The war in Syria, and the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia it in part represents, again reared its ugly head in Beirut on Dec. 27 and Jan. 2.
First came the car bomb that killed moderate Lebanese politician Mohamad Chatah and six others. Many in Lebanon consider the killing to be a message from Hezbollah — the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militia and Lebanese political party that supports Syrian President Bashar Assad — meant for Saudi Arabia’s surrogates in Lebanon. (Chatah’s March 14 bloc is partly Saudi-backed.) Hezbollah denounced the bombing.
An apparent counter move was not long in coming. A car bomb went off six days later, this time in the Hezbollah-friendly Shiite area of south Beirut, killing four and injuring 70. The latest tragedy was followed by an announcement from extremist Sunni Muslim anti-Assad forces in Syria that they would “enter Lebanon militarily” to act against Hezbollah and force the latter to withdraw its forces from Syria.
This ugly chain of events is yet more evidence that the U.S. cannot ignore the Syrian question, not only because of the humanitarian consequences of the conflict but because the violence is spilling across borders, threatening and destabilizing key partners in the region.
In recent weeks, Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon, and Joshua Landis, a Syria scholar and author of two books on the Assad family, have argued that Assad, as bad as he is, is better than the likely alternative in Syria if the war continues. It may be time, Crocker went so far as to suggest, for the U.S. to go back to dealing with Assad.
That would be wrong. Embracing Assad after what he has done to his country and the region would not only be immoral, it would also be a setback for U.S. goals for years to come.
The recommendation to rehabilitate Assad is based on false premises. Crocker and Landis argue that Assad in power, even if only in a part of Syria, potentially offers the West the prospect of stability in a volatile region. They suggest that Assad might be an ally in the war on terrorism. If Assad does not prevail, they say, jihadi Sunni extremists embedded among the Syrian opposition will take over.
The truth they ignore is this: No matter how many battles he wins, Assad can no longer rule Syria as his family has for more than 40 years. There has been too much blood, destruction and displacement for the Syrians to grant him legitimacy once more.
Further, there are too many Sunni fighters now in Syria for Assad to pacify the country, even with the assistance of his Hezbollah allies backed by Iran. A resurgent Assad could manipulate Shiite as well as Sunni extremists to exact revenge on regimes in the area that supported the rebels.
Finally, for the U.S. to deal with Assad now, after insisting that he should step down, after erecting one red line after another in Syria and after threatening — and then withdrawing — the use of force, would set a dangerous example for the region and the world.
Leaving in power a man who is clearly guilty of crimes against humanity and discreetly arranging to collaborate with him on regional security would not only be the height of hypocrisy, it would also send a clear message to all the secular and liberal forces in the region that they are not deemed worthy of assistance and that they have to fend for themselves. It would mean the U.S. had taken a step back into the darkest days of the Cold War, when it was in bed with dictators around the globe in the name of stability.
The statements by Crocker and Landis also ignore basic facts about jihadism. It is not about ruling; rather, it is about fighting and killing. Religious extremism would never be an acceptable form of government to the Syrian people.
For the U.S. and the region, the P5-plus-1 nuclear talks with Iran and the proposed talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and the opposition present an opportunity to demand that Iran show goodwill by facilitating a transition to a coalition government in Syria, one that represents all sects and political groups in that nation. Such an arrangement would, in effect, end the Assad regime.
The bottom line is this: Rather than giving Assad a boost by talking to him, now is the time for the U.S. to encourage Iran (and its backer Russia) to abandon him in favor of a more balanced and representative government in Syria. This would be the right thing for U.S. foreign policy and for the people of the region, including in Lebanon, who are seeing their moderate, gifted leaders eliminated in a brutal crisis spreading throughout the region.
Nabeel A. Khoury is senior fellow for Middle East and national security at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He retired from the State Department recently after 25 years in the U.S. Foreign Service.