Op-Ed: U.S. Has Abdicated Responsibility For Syria

As Syria continues its violent crackdown, Hoover Institution senior fellow Fouad Ajami argues that the U.S. has forsaken Syria and its people and provided the regime with a lifeline. In the Wall Street Journal, Ajami writes that "everyone is waiting on Washington's green light and its leadership."

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

And now, the Opinion Page. Despite the arrival of some U.N. monitors, the news from Syria continues to be grim. Today, news of deadly explosions at two intelligence facilities, the government blames on suicide bombers. Elsewhere, the brutal crackdown that's killed so many continues. In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Fouad Ajami argued the United States has abdicated its responsibility in Syria and for its people. Suspicions that the U.S. doesn't really want to see the fall of the Assad regime have taken hold in the region, he wrote, and there's enough outrage and resources in the region to bring down the regime in Damascus if and when an American decision to do so is made. But he added: Everyone is waiting on Washington's green light and its leadership.

So should the U.S. take the lead in Syria? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, and joins us now on the phone from his home in New York. Nice to talk with you again.

FOUAD AJAMI: Thank you very much, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: I should clarify: You're not calling for an American invasion - in fact, no U.S. troops on the ground at all - but to establish a no-fly, no-drive zone on the border with Turkey. How would that change things?

AJAMI: Absolutely. I think it's - the Obama administration has been very, very successful in depicting the choice in Syria as either boots-on-the-ground or total abdication. No one in the region, not even the Syrians I met with, not even the Syrians I met with in the refugee camps - because I went to the Syria-Turkey border and went to the refugee camps and was treated to tales of grief and tales of loss. Not even these people are calling for American intervention. What everyone is calling for is American leadership and American commitment.

And that zone, if you will, the - a corridor in - a humanitarian zone on the Syria-Turkey border to which the defectors could come, a no-fly, no-drive zone would completely alter the terms of power between the regime and its opponents.

CONAN: It would provide, presumably, the opponents a place to organize and train and develop the kind of leadership that evolved in Libya.

AJAMI: Well, exactly. I mean, we keep saying that, you know, this has become the mantra in Washington, where they keep saying Syria is not Libya. Well, even Libya, at the time, was not Libya, if you will. And we keep saying that Homs is not Benghazi. But, in fact, what we know about Libya, the death squads, Moammar Gadhafi was on his way to Benghazi to liquidate the revolution. And it was only American and French and British intervention that rescued the Libyans and gave them a chance.

The same is needed for the Syrians, and even more so, because Syria, if anything, is much more strategic than Libya. And the spillover effects in the region from the bloodbath in Syria, the sectarian spillover, if you will, into Turkey, into Lebanon, into Jordan is enormous.

CONAN: The humanitarian corridor, as you call it, a safe haven for people fleeing the regime, this would have to be protected by military force.

AJAMI: Absolutely. And we have to secure that no-fly, no-drive zone. We should be under no illusions about this. But, again, as people who know this very well - when I was in Antakya, by the way, on the Syria-Turkey border, I saw Senator McCain and Senator Lieberman arrived. They literally were on the same flight from Istanbul. And someone like Senator McCain, who knows this very well, he basically concedes that some armed power has to be used to secure that no-fly, no-drive zone.

But it could be done with ease. We actually ended up making the Syrian army into this mighty army, and we've made the Syrian air force into a mighty instrument. And we basically say that the Syrian skies cannot be violated. And we can't enforce that no-fly zone, but we can with great ease. What's missing is the will. That's what the Turks will tell you. That's what the Arabs will tell you. And that's what the Syrian leaders in Istanbul will reiterate to you anytime.

CONAN: Why don't the Turks do it? Their government has been rebuffed, lied to.

AJAMI: Yes.

CONAN: They are harboring the Syrian National - Free Syrian Army. Why don't they do it?

AJAMI: You know, Neal, that's a very good question. I think they can do it, but they won't do it. This is the world in which we live. It's used to American power and American leadership. This was the same question that was asked 20 years ago when the Bosnians were being slaughtered like sheep. People said, what about Europe? This is Europe's backyard. You know, they didn't do it. They waited for Richard Holbrooke to convince Bill Clinton to go into the Bosnia horror. Why didn't the Europeans take the lead on Kosovo four years later? They didn't. Again, took American leadership. Why didn't the Europeans take on the Taliban? Again, they didn't.

