But any U.S. response may be hamstrung by President Obama’s insistence on multilateralism in Libya. Getting the Arab League and U.N. Security Council’s approval on military action against al-Assad will be a no-go, says Joshua Muravchik. Plus, what's happening in Syria? Six key questions.
The revolution sweeping the Arab world is about to become even more dramatic as it engulfs Syria. And the stakes for the United States will get higher given Syria’s sensitive relationships with Israel, Lebanon, and Iran. Yet President Obama’s obsession with multilateralism in his handling of Libya may make it harder for the U.S. to respond effectively.
Photos: Protests in Syria Turn Violent
According to reputable Syrian dissident sources and scattered news accounts, sizable protests spread Friday to at least a dozen Syrian cities, from Tartus in the west to Abu Kamal in the east, from Al Qamishli in the north to Daraa in the south. Daraa has been roiling all week, and the killing of several dozen demonstrators has failed to quell them. On Friday, rebels there set alight a statue of Hafez al-Assad, the former ruler who bequeathed his office to his son, Bashar, while some 20 of their comrades were martyred in the neighboring town of Sanamein.
Syria is a powder keg because the regime is more repressive than any of the others that have faced upheaval, except for Muammar Gaddafi’s, and it will not go peacefully. The Assad dynasty is based on the country’s Alawite sect, which comprises only an estimated 13 percent of the population and fears terrible retribution from the Sunni majority if it falls from power. The regime’s record of ruthlessness exceeds even Gaddafi’s, including mass execution of helpless prison inmates and suppression of a 1982 uprising in Hamah by leveling most of the city and killing 20,000 citizens, mostly noncombatants. In short, we might be about to witness violence far worse than anything seen since the regional rebellions began in Tunisia in December.
International politics and international law are highly dependent on precedent. Unthinkingly, Obama’s Libya response has raised the bar for taking action elsewhere.
What the U.S. might want to do in response is impossible to predict, but Obama’s handling of Libya may severely constrain our options. Seemingly obsessed with negating his predecessor’s unilateralism, Obama has made our humanitarian intervention in Libya the all-time model of multilateralism. First, we waited for the Arab League to invite us to take action. Then we got the U.N. Security Council to authorize that action. And then we insisted that the air war of still-murky goals and parameters be undertaken and commanded by NATO, not by ourselves.
This is a triumph of diplomacy. And a trap.
We succeeded in mustering a wall-to-wall consensus on Libya because Gaddafi is one of the most isolated rulers in the world. Eccentric and mercurial, he has been all over the map politically, and wherever he has stood at any moment, he has never hesitated to quarrel with those closest to him. He has no allies and no admirers.
Although Bashar lacks his father’s deft touch, the Syrian regime has always played diplomatic poker assiduously. It has allies, clients, and political trading partners. It is also the patron of Hamas, Hezbollah, and a handful of lesser terror groups that all the other Arab governments know can be used against them. Remember what happened to the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, blown to smithereens as his motorcade passed the Beirut cornice shortly after he defied Bashar Assad? You can be sure the other Arab rulers do, too.
For this reason alone, but also for many others, the possibility that the Arab League would invite foreign action against the Assad regime is zero. Scarcely higher is the chance that Russia—which has partially restored its Soviet-era patronage of the Syrian military—would refrain from vetoing any meaningful Security Council measure. We would even have a hard time garnering the unanimity required for NATO action in Syria, given Turkey’s now rather warm relations with its neighbor and its aspirations for influence among the Arabs.
Of course, it is scary to think of intervening in Syria, but it is foolish to foreclose options. International politics and international law are highly dependent on precedent. Unthinkingly, Obama’s Libya response has raised the bar for taking action elsewhere.
His actions, indeed, may ensnare us in a thicket in Libya. Our purpose is “humanitarian,” to protect civilians. But civilians can be killed by planes or guns or machetes, as they were in the Rwanda genocide. The only way to protect Benghazis and others who have risen against Gaddafi from vengeance is to drive him from power. If clarification of that mission is called for, do we need to go back to the Security Council and the Arab League? Good luck.
Obama may have had a point in his criticism of unilateralism, but we may rue the day that he took us to an opposite extreme.
Joshua Muravchik, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is the author of The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East.