The West's False Choice with Syria: Why President al-Assad Must Go

The violence perpetrated by the Assad regime in Syria is reprehensible. The number of deaths and the force of brutality used against the Syrian people is similar to that used by Muammar Gaddafi before the NATO intervention.

Some have argued that the reason the West has stepped in to save Libya is that, unlike Syria and Yemen, Libya has vast amounts of oil.

The inaction in Syria however is a different kind of self-interest. Many in the West see Assad as the only option in Syria, worried that the corrupt and murderous strongman is the sole leader who can hold Syria together. The fear in the West is that if Assad is toppled, Syria will plunge into civil war, as it is a country divided between the Sunnis, Shi'a (many of who are Hezbollah supporters), Christians, Druze, Alawites and the Kurds. Such a scenario would not only tear apart Syria, but also endanger its fragile neighbor Lebanon. The realists claim that if Assad is overthrown, a power vacuum could emerge, providing Iran an opportunity to further meddle and spread its influence in Syria. Thus, many analysts say the West must ignore the protesters’ cries for freedom, accept the repression of the government, and taciturnly support Assad through non-action or face the strong possibility an Iranian-Syrian alliance.

This is a false choice that not only neglects thousands of innocent Syrians struggling for more democratic rights and better economic conditions, but once again undermines our moral authority in the process.

So far in the months-long Syrian demonstrations, there has been no indication from the bits of information that have managed to leak from Syria that the protesters are demanding a closer partnership with Iran. In large part this can be attributed to two factors: First, Assad is already closely allied with the Iranian regime (to the chagrin of the majority of the population) and second, Syria is roughly 75 percent Sunni. This second fact is a critical reality that jittery analysts often overlook when claiming that Syria may soon dissolve into chaos similar to the long-running civil war that devastated Lebanon in the 70's. While ethnically and religiously diverse, Syria has a much higher Sunni majority than Lebanon. Whereas Lebanon is roughly equally split between Sunni, Shi'a (27 percent each) and Maronite (21 percent) populations, and thus ripe for civil conflict, three-fourths of Syrians are Sunni.

Regarding further internal ethnic divisions and politics, unlike Lebanon, where a weak government has failed to rein in powerful militias and ethnic groups, al-Assad's father Hafez had spent the last three decades gutting the political structures and institutions in Syria. The ruling Baathist party does not tolerate dissent and both father and son have made it a cornerstone of their regimes to crush opposition.

Syria does not have the fragile multiparty coalition government that constantly teeters on the verge of collapse that the Lebanese are famous for. One could use the argument to say that anarchy might be worse, especially if Iran is able to take advantage of a weakened Syrian state. But again, such a threat is overstated. Iran and Syria already have a deep friendship and Iran is currently helping Assad to crush protests in a desperate attempt to retain influence. Iran knows that Assad is likely their best option in terms maintaining strong relations as a democratic Syria would almost undeniably elect a Sunni leader, weakening Hezbollah's clout in the process.

Another aspect which has so far gone relatively unstated is how aware and concerned the international community is regarding Syria. Iran is the West’s greatest fear. There seems little chance that the West will stand idle and endanger Israel should a Syrian-Iranian alliance deepen. Even if the West weren't able to stop such a partnership, the economic sanctions that America and Europe could impose would be devastating to Syria's rattled and vulnerable economy. The Syrian people who have so far taken to the streets risking their lives to push for more freedoms and a more open economy know that aligning themselves with Iran will be a crushing blow to economic development and that the fiscal consequences will be crippling. Already suffering from decades of corruption and economic stagnation, the threat of further economic isolation is a real worry for the majority of Syrians.

Most importantly, however, beyond speculating on all the possible outcomes, power grabs, and dubious alliances, how much worse does the humanitarian crisis in Syria need to get before we realize Assad is not in anyone's best interests? At some point — say maybe after 10,00 Syrians are killed — don’t we just have to give up on the regime and hope the next leader, whoever it is, doesn’t indiscriminately shell his own people, doesn’t surround entire cities with tanks depriving the residents of food, water, and medicine, and doesn’t shoot his countrymen in cold blood.

Why are we protecting Assad in the first place? It’s not as if we have great relations to begin with. He is already a strong ally of Iran! Five years ago, Assad was considered an honorary member of ‘Bush’s ‘axis of evil.’ A misguided designation, yes, but the fact that the majority of Congress went along with such a designation that pitted Assad's Baathist party with such despicable regimes as Iran and North Korea should be an indication that it probably can't get much worse than Assad.

Similar to Libya, America has a chance to endear itself to the Syrian people. Our opportunity to stand with the Syrian people is a chance to extend an olive branch and offer closer economic ties and stronger (new) relations. Contrary to what Assad says, the protests are not isolated incidents. Syrians need help and are looking abroad. Will Americans step up or will we turn a blind eye and let more systematic killings go unpunished?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons