While American and European officials have focused on the uprising and war in Libya, another popular struggle against a decades-old dictatorship in Syria has raged its way onto the headlines. We should not let our attention waver, because events in Damascus have far more important consequences: What happens in Syria will have a profound impact on Iran, Israel, Lebanon, and beyond.
Syrian protesters, whose bravery is almost beyond comprehension, have decided to risk it all to demand an end to the 40-year dictatorship of the Assad family. President Bashar al-Assad and his security machine have responded to their peaceful demands by massacring Syrians by the hundreds. He follows in the footsteps of his late father, Hafez, who once put down a revolt by murdering 10,000 of his own people in the town of Hama.
Bashar was supposed to be a reformer. But he’s become just another dictator who slaughters his people to stay in power.
What ultimately unfolds in Damascus has the potential to affect more than the Syrian people. The outcome could radically alter the landscape of the Middle East, with reverberations reaching beyond the region. Syria lies at the physical and political crossroads of many of the disputes that make the Middle East a tinderbox. It borders Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan. The Assad regime stands as the most crucial ally of Iran, helping the Islamic Republic nurture some of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the region. Syria is the funnel through which Iran spreads its influence. Without Assad, Iran would become much weaker, and so would the most anti-American, anti-Western and anti-Israel organizations in the Middle East.
It is rather surprising, then, that Washington, Europe and Israel have seemed ambivalent about Assad’s future. President Obama waited too long before at last demanding Assad stop his “outrageous use of violence.” He rightly pointed to the regime’s cynicism and hypocrisy, charging Syria with “blaming outsiders while seeking Iran’s assistance in repressing Syria’s citizens through the same brutal tactics that have been used by his Iranian allies.”
The United States has not called for Assad to step down, and some Israelis apparently worry that chaos might ensue if Assad fell. After all, the Syrian-Israeli border has been mostly quiet for many years.
Still, it is hard to imagine that the fall of the Syrian regime would be anything but good news for Israel, the U.S. and, indeed, for peace in the Middle East.
Syria remains on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Damascus is home to some of the world’s top terrorists, warmly hosted by the government.
The state security apparatus has brutalized and intimidated Syrian and Lebanese citizens.
It has helped the Iran-allied Shiite militia essentially take control of Lebanon, and it has allowed Iranian support, including thousands of deadly rockets, to reach Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Israel may not have fought a war with Syria in many years, but it has had terrible wars with Damascus’ proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah.
An end to the Assad regime, like the collapse of the Mubarak government in Egypt, would bring uncertainty. But Syria doesn’t have a strong militant Islamist movement. And, as others have noted, the same reason Syria had for not fighting Israel — fear of Israel’s military might — would likely prevent Assad’s successor from starting a new war.
Now, after Assad’s show of brutality, it’s hard to imagine how Israel could sign a peace deal with Syria under his rule, should he survive. Unless he enacts drastic reforms, including real elections in which he could lose power, the regime will emerge from this uprising, if it emerges, tainted, discredited and with less credibility.
Syria remains a dangerous country. The U.N. nuclear agency confirmed on Thursday that the target Israel bombed in 2007 was indeed a nuclear reactor. Syria denied it. Now U.N. experts confirm, unequivocally, that Syria was secretly building a nuclear facility.
The fall of Assad’s regime would bring uncertainty, no doubt. What we do know is that the end of his regime would bring down one murderous dictator. That alone would be cause to celebrate.
In the end, the success of Syria’s brave pro-democracy demonstrators could help reshape the entire region into a place with more peace, democracy, and respect for human rights. Syria’s protesters deserve unwavering attention at the highest levels, even while other wars continue to rage.