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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The Syrian Civil War

by Elliott Abrams
December 11, 2011

The revolt against the Assad regime is becoming a civil war. The London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq Alawsat reports this:

Defections from the Syrian army and other security forces is on the rise, leading to an increase in the frequency of armed clashes between Syrian security forces and defectors in a number of Syrian provinces, particularly the Idlib Governorate, which borders Turkey. Observers monitoring the course of events in Syria have been surprised by the recent defection of a large number of elements from the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Directorate. This represents a sudden and surprising shift in the mindset of this security apparatus, which was previously considered one of the most loyal to the Syrian regime.

A Jerusalem Post story says this:

Hundreds of army defectors in southern Syria fought loyalist forces backed by tanks on Sunday in one of the biggest armed confrontations in a nine-month uprising against President Bashar Assad.

These revolts within the military will grow. For one thing, three-quarters of the Syrian population is Sunni and Syria has a conscript army broadly representative of the population. It is logical to expect more Sunnis in the security forces to turn against the Assad clique. For another, more and more people in the security forces are likely to conclude that Assad is playing a losing hand, and will seek to get out of the line of fire or jump to the side that may win.

This is a growing disaster for Syria, for it means more violence, more sectarian divisions, and more economic damage. Putting the pieces back together after Assad is gone becomes that much more difficult. That’s why the sooner he goes, the better—and every effort should be made to bring that day closer.

Does that include backing the opposition forces, such as the “Free Syrian Army?” The relationship between the military opposition and the Syrian National Council (the civilian, political opposition leadership) is apparently a difficult one, and that is no surprise: we have seen the same thing in Libya. As the fighting goes on those problems will only grow: in the end, forces that feel they won the war against Assad will want a share in power even if they are not entitled to it through democratic procedures. But it is nevertheless the case that we should be broadly supportive of the struggle against Assad, including the military struggle, for after all it was he not the opposition who chose to militarize the confrontation. It was he, not they, who started shooting.

How we do that should be a prudential judgment. Perhaps the Turks are already doing what is needed by giving the Free Syrian Army a safe haven; perhaps the Saudis, or Qataris, or other Arabs are helping them (as the Qataris helped the opposition in Libya with training, guns, and money). Perhaps they are not and we ought to be encouraging them to do so, as well as encouraging friends in Europe (the French, in particular) to get into this. Or we could get in directly, through covert support. There is certainly no moral argument against doing so, for we want this struggle over and Assad out as soon as possible, and want influence with those who will inherit power in Syria. Moreover, given the vast efforts made by the Assad regime to help jihadis kill Americans in Iraq, we should have no hesitation to help bring him down. How best to do so is, again, a prudential judgment requiring more information than I have.

But the civil war in Syria is growing. It is useless for American officials to decry it and urge the Syrian opposition to eschew the use of force. Let’s adopt a new policy goal: winning, as fast as possible.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Zohir Uddin

    Mr. Abrams,

    Again, another great insight into the changing dynamics of the Middle East. Strongly agree with your idea of moral imperative of getting invovled. The tyranny of lineage and dynastic rule must be removed from the Muslim world, and only then will a pure and compassionate voice of the Middle East be heard.
    However, and involvement must be for the benefit of the people and civilian population, not for commercial or national interests. Great piece, look forward to reading more. Thanks.


  • Posted by Jeff

    It is Dec 11th, and speaking of civil wars, today is the 30 year anniversary of the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, around which you played a prominent role as a media spokesman, Mr. Abrams. I believe you are a principled conservative – I wonder if you have honestly matched those principles against the accumulated evidence of what happened in El Mozote, and whether you have any thoughts or reflections on the role you’ve played. A list of the victims is here – reflecting on the number of children listed seems like a particularly worthwhile activity on this anniversary.

  • Posted by neville craig

    In your penultimate paragraph you rightly use the term the ‘Assad regime’.
    May I suggest that you adopt this rather than ‘Assad’? It is this long-established leadership group that is the problem, and there is ittle Dr. Bashar can do about it.

    This brings on the Muslim Brotherhood and their takeover of the whole region. Jordan next? Unfortunate for Jews and Christians.

  • Posted by Syrian Spirit

    Your attempts to cover the acts and crimes of the armed gangs in Syria are pathetic. You want to hide the truth of the highly trained armed gangs backed by the West, Qatar and Turkey by calling them defections. One day the truth will come back and seek revenge on all those who have tried to hide it.

  • Posted by Eddie

    It is pretty sad to see supporters of the Assad clan jumping to defend his atrocities with total disregard to the people’s suffering and his undeniable illegitimacy. Bashar Assad was never elected, neither was his father. The latter took over the country by military coup and ruled the country with iron fist, killing as many as 20,000 resident of the city of Hama. The biggest massacre in Syria’s history.

  • Posted by kodimirpal

    We Should Never Support American Based NATO Intervention
    Should the Muslim Ummah oppose and condemn foreign intervention in Syria or any Arab land? . Is it necessary to assume that all those calling for it in Syria under the current conditions are part of a Western conspiracy?.

    Let us imagine a scenario that destroyed millions in Iraq and destroyed an ancient civilization by the brutal policies of the United States

    The United States’ has a false self-image supporting democracy: if it can engage in promoting democracy, that’s all the better. If not, promoting dictatorship to serve its interests This is because the objective was never to create democratic regimes, but compliant ones.

    Does the Ummah want to proceed from the best interests of, say, the United States’ or Israel’s foreign policy establishments and their proponents?
    Downfall of authoritarianism is rational and just. ( no second thoughts on this)But we must be necessarily very suspicious when it is the likes of Cheney and Elliot Abrams behind the call for democracy.

    But for the United States, Israel, some European countries, Saudi Arabia and its minions in Lebanon and the Gulf, it is the Syria-Hezbollah-Iran axis that constitutes the most formidable challenge.

    An Iran-strike would also confront Turkey with a dilemma. Turkey would have to balance conflicting desires in the Middle East.

    Supporting the demise of the Syrian regime by any means, including external military intervention, is extremely reckless if the objective is to save Syrian lives or set the stage for a post-regime path of self-determination.

    Moreover, the external factor will reignite another local and regional struggle rather than simply end domestic authoritarian rule and pave the way for democratic development.

    One can be moved by the urgency of saving Syrian lives today, but if this is the ultimate purpose, and if Syrians’ self-determination is the desired outcome, one can easily see the perils of military intervention.

    As for the question of no-fly-zones that is considered the ask by many, as opposed to full scale military intervention, it has become safe to say that a no-fly zone is a code of sorts for more active military intervention in practice, as the case of Libya makes clear.

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