PALO, ALTO CALIFORNIA – A time comes in the course of deadly upheavals when the world wearies of the slaughter and the bloodshed turns routine.
Words lose their shock value, and all that matters will have been said. Syrian President Bashar Assad had bet it would unfold that way; from the beginning of this struggle, he warned one and all in his country that the foreign cavalry will not show up, that the promises of help will not materialize. The world is feckless, despots know, and all they need to do is to hunker down and wait out the initial moment of outrage.
Indeed, Bashar had the better coalition on his side. The friends of the Syrian regime — the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, the Iranians, the Russians and to some extent the sectarian Shiite government in Baghdad — enabled the dictator to hold on and reverse the course of battle. Meanwhile, the Western democracies, the Sunni Arab states and Turkey have run out the clock on the Syrian people.
The cavalry was always on the way, just another massacre away, the weapons supplies were in the pipeline, and the commitment to break the back of the Damascus regime just around the corner.
U.S. President Barack Obama was politically shrewd about Syria. There was no great campaign for intervention in that country’s bloodshed, no “progressives” were appalled by the violence, and the conservatives, the Republicans in the House and Senate, were equally indifferent. Sure enough, there was Sen. John McCain, relentless and offended by the violence, insisting that the unraveling of Syria carries consequences for American security, but he was a voice in the wilderness.
The Obama administration never grappled with the reality of Syria. It looked at Syria and thought and spoke of Iraq. We were war weary, Obama said, over and over again. There were sectarian terrors in Iraq, and they would be waiting for us in Syria as well. We would find no gratitude in Aleppo and Hama.
The beards came to the rescue of American policy. Those Islamists, the jihadists who made their way to Syria, were a solution to the moral embarrassment. That we could not be on the side of al-Qaeda’s Ayman Zawahiri was one of the more memorable formulations of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She served her president’s interests fully during her tenure. She kept Syria from intruding into his bid for a second term. Global icons, apparently, don’t do campaigns of rescue for people facing the unforgiving firepower of a brutal regime.
John Kerry now picks up where his predecessor left off. This was his second chance to get Syria right. Back during his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry had fallen for the young Syrian dictator and his glamorous wife. (Anna Wintour was not alone in her infatuation with the first lady of Damascus.) He took at face value the promises of reform offered by a Syrian ruler eager to break out of the isolation the Bush administration had imposed on him.
But by the appearance of things now, Kerry has nothing new to offer the Syrians. He has seen for himself the heart-breaking condition of the refugees in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, now a midsize city of unimaginable bleakness.
Kerry has made it clear that he is determined to restore the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. His choice has taken the Arabs by surprise. In the nature of Arab officialdom, the political elite have to pay lip service to the cause of the Palestinians; they can’t be less pro-Palestinian than the American diplomat. But the moral and strategic cause that holds the Arabs at the moment is the fight for Syria.
This is where the Sunni Arab states are truly engaged. Damascus is a city of religious and cultural sanctity to Muslim Arabs. The barbarism inflicted on the Syrians by their Alawite rulers is an affront to Sunni governments and people alike. The arrival of an American chief diplomat keen to ride into the windmills of an old, stale conflict is, to them, as good a testimony as any on the erosion of U.S. power.
“Bad guys” on both sides, jihadis hoisting black flags atop small emirates of their own, the specter of a “failed state” on the shores of the Mediterranean — we are wise to stay out, say the Obamians. Our highest soldier, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, has just laid out the choices and the costs in Syria — train and assist the opposition, conduct limited strikes against sensitive regime targets, establish a no-fly zone, create buffer zones across the Jordanian and Turkish borders, control chemical weapons. No less than an act of war awaits us, the general warned, in a time of budget cuts and fiscal uncertainty. From this menu emerged the real choice: “none of the above.”
Deep into their third year of grief, the Syrians know better than to expect deliverance from the pre-eminent Western power. Amid the wreckage of their country, and in the forsaken refugee camps that have become home to 2 million people, they know they are on their own. They have been schooled in the doublespeak and the evasions of those who could have aided them but chose not to do so.
Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of “The Syrian Rebellion.”