We do live in this world where American moral and strategic leadership is essential. And even in Libya where the French and the British took the lead, in the end, in the end American power and American ammunitions and American intelligence had to do the rest of the job.

CONAN: And it did take quite awhile, first, to take down the air defense system and then to, well, enforce - effectively become the air force of the rebels. Is that what you're calling for here?

AJAMI: Well, I think that's about right, and I think we have to be very clear about this. Again, if we go back to this - you know, at the - to these seminal interventions, in Bosnia, again, we did the work, and Kosovo, again, we did the work. And in Libya, the heavy lifting at the end of the day, after the British and the French started this, all this had to be done by the United States. There is some American - there is some burden for responsibility. This is the price that comes with leadership in the world of nations.

The other day, at the Holocaust Museum, President Obama talked about establishing what you call an Atrocity Prevention Board. That was really pathetic. It was such an escape of moral responsibility, as though slaughters and massacres are like the storms, we can anticipate them and we can have a weather center that would tell us that they're coming. We don't need an Atrocity Prevention Board. We need a recognition that Bashar al-Assad is slaughtering civilians, that Bashar al-Assad is burying is his opponents alive, that Bashar al-Assad is a liar and a murderer and that this regime is making a mockery out of the United Nations' monitors. And there was one placard which summed it all in Syria, which said: The butcher kills, the observers observe, and the people go on with the revolution. There is no substitute for American leadership. This journey to the U.N. and this dispatching of these U.N. monitors is completely for naught.

One other thing - we'll get some callers in on the conversation - and that is that this would almost certainly have to be done without the sanction of the United Nations Security Council. Russia and China have vetoed any effort to, well, actions considerably short of establishing a no-fly zone.

Absolutely. And we can - again, we have to be very clear and very honest about this, and our secretary of state could consult with her husband, former President Bill Clinton. In Bosnia, he never went to the United Nations. In Kosovo, he never went to the United Nations. You go to the United Nations Security Council when you don't want the job done. You go there in the full knowledge that you're going to meet a Russian veto and a Chinese veto. Any model U.N. team and any American high school would tell you that if we're going to the United Nations Security Council, we're going to be rebuffed.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation, and we'll start with Farkish(ph), and Farkish is with us from Houston.

FARKISH: Yes, please. I don't know, with all the powers that the United States has, there is one power that U.N. cannot limit and that's the purchasing power. If the U.S. brings - one-sided sanctions against Syria and ban any country, any company dealing with Syria the same way we are doing it against the Iranians - very successfully, I might add - if you bring sanctions against Syria, that government will collapse in matter of days. Why don't we bring sanctions against Syria? There is no requirement for the United Nations to - for the Security Council to approve that kind of (unintelligible). There is no limit on U.S. power on purchases, on putting ban on any trade with Syria.

CONAN: Well, to ban trade with Syria, that requires a blockade, which is an act of war. Fouad Ajami?

AJAMI: Well, I appreciate the instinct, but let's remember, Syria is a closed economy in many ways and, basically, sanctions have been imposed on Syria in all the way that count. The Syrian economy right now is sanctioned out. The Syrians can't sell their oil. The Syrians had, you know, some - not huge amounts of petroleum, but respectable amount of petroleum. That has been choked off. And the Syrian is - the Syrian regiment is selling its gold reserve in the markets of Dubai. So there is economic pressure. There are sanctions being imposed on Syria, but I don't think the sanctions will do the job because this regime is very different. It doesn't really have major trade with the outside world. It's really about mass murder and about the power of the Assad family and the Assad dynasty.

CONAN: The Russians and the Venezuelans have sent vessels to provide refined products to Syria - to Syrian ports. Would you block those ships? Well, absolutely, we have to do so. I mean, in fact, what's really interesting, what's depressing, Neal, about is this. The friends of Syria are either democracies and the Arab states and so on, seemed - they seemed to function with their hand tied behind their backs. The friends of the Syrian regime, the Russians, the Iranians, Hezbollah, Hugo Chavez, they're all in. They're determined to rescue the Syrian regime because they understand what the stakes are. This is a fight between democracy and autocracy, between democracy and dictatorship, and they are determined to see this Bashar al-Assad regime survive.

Here's an email from Dan: Absolutely not. America should not take the lead in that country to remove its dictator. It probably should not even take a supportive role if that means doing anything more than pressing for U.N. sanctions. The Arab world should use some of their money, stop hiding behind their religion and remove a man who's violated every humanitarian law on the planet. And you say that - well, we know that some of the Arab states, the UAE and Qatar and Saudi Arabia have talked openly about providing arms to the opposition.

AJAMI: Well, Neal, that's it. I mean, the Arabs are committed. They just don't have the capability and the willpower, and absent American leadership they're not going to take the lead. And there is one thing that the other day became obvious and became clear, and the State Department and the Defense Department, our State Department and Defense Department did not challenge it. We know for sure that the Libyans, that the Libyan rebels have crates of weapons they have wanted to supply to the Syrian rebellion, and the United States discouraged this. The United States, in fact, not only does it not arm the rebels, it also discourages others from arming them, and the excuse is we don't want to throw weapons into this tinderbox because it will increase the killing.

This is, again, the logic we witness in the Balkans, in Bosnia two decades ago when we said we cannot send arms because this will turn - this will worsen the killing fields. Well, this is kind of morally equivalence between the killer and the victim. The regime has all the weapons it needs to do the job, to do the killing job. It's the people, the civilians who have taken up arms to defend their homes, to defend their honor, to defend their liberty, who really are the ones who are - who need the weapons.

CONAN: Fouad Ajami, on the Opinion Page this week. His op-ed, "America's Syria Abdication," appeared in The Wall Street Journal. There's a link to it on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

This is Jim. Jim with us from Portland.

JIM: Yes. Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

JIM: Yeah. I'm originally from Syria, and I live in the U.S. now. And I'm not saying we should invade to take care of the regime, but we need to support the opposition because without support, the revolution will not succeed. And it's very simple really to do it. The best way to do it is to establish safe zones and - along the border with Jordan and with Turkey, and the opposition, they need weapons to defend themselves. This regime will not hesitate to kill hundreds of thousands of people, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power. And it's really our moral obligation to help the people of Syria, and I'm speaking from experience. You guys have no idea how far this regime will go to stay in power. And the people of Syria now, they are determined to get rid of the regime, but it will be shame on us just to stand by and watch it happening because when the revolution succeeds, the people will remember who helped them and who did not help them.

CONAN: All right.

JIM: And I think that the situation is more complicated by the position of Syria geographically next to Israel because maybe the U.S. is afraid the whole region will be destabilized. I don't think to so. The whole region will not destabilized, and the people of Syria now they really want democracy.

CONAN: All right, Jim, thanks.

JIM: And this is a - just one more thing. This is a golden chance. If we miss this chance, Iran and the regime in Syria will be much stronger, and we will lose Syria just like we lost Iraq to Iran. Thank you.

CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call. And there are concerns, Fouad Ajami, that an open civil war in Syria will invite a larger regional conflict, perhaps along those sectarian lines you were talking about. It's the Alawite regime, an offshoot of Shia Islam backed by friends in Lebanon and Iran and, indeed, in Iraq too.

AJAMI: Well, that is a big, big concern and, in fact, that is really the cautionary tale, if you will. That is the message to the Obama administration, to do more, to intervene, to spare the region the consequences of a deeper conflict. And basically, the people who speak against intervention are always speaking of the complicated borders of Syria.

My plea for intervention is about precisely these borders because these borders are so sensitive because Syria has these amazing borders, the borders with Israel, with Lebanon, with Jordan, with Turkey and with Iraq is very important to, in many ways, come to the rescue of the Syrian population before the country is degraded and before the country is so radicalized.

CONAN: Let's see. We get one more caller in, and let's go to - this is Dustin. Dustin with us from San Antonio.

DUSTIN: Hi. How are you today?

CONAN: Fine, thanks. I've just left you a few seconds. I apologize for that, Dustin.

DUSTIN: No, that's OK. I just wanted to say the gentleman referred to American morality. I think it's useful to think of American morality in terms of foreign intervention with what Chalmers Johnson referred to as the base world military hegemony. These euphemisms for war actions such as no-fly zone, sanctions, more obligation and interventions, really obfuscate the issue that America would be - that they're calling for, you know, murderous intervention in yet another country. I think Americans probably had enough of that.

CONAN: All right, Dustin. Thanks very much for the phone call. And Fouad Ajami, thanks, as always, for your time.

AJAMI: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: Fouad Ajami is senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, with us from his home in New York. And again, there's a link to his op-ed in The Wall Street Journal at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, the latest in a series of very public political crises in China. Rob Gifford of The Economist will join us. We hope you will, too. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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