The dramatic scenes in Tripoli are already being seized upon by those keen to depose other despotic regimes. Taken alongside the unstable situation in Syria, there is now a risk of a dangerous moment of western triumphalism. This must be resisted, especially given that the odds of overthrowing dictator Bashar al-Assad are so small.
After months of holding his nerve, US president Barack Obama last week succumbed to calls from commentators and Syrian opposition leaders, and demanded Mr Assad's removal. The decision was a mistake. Earlier in the week, Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, noted that, if the US called for Mr Assad's head, then what?”. And, indeed, then what?
I lived in Syria for two years and still visit regularly, so I know only too well that the US is viewed with deep animosity. Officials told me many times, and with straight faces, that America is at war with Arabs and Muslims – a view also ingrained among the wider population, particularly after the Iraq war.
Calls for regime change will thus help Syria, as Mr Assad defies the west with ease. As elsewhere in the Middle East, defying Washington is a cause of strength and popularity, as Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran show. Every passing day will now be seen as a humiliation for Mr Obama, while the fragmented and shambolic Syrian opposition will be more credibly dubbed “American stooges”, or “Zionist agents”. For a population that is vehemently anti-American and anti-Israel, such labels are powerful and destructive.
The regime has been barbaric in responding to the brave people on the streets, but we must be careful about accepting the narrative that the whole of Syria is demanding change. The largest cities of Aleppo and