Opinion: Speak Now, or They’ll Rest in Peace

Photo Courtesy of U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Michael Holzworth.

Syria’s Scuds and Sarin have long been considered consequential gamechangers by the international community. Horror that they would be turned against their own populace has repeatedly been expressed by the international community. It has even been called a “red line.” But so what? What will happen if the Syrian regime does in fact use Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) against their own civilians?

That has been far less clear and less oft repeated as the warnings against using the weapons have been. Now that there are rumors via Al Jazeera that a Sarin-like poisonous gas has been used on the populace, those warnings need to be bold and unequivocal: US fighter jets will be strafing Syrian targets if the government crosses that line. Action can still wait. Speaking, however, cannot.

The reality is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not only being portrayed as desperate—he really is. Rebel forces have not only not been crushed by the Syrian military—which both outnumbers and outguns them—they have in fact managed to make gains. And the Syrian army is losing ground, figuratively and literally.

The violence in and around Damascus is almost normal now, and cities such as Homs, the locale for the purported gas attack, are yet again home to rebels despite Assad’s 21-month vicious crackdown. The end is drawing near for Assad and hopes for genuine victory are dwindling.

This column noted that the Syrian conflict was going to be much more vicious and long-lasting after the shocking execution of Muammar Gaddafi and grotesque display of his corpse, and sadly that has proven true. Assad knows what fate already awaits him if he loses. Even running away may not be enough—how many dictators of old have been rounded up by the international community years after their offenses turned to flight?

So Assad has two hopes: He can escape in tenuous exile, or he can brutally suppress his opponents by any means possible. Or maybe, just maybe, nearly crossing that bloody line will create a more tenable refuge for the hated-dictator, one in which the US and Europe offers under-the-table immunity in exchange for not taking the Syrian civil war as far as it can go.

But can we risk that Assad will humble himself enough to settle for survival, an authoritarian who watched his father murder thousands of civilians and get away with it? What if Assad is just that arrogant to believe he can still win if he does whatever he can? What if surrender is anathema to him and he’d rather die guns blazing? Then what?

That is why the international community needs to speak loudly and clearly. Media reports often note the not-so-subtle hints that the US may use military action against Syria if chemical weapons are in fact used. But The New York Times just three weeks ago reported that the latest warnings conveyed to the Assad regime behind the scenes were ominous but vague.

Vagueness may work with people facing an unpleasant but known consequence for compromise. But when the consequence for disobedience is an ignoble exile or a bloody death, what could possibly be worse than that?

The only consequence the West can threaten that will catch Assad’s attention is military intervention. If chemical weapons are unleashed, NATO bombs should be on the table to take Syria’s military apart. US President Barack Obama should turn the Gaddafi-table around, not as a warning to what comes of a losing dictator, but as a threat that no dictator can withstand the might of the American armed forces.

In other words, the West should threaten Assad with certain defeat and sure justice, at the hands of the International Criminal Court if not the Syrian mobs.

Only then will Assad be forced to think twice. Only then will the reality of losing everything actually be able to trump the mere threat of losing it all. Only then will humiliating and nearly complete compromise seem the better alternative.

Otherwise, Assad will look at the words and bet the West won’t do it. Obama has a war-weary populace to consider. Europe has economic woes. Russia and China stand in the way, and don’t even bring Assad-allies Iran or Hezbollah into this.

It’s time for the warnings to stop being ambiguous and start being aggressive. It’s time for words that threaten real and bold action. We’ve heard enough political speeches about red lines. If nothing else is said by the world’s leaders, it’s the blood of Syrian civilians that will speak next.

(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, December 24, 2012)