As we go to press, Bashar al-Assad seems to be losing Damascus, as he has lost much of the rest of the country. Reports last week suggested the Syrian president might already be in Latakia, the de facto capital of the Alawite heartland on the Mediterranean coast. But even if he has not already decamped, he will likely find his way there before long. The Assad regime is fighting with its back to the wall. It is a critical moment for Syria. And it is a critical moment for the Obama administration. Having watched the bloodshed in Syria from the sidelines for the last 16 months, it can still act to bring down the Assad regime before it kills thousands more.
So far, the White House’s response has been timid. Last week it leveled more sanctions against regime officials, and backed yet another U.N. Security Council resolution against Assad. For the third time, the Russians and Chinese vetoed it. And yet again Obama’s U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, evinced shock that Moscow and Beijing would stay with Assad “to the bitter end.”
That end may be nigh. And if it is, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 may have been a turning point for Bashar al-Assad’s rule. By facilitating the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, Bashar hoped to show Syrians what lay in store for them should they embrace the Americans’ freedom agenda—not democracy but civil war. Instead, what Assad’s policy illuminated for Sunni Arabs was the sectarian nature of the region. No matter how much the Assad regime waved the banner of Arab nationalism and cursed Israel, the Sunnis’ most pressing hostility was with the minority clique that they decided, on reflection, had no right to rule them. By the time Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans had moved to topple their regimes in the spring of 2011, the Iraq war had already primed Syria’s Sunni population for a much bloodier conflict than any of the other Arab Spring countries experienced.
Throughout the uprising, the Obama administration has argued that the rebels were no match for the Syrian Army, with its overwhelming firepower and its hundreds of thousands of men under arms. However, this assessment entirely ignored the demographic equation: Sunni Arabs outnumber Alawites by about 5 to 1.
Today, Assad’s forces are stretched impossibly thin. Months ago came the first evidence, as regime troops found that whenever they quelled the uprising in one town, another town rose up. Assad didn’t have enough loyal hands to put the rebellion down everywhere once and for all. The presence of Iranian and Hezbollah troops was further proof that Assad was shorthanded. And now rebel forces are fighting for control of the borders with Turkey and Iraq, while the regime has moved troops from the Golan Heights border to defend Damascus. The mighty Syrian Army is nothing but a sectarian militia defending a shrinking territory.
As Tony Badran, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has documented, the regime seems to be waging a campaign of sectarian cleansing in order to carve out a rump state along the Mediterranean coast, reflecting the geographical contours of the traditional Alawite heartland, with its capital in Latakia. The regime has lost the hinterland and may be on the verge of losing Damascus, but it is still counting on survival. If Assad can’t have all of Syria, then he and his Russian and Iranian backers will console themselves with an Alawite state on the Mediterranean. The Obama administration should ensure that this doesn’t come to pass.
Under the Assad regime, after all, Syria has been a state sponsor of terror, one that has directed its energies against the United States and American allies. The regime’s survival even in reduced form would serve Iranian interests as well, since Assad is a key link in the chain connecting Tehran to its terrorist asset in Lebanon, Hezbollah.
Almost everything that has unfolded in Syria over the last 16 months was predictable. The White House has failed repeatedly to take advantage of the Syrian dictator’s travails. Now with Assad fighting for his life, it’s time for the administration finally to show a killer instinct. If the regime takes flight from Damascus, it should never be allowed to reach safe haven in Latakia.