We just don’t know, and cannot know, how Syria’s going to turn out, nor Libya, nor Tunisia. We don’t know, and probably cannot know, how long Bashar Assad will keep slaughtering his people (right now there is no reason to think he’ll shrink from most any level of violence against them), and we don’t know and cannot even guess how many top Syrian military officers will defect to the dissidents. Moreover, we don’t have a clear picture of the qualities of the leaders of the Free Syrian Army that is fighting Bashar’s army of some 700,000 armed men.
Most importantly, we don’t know whether, or to what extent, the Syrian opposition will get serious foreign support, which may be the crucial element in deciding Assad’s fate. My heart sinks when I hear policy makers like Dennis Ross invoke a slogan instead of calling for action, because when such a person says Assad is doomed, I hear him saying “not to worry, we don’t have to do anything, it’s in the bag.”
That’s the sort of intellectual error that subverts good policy. There’s a big fight in Syria, and someone’s going to win. If we want Assad to lose, as Obama has said, it behooves us to support his enemies. Ross’s historical law notwithstanding, it’s unlikely the Syrian opposition can win on their own (any more than Qadaffi’s enemies could have won without substantial Western military action). Again, the next-door neighbor points the way.
Vigorous support for the Green Movement in 2009-2010 might well have brought Mousavi & co. to power in Tehran, but the West, including President Obama, in effect supported the mullahcracy, and never called for regime change. This will certainly have encouraged the Iranians and the Assad mafia to fight fiercely in the current crisis, since they think they have learned that Obama will do nothing to bring them down. To be sure, the president is calling for regime change in Damascus, but, so far, the Iranian “lesson” seems right: Obama isn’t providing meaningful support to Assad’s opponents, thereby leaving the tyrant a free hand.
So I wouldn’t be so sure that Assad is doomed. Nor, on the other hand, am I at all inclined to believe that the Iranian regime has prevailed. These crises are determined by people fighting for power and survival, and questions of will, nerve, luck, leadership, and unanticipated events are very much in play (earthquakes, for example, have sometimes been important in bringing down dictators, as, for example, the Nicaraguan tyrant Anastasio Somoza).
And just as the Syrian killers, working hand-in-mailed-glove with Iranian thugs, think they’ve got recent history on their side, so the Iranian people are watching Syria very carefully. If the Syrian opposition does win — especially if the West is in the fight — the Iranians will take heart. But if we continue to betray freedom in Syria, the Iranians on both sides will conclude that the “history lesson” was well learned. And that lesson is not that coercion fails, but quite the opposite: he who fights best, laughs last.
Instead of reading tea leaves, our leaders would do better to try to win. But don’t hold your breath.