After more two years of civil war, it is not his arsenal of tanks or unfettered aerial dominance that is Bashar Al-Assad’s greatest strength. It is not the hapless disarray of the rebel forces nor the intensely loyal following he still enjoys from the Alawite and Shia sects that have allowed him to maintain power. The Syrian president’s most powerful weapon has been cementing a fear of the unknown in the hearts of his adversaries.
At home, Bashar Al-Assad has managed to silence a majority of his people. Individuals across Syria who may be sympathetic to the cause have resisted aiding the rebels for fear of retribution. Through government handouts and a sadistic network of spies, Bashar has quelled an even larger movement against him. Yet, it is his ability to thwart Western pressure by callously reminding them of Syria’s potential to become a failed state (should his government be toppled) that has been his most impressive feat to date.
The West should not fall victim to these threats. It is well past time that the UN and NATO institute a no-fly over northern Syria, creating a safe zone for Syrians to rebuild in and dealing a serious — if not fatal — blow to the Assad regime.
For more than two years the West has been paralyzed by a fear of what might happen should the Syrian government fall. Traumatized by the failures of Iraq, both in intelligence and prognostications, Western powers have been loath to offer even the most basic support to the rebels as Syria burns. Hilary Clinton trumpeted sending rebels walkie-talkies as a demonstration of a commitment to their cause. After more than 70,000 deaths, John Kerry still believes rebels will negotiate a cease-fire. Obama’s red-line stance regarding the use of chemical weapons is so malleable it has become a pink semi-circle of retreat.
The West is desperate to avoid an uncertain future no matter the present cost. But as the Levant tumbles towards an even scarier regional conflagration, can the situation get any worse? Western diplomats have maintained it can.
After two years, such arguments no longer hold merit. More than 70,000 Syrians are dead. Up to another 100,000 are in jail or unaccounted for. Sectarian violence is deepening, with gruesome videos depicting almost daily atrocities. Al-Qaeda-backed rebels groups such as Al-Nusra are gaining converts. Ordinary Syrians are becoming hardened and losing faith (in both the government and the rebels). Syria’s economy is on the brink of collapse, a fact that both endangers the lives of millions more Syrians and heightens the risk of the country becoming a failed state.
And these are just a fraction of the problems inside of Syria.
Those who say we shouldn’t intervene in a foreign country’s civil affairs are forgetting the terrifying toll the war is taking beyond Syria’s borders: the millions of refugees who have poured into neighboring countries or the increasing violence along the borders with Turkey and especially Lebanon. Already drained from dealing with Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, Jordan has found that an additional 800,000 Syrian refugees have greatly strained its economic resources and political capital, endangering the stability one of America’s strongest regional allies. The influx of refugees to Lebanon has intensified sectarian divides, creating a tinderbox and dragging Lebanon closer to another civil war.
Turkey, too, is in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether to respond to increasing violence on its border, weighing its need to protect itself with the possibility of scaling up the conflict further. On top of that, there is Hezbollah, which after months of hedging its bets as to whether the Assad regime would survive, has dug in its heels and is preparing for a fight (whether against the rebels or Israel is still unclear).
The situation both in Syria and around the region will continue to deteriorate further and more quickly, unless the West intervenes. A no-fly zone will be a delicate and tricky operation. It will be expensive and come with the inherent risks of an act of war, but as the first Gulf War and Libya demonstrated, a no-fly zone can have a significant positive impact. The West must bring an end to Bashar Al-Assad. Doing so will require ending his advantage in the air.
The alternative to intervention is allowing a murderous dictator backed by Iran and a sponsor of Hezbollah to slaughter thousands of more of his own people, prolong an already savage civil war, and drag the whole region down with him. The future may be uncertain, but it will be a lot worse if we don’t address the present crisis.