A year into the Syrian uprising against Bashar Al-Assad, the dysfunctional nature of Syrian opposition politics isn’t exactly news. But the resignation last month of Syrian dissident Kamal Labwani from the Syrian National Council (SNC)—which he accused not only of being “undemocratic” and incompetent, but intent on undermining the secular basis of the revolution—is an especially troubling indictment of the opposition’s hapless government in exile. The Obama administration should heed Labwani’s testimony, and reassess its diplomacy accordingly.
In March 2009, the Arab League welcomed Sudanese President Omar Bashir at its summit in Qatar. Just weeks earlier, Bashir had been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC)—and a warrant issued for his arrest—for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the murder of nearly 500,000 civilians in Darfur. No matter. The Arab League rejected ICC jurisdiction as an illegal violation of Sudanese sovereignty. But now, in the months since the Arab Spring began, the Arab League seems to have undergone a transformation.
Since this summer, the United States has generally played a constructive role in support of the Syrian opposition. In contrast to Russia and China—whose flags are now routinely torched by Syrians after the two countries vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Assad regime for atrocities—Washington is popular with Syria’s anti-regime opposition.
On Thursday, President Obama issued a long overdue statement calling for regime change in Syria, declaring that the “time has come for President Bashar Assad to step aside.” But will that call to action amount to anything in practice? The gestures that Obama has made, including ending the U.S. import of Syrian petroleum products—totaling some 6,000 barrels per day—are little more than symbolic changes of policy.
On Tuesday, as Syrian shells rained down on the besieged city of Hama, the White House took the opportunity to press for senate confirmation of its ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford. At his hearing, the ambassador described the regime of Bashar Al Assad as either “unable or unwilling to lead democratic transition, but either way it doesn’t matter: it’s not in our or [the] Syrian peoples’ interest.” After months of hedging and obfuscations from the Obama administration about the United States’ stance towards the Syrian regime, Ford’s words were a breath of fresh air.
Back in 2006, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah was riding high. Having fought the Israeli army to a standstill, the organization’s leader Hassan Nasrallah declared “divine victory.” The war was a public relations coup for the militia, which emerged from the campaign as the most favorable personification of Shiism in the largely Sunni Muslim world. So impressive was the alleged victory that the campaign sparked a widely reported trend of conversion to Shiite Islam in the region.
During the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Syria’s Assad regime was helping insurgents to cross the border and kill Americans. In response to the Syrian provocation, the Bush administration considered a broad range of policy options. But one family of options always remained off the table: regime change or any combination of pressures that might destabilize Damascus. The prevailing interagency concern was that Syria without Assad could prove even more militant than under his terrorist-supporting regime. At the Department of Defense—where I worked—we held a dissenting view.
Since the 1980s, the Shia terrorist group Hezbollah has not been given to blunt public moralizing about the need for women to wear the veil. It originally made no secret of its desire to convert Lebanon into a Shia Islamic state—the organization’s 1985 manifesto called for the establishment of “Islamic government” and the conversion of Christians to Islam—but these efforts proved exceedingly unpopular, given Lebanon’s plurality of Christian and Sunni Muslim citizens.