Syria Protests: Why Has It Taken a Massacre for U.S. to Denounce Assad?

Why the U.S. should have denounced Syria’s president years ago.

Fabrice Coffrini / AFP / Getty Images

Why has it taken the massacre of thousands of Syrians for the world to realize—and admit—the true nature of Bashar al-Assad’s regime? Syrian dissidents, as usual, knew it all along, but their advice was unwelcome. They harbored few illusions about a regime that imprisoned, tortured, and killed bloggers and activists for unsanctioned thoughts. Syrian dissidents warned long ago that the country was run by a psychotic dictator willing to do nearly anything to retain power. At some point, the people would revolt.

But the pundits, professors, and politicians—as usual—thought they knew better. For example, in March, Foreign Affairs published “The Sturdy House of Assad,” an article positing that the Syrian president's relative youth and staunch anti-Westernism gave him “a layer of protection that the other leaders did not enjoy.” His anti-Western policies “translated into popularity in his own country,” the article claimed, and it predicted that Assad would likely end up strengthened by the Arab Spring.

With hundreds of thousands of Syrians facing hails of gunfire, tank shells, and mass death in dozens of cities, such analysis was obviously out of touch. It turns out that brutal tyranny—even when masquerading as anti-Westernism—isn’t too popular these days. And America may have more friends in the region than it thinks. When the U.S. ambassador in Syria recently visited the city of Hama amid a massive government crackdown, he was welcomed with flowers by throngs of Syrians—an amazing sight in the Arab world.

Months before the Arab Spring, I attended a small roundtable discussion in New York with Assad’s chief apologist, Syria’s ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha. Attendees fawned over the ambassador’s “erudition and wisdom” and asked almost no questions at all about domestic human-rights abuses in his country. Instead, they asked overwhelmingly about the Golan Heights, Iraq, and the Palestinians.

Talk of prying Syria away from Iran, or of Syria forging a peace accord with Israel, should now be seen for what it was all along—a massive fraud and a dangerous waste of time. How could Syria make peace with Israel when it was waging war on its own citizens? How can a country be trusted to treat its neighbors with respect when it treats its own people with such disregard?

These fundamental questions were long ignored. Peace, we were told, is made with enemies. Nonsense. Peace is made with former enemies or defeated enemies. Bashar al-Assad is neither. Nor, for that matter, is the Iranian theocracy, Hamas, or Hizbullah.

Syrian dissidents rightly wonder why it took so long for President Obama to call for the dictator to step down. Why, moreover, is the U.S. bombing Libya and letting Syria get away with murder? The answer is that Washington is plagued by a maddening combination of realpolitik, inconsistency, fecklessness, and lack of clarity. At its core, however, it is the relegation of human liberty to a lower position than seemingly more important matters of international politics.

But better late than never. Winston Churchill was right—America always does the right thing after exhausting all other options. Consider the recent statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Assad has lost his legitimacy to rule. It was universally welcomed by Syrian dissidents, but why did it come only now? At what point, one must ask, was Assad’s rule legitimate? When he inherited power from his dictator father? When he imprisoned the leaders of the Damascus Declaration for advocating peaceful reform? Eleven years have been wasted—and helped lead to this current disaster—by refusing to call Assad out for what he was. Thousands of innocent Syrians might be alive today had Assad stepped down years ago.

In late July I briefed several congressmen and senators together with my colleague, Syrian dissident Ahed Alhendi, on how the U.S. could support the pro-democracy movement in Syria. All the members we spoke with seemed to understand the brutality of the regime and their own responsibility to support democratic forces. Secretary of State Clinton, too, needed little convincing one day later in her briefing with Alhendi and a handful of other leading Syrian dissidents. One only wishes that the administration had listened to Syria’s beleaguered dissidents before the massacres and demanded Assad’s resignation then.

How much longer Assad can hold on is anyone’s guess. Perhaps he’ll get fed up with slaughtering Syrians and yearn to open a small ophthalmology practice again—maybe in Venezuela or that standard refuge for former dictators, Saudi Arabia.

President Obama and President Assad should heed the warning of famed Syrian cyberdissident Rami Nakhle, who told me, “The army’s crackdown is not slowing [our] movement at all. People are just getting more angry. Every day there is more pressure from the activists inside the country and from the international community.”

How does he feel about the future? “I’m absolutely optimistic because I know that whatever Bashar has done, he has not managed to crush this revolution. He has played all his cards already, and he hasn’t been able to crush the uprising. It’s just increasing the people’s anger.”

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These days, one shouldn’t bet against angry Arab dissidents. They deserve to live without fear. They also deserve to be heard in the West—next time, before it’s too late.