by David Lentz
It's impossible to open a news website or tune in to CNN without confronting the terrible slaughter taking place in Syria. The UN appears paralyzed from acting. The Arab League can only threaten, and NATO will not act without consent or active support from Turkey. The public pronouncements from Israel seem frozen — if Israel acts publicly, it will become the favorite Assad target; on the other hand, how can it ignore the obvious demonstration of political will to overthrow the Assads? How does Israel ignore the horrendous humanitarian catastrophe unfolding literally a few dozen kilometers from its borders?
Israel, the United States, and its European allies worry about what would happen after Assad. The Wall Street Journal ascribes Israel’s response to this concern over instability in a post-Assad world. This type of thinking suggests that the devil we know is better than the radical and unstable devil we don’t know. There’s a big problem with that sort of analysis: the Israeli Government has officially denied it:
“I emphatically denied this the first time and categorically deny it again,” said Ambassador Michael Oren in the June 6 article in the Wall Street Journal cited above. As Ambassador Oren correctly points out, Assad has helped supply 55,000 rockets to Hezbollah and 10,000 to Hamas and sought to establish a clandestine nuclear arms program.
Moreover, there’s another strategic interest that the downfall of Assad serves: the weakening of Iran and Hezbollah. Syria covertly acts as Iran's conduit to the Mediterranean. (Recall the Iranian shipment of arms to Gaza that were intercepted by Israel). Losing Syria for Iran represents nothing short of a catastrophe of the first order. It will embarrass the Iranian regime. It will encourage its internal dissent (because the Iranian population suffers from sanctions, while the regime provides generous financial and material support to Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas). It will embolden Iran’s enemies throughout the Arab world.
It is time we recognize that whatever and whoever replaces the Syrian tyrant may be bad for Israel and the United States, but it can hardly be worse. It may be better. Last week AP reported on contacts initiated by the Syrian opposition and Isaac Herzog, a Labor Member of Knesset. Hertzog has met with Syrian opposition leaders overseas in the past. While a policy and a strategy cannot be constructed with a few internet efforts alone, there’s a hint that any new authority in Syria, at least, will not be existentially committed to the Iranian mullahs, and to the utter destruction of the State of Israel.
But the real challenge is not whether we hope for regime change in Syria. We should be thinking and advocating with our public officials a menu of options that the Administration can consider to support the uprising without military intervention or commitment of troops. The United States can create international coalitions and regional partners. It can consider airdrops of medical and humanitarian supplies. It can consider sharing real-time satellite images so that the opposition fighters will have actual warning of Syrian troop movements. It can organize harsher sanctions against Assad’s and Syria’s banking and trade interests. Now that Assad has committed his Air Force to bombing civilian populations, American Senators began talking about a Libyan style no-fly zone this weekend.
The stakes in Syria are enormous. A deposed Assad might trigger a sea change in Israel's position among its neighbors. Syria is a secular Arab country. There is no Muslim Brotherhood. Syria is far more similar to Lebanon than Egypt or Iraq. It has a modern educated population which is not afflicted by widespread poverty and despair. There are many reasons to hope. We should be active, not passive; proactive, not reactive. We should be encouraging our government to plan and to act, not to sit back and react.