While the attention of the world has been focused on Libya, Syria has been degenerating into its mirror image. Syria has its own version of the Libyan rebel city of Benghazi, a restless city called Deraa near its southern border. Government troops have fired into the surprisingly vigorous demonstrations occurring there, resulting in dozens of casualties. They’ve even tossed schoolchildren into jail for scribbling anti-Assad graffiti.
When protests spread to the capital city of Damascus, they received the same treatment. Reporting on the international condemnation of this brutality, the BBC relays Amnesty International’s “fears that 55 people have died in Syria in the past week.” The Syrian dictatorship has a history of launching crackdowns that claimed thousands of lives.
At the very least, Syrian tyrant Bashar Assad has surpassed Hosni Mubarak’s level of oppression. He’s been talking about instituting some reforms, with the Jerusalem Post reporting that he will “announce an important decision in 2 days,” but then again Mubarak talked about reforms too. So, for that matter, did Qaddafi, as recently as late February, when Reuters reported promises from his son Saif that the “General People’s Congress” would “convene to discuss a clear reform agenda.”
Qaddafi deserves to die for his part in the murder of innocent American civilians, but Assad has plenty of blood on his hands, too. Of course, being an American ally didn’t help Mubarak when the White House suddenly decided he had to leave “today,” and “today meant yesterday.” So far, the Administration has not said what it thinks today means for Bashar Assad.
There are some important differences between Libya and Syria, to be sure. Bashar Assad is not as flamboyant as Qaddafi, or tired and grim like Mubarak. When trying to avoid the condemnation of the international community, it’s a good idea to refrain from feeding the global press an endless stream of chilling, highly quotable sound bites.
Syria is also located on ground where the angels of the U.N. Security Council fear to tread. It’s right next door to the shaky democracy we have created in Iraq, the shaky but pro-American monarchy in Jordan, the global flashpoint of Israel, and increasingly peevish NATO member Turkey. The Turks have made it clear that no odysseys will be dawning over Damascus. Libya, by contrast, borders on nothing interesting except Egypt, and since Obama already fixed Egypt, the Western media will not pay any further attention to it for years.
The other thing working in Syria’s favor is its deep connection to a web of international terrorist forces, which the Obama Administration is not eager to disturb at the moment. Israeli intelligence believes Iran and its puppet, Hezbollah, have been involved in suppressing the Syrian uprising. Syria had a lot to do with handing the government of Lebanon over to Hezbollah, in a chain of events which began after the 2005 death of popular Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who died of natural causes in after his car exploded. A U.N. investigation was coming close to fingering Assad as one of the masterminds behind Hariri’s assassination, but happily for the Syrian dictator, Hezbollah came to power in Lebanon and shut the investigation down.
The world is a complex place, and no part of it is more intricate, or treacherous, for American foreign policy than the Middle East. There are enough sinkholes to devour every drop of idealism we can muster. In the early days of the Tunisian uprising wildfire, when Egypt suddenly looked unstable, many spoke of their disgust that we would do business with a dictator like Mubarak. Bashar Assad’s hermetically sealed oppression demonstrates the limits of an “idealistic” foreign policy that ends up making the same kind of distasteful choices about which tyranny is unacceptable, and must be erased by American stealth bombers… and which tyranny must be studiously ignored.
In the course of noting that the Syrian opposition has not been asking for American assistance, the Washington Times relays their frustration that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Bashar Assad a “reformer” over the weekend. That’s reminiscent of the early days of the Egyptian crisis, when the Administration was still confused but guardedly supportive of Mubarak, and Vice President Joe Biden insisted that it was wrong to call him a “dictator.” No matter who the White House chooses to support or oppose, it would be welcome sign of clarity if they would be careful to refer to them all by their right names, and be equally unflinching in describing their deeds.
Update: How “shaky” is Jordan? This shaky.