By Lee Smith
The week of August 1 marks the beginning of Ramadan, the monthlong celebration that for many Muslims is the central event of the calendar. Where daytime fasting is the most arduous aspect of the season, especially when the holiday falls in midsummer, that discipline is alleviated come sundown, when families and friends gather to break the fast, feast, pray, and talk.
For Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, however, Ramadan will be a leaner month: a month of Fridays.
Since March, the uprising against Assad has gathered steam every Friday, as Syrians pour forth from their mosques and other meeting places and take to the streets to demonstrate against the regime in Damascus. Ramadan will string 30 such days together in a row, a prospect that must be daunting for a regime astonished that its murders, tortures, collective punishments, and mass detentions have not yet silenced the opposition.
Even as Assad’s security services and paramilitary forces moved from city to city to put down the uprising, the opposition gathered steam. When snipers picked off the townspeople of Deraa, Baniyas stood up; when tanks and artillery fired on Homs, Hama took to the streets. In Deir al-Zour, Bou Kamal, Latakia, and many other cities, the opposition has lit up like a string of lights encircling the regime.
Assad’s ruthless campaign against the country’s peaceful opposition is thus also a march against time and space, a war that he cannot win. No one knows for sure when the regime will fall. Maybe Assad will survive Ramadan. But it is unlikely he can outlast an opposition that shows few signs of fatigue or fear after almost five months of rebellion.
On the international front, from Jerusalem and Riyadh to Paris and Ankara, the assessment is that Assad is doomed. Even the White House has shown signs that it has given up on a regime it once saw as a cornerstone of its Middle East policy. Luring Assad away from Iran, the White House believed, would weaken the Islamic Republic; getting him to the negotiating table with Israel would fortify President Obama’s image in the region.
Then U.S. ambassador to Damascus Robert Ford traveled to Hama to show solidarity with the protesters. After pro-Assad activists retaliated by attacking the American embassy, Hillary Clinton finally declared that, from the American perspective, the regime had lost legitimacy. It seemed the administration’s Syria policy had shifted once and for all.
Recent days, however, have brought mixed signals from the administration, which have sowed confusion in Washington just as Damascus is girding itself for war against its own people.
A report in the Washington Post suggested that Ford and Clinton had acted on their own, without coordination with the White House. And, in fact, the president softened Clinton’s position by saying Assad was increasingly losing legitimacy. Moreover, Obama took Washington out of the equation by saying that it was in the eyes of Assad’s own people that the dictator’s legitimacy had come into question. And even more bizarrely, a White House spokesman told reporters that the administration is still looking to pressure Assad to “meet the aspirations of the Syrian people”—a statement not merely tone deaf, but morally obtuse.
It is characteristic of the Obama White House to wish to fade into the background. And in this case, it is understandable that the president does not wish to be the pacesetter of change in Syria. Not all of Syria has gone to the streets. But to believe that the entire country must erupt before American policymakers can be certain of a consensus is to misunderstand the courage of the men, women, and children who have already taken fate into their hands. The opposition has already made its stance clear, not merely by braving the regime’s depredations for nearly half a year, but in doing so peacefully. Assad does not have their consent to rule them and he will never have it. So what is Obama waiting for?
Let’s be clear: The uprising in Syria is turning out to be one of the central events of the young century.
To talk about social media and the Arab Spring is to miss the significance of what’s happening. Facebook and social media networks have hardly altered the tempo of the regime’s violence. They have only made clear to young Syrians what they’re in store for when they take to the streets. Those who note that Bashar al-Assad is not as brutal as his father Hafez might recall that the massacre at Hama, where tens of thousands were killed, was the culmination of a civil war that had been underway for several years. In five months, Bashar has killed thousands already. Who knows what the future has in store?
What we’re seeing every day in Syria is remarkable. It is the opposition that has made Syria matter. Now is the time for Obama to commit America to stand with a peaceful movement that is undoing an authoritarian regime that is a state sponsor of terror and a proxy for that larger threat, Iran—a regime opposed to the United States, our interests, our allies, and our principles.
Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at Hudson Institute and is the author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics and the Clash of Arab Civilizations (Doubleday, 2010). This article was published by Weekly Standard and is reprinted with permission.