites are less than 10% of Syria’s population, dominate only the army and security force officer corps (not the rank-and-file), do not dominate the business sector and civil service, and have no larger country run by their co-religionists.

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    I agree that every diplomatic means at hand , including kicking that bum Moustapha out of Washington should be empolyed , but will those measures be enough ? The Obama Administration is already questioning the continued funding of the opposition’s P.R. efforts for fear of offending Assad’s regime . Actively and openly organizing international condemnation of Assad seems beyond the administration’s capabilities and , in fact , exposes a distinct lack of moral and political courage .

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