Israel is understandably ambivalent about the tsunami of change washing across the Middle East. Old adversaries suddenly look like forces for stability; anti-authoritarian change, long advocated by Israeli leaders as a precondition for real peace, is turning out to be scary.
That dynamic is particular evident in the case of Bashar Assad, the Syrian dictator who is busy gunning down his own citizens as they demand a semblance of freedom.
Israeli leaders long regarded Assad and his late father with deep distrust because of Syria’s active support for anti-Israel terrorist groups, its alliance with Iran and its periodic incitement in Lebanon. Still, the Israeli-Syrian border has been quiet for decades; there has been a stable, if not formal, peace between the two countries. The devil we know may be better than the one we don’t know, Israeli leaders seem to think.
While Israelis are ambivalent, the Obama administration just seems confused.
This nation’s credibility as the chief advocate of freedom and democracy in the region can only be compromised if we support freedom fighters in Libya — now with Predator drones as well as our military aircraft — but largely ignore the plight of Syrian dissidents. Fundamental U.S. interests are consistently undermined by Syria, starting with the effort to slow Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.
Yes, any nod to the dissidents has risks. Forthright demands that Assad relinquish power and tougher U.S. sanctions could backfire by making Assad even more belligerent if he manages to hold on to power. On the other hand, turning our backs on the plight of the dissidents or simply issuing insipid, broad statements urging an end to the violence can only signal to Assad that his brutality will have no consequences. Further, it undercuts U.S. credibility as a champion of democracy around the world.
At this stage, we are tilting toward the need for a more forceful U.S. approach, short of yet another military involvement we can ill afford.
Decades of outreach to the Assads have produced meager results. There’s little reason to believe gentle calls for political “reform” will have an impact as Assad’s regime murders its citizens. Calling on “all sides to cease and desist from the use of violence,” as the president did after last Friday’s massacre of protesters, smacks of confusion and timidity, not international leadership.
Yes, there are valid reasons to fear what could come next in an unstable Syria, but there may be more to lose if excessive caution once more puts us on the side of a despised dictator with strong ties to Iran.