Maybe the murder of an American journalist in Syria last week will focus the American president’s mind. Marie Colvin was killed, along with a French photojournalist, when troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad shelled the opposition’s makeshift press center in Homs. This city on the western plain, Syria’s third largest, has been the conflict’s center of gravity for almost a month now. It is where the regime means to end the nearly yearlong uprising once and for all. The siege of Homs, in Colvin’s last published words, is “merciless”—“the scale of it is just shocking.”
The death of a 56-year-old reporter who took dangerous assignments around the world might seem a small thing when more than 7,000 Syrians have been killed by their own government simply for living there. But the Damascus regime targets reporters for a reason: It is vulnerable, and its war on its own people is indefensible. To survive, Damascus needs the world to ignore what it is up to. It particularly needs indifference in Washington, where the Obama administration has seemed sadly oblivious to the fact that what a regime does at home is indicative of how it will act abroad—or, in the case of Syria, a state sponsor of terror and ally of Iran, how it has acted over the last 40 years, targeting especially American citizens, interests, and allies.
For all that, the administration just wants the Syria issue, the uprising, the opposition, to go away. It would prefer not to deal with it and thus has come up with all sorts of excuses to do just that.
It was five months, and many thousand dead, into the uprising before Obama called on Assad to step down. Instead of leading, the president tasked Syria policy out to Turkey, then to the Arab League, which sent a monitoring delegation led by a former Sudanese intelligence chief suspected of war crimes in Darfur.
Next, the administration found itself blocked at the U.N. Security Council by Russia with a veto that may have surprised U.S. ambassador Susan Rice but cannot have come as much of a shock to most observers: Moscow has made it clear that it wants to see the Assad regime survive. To Putin, Syria represents not merely a customer for Russian arms, but—much more important—a foothold in the eastern Mediterranean. He sees a Syrian port for the Russian Navy as a core interest, not to mention recently discovered energy resources in the Levant basin that he would like to control, so as to make Europe even more dependent on Russia’s natural gas industry.
Obama administration officials seem to think that Moscow’s obstinacy is simply a way for Putin to score anti-American points. This problem, thinks the White House, will go away once he has won the presidential election. Perhaps that self-deception is why the administration seems ready to give room to a Russian diplomatic initiative, neatly packaged as a humanitarian effort, promoting dialogue between the regime and opposition elements. But Moscow’s aim is transparent: to split the Syrian opposition, delegitimize those outside the dialogue—most significantly, the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council—as criminals, and ensure Assad stays in place. Unfortunately, the White House has painted itself into a corner. Because the administration has never really wanted to see Assad fall, it has talked only of stopping the violence, language that Moscow has co-opted, with the unstated provision that once the murders stop, the murderer still rules.
Despite bipartisan Senate resolutions to provide material and technical support to the opposition, and more specific calls from Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham to help arm the Free Syrian Army, the administration balks, incapable of recognizing the Free Syrian Army as an instrument useful not only against Assad but also his allies in Tehran. What’s odd is that the White House has let on, through various media surrogates, that it may come to accept the inevitability of the Iranian nuclear program and move toward a policy of containment and deterrence. But if Washington thinks it can contain and deter the Islamic Republic just as it did the Soviet Union, then why will it not use proven Cold War tactics to do so—for instance, backing proxy forces to hammer away at the allies of our adversary? In its dithering on Syria, the administration shows a lack of seriousness in dealing with Iran.
The next excuse is that Assad’s opponents are unsavory. U.S. officials, most recently Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, now claim that al Qaeda is part of the Syrian opposition. They say they have no evidence yet, but that certain attacks bear the hallmark of al Qaeda operations in Iraq and elsewhere. This is a deeply cynical argument. As American civilian and military officials should be well aware, Sunni fighters have been active in Syria for quite some time, long before Ayman al-Zawahiri called for al Qaeda to join the fight against Assad last month. It is the Assad regime itself that nurtured these organizations and found various uses for them at home, in Lebanon, and in Iraq.
Under Assad the Damascus airport was a jihadist transport hub from which foreign fighters were either bused directly to the Iraqi border to fight U.S. troops, or warehoused in Syrian prisons until they could be put to some use. Washington knew very well that Syrian intelligence was working with al Qaeda because it had evidence of it in the Sinjar documents, showing that 90 percent of the foreign fighters in Iraq were coming through Syria. When a series of suicide bombings killed hundreds of Iraqis in the fall of 2009, the Obama administration hushed Iraqi officials who pointed a finger at Damascus. In other words, al Qaeda’s position in Syria was a problem U.S. officials were content to ignore when, with the help of Assad’s intelligence agents, the organization was killing American troops and Iraqis. But now the fact that al Qaeda elements, which may still be under the control of Syrian intelligence, are targeting regime installations, is a reason not to support the opposition.
The al Qaeda story, like the administration’s misreading of Russian intentions, petty complaints about a fractured opposition, and refusal to buttress the Free Syrian Army, allows the White House to act as a hapless spectator of a vicious civil war. It is a civil war, but it’s more than that: The regime in Damascus that has so much Syrian blood on its hands also, along with its allies in Iran and Hezbollah, has killed many thousands of Americans. In Lebanon, U.S. Marines, diplomats, and intelligence officials were slaughtered by Iranian and Syrian assets; in Iraq, the Syrians and Iranians backed both Sunni and Shia fighters in their war against American troops, leaving almost 5,000 dead and many more thousands wounded. Marie Colvin is just the most recent American casualty of the Assad family’s unchecked aggression. The administration has not only an interest but an obligation to fight back against the Iranian-Syrian assault on America—first, by bringing an end to the regime in Damascus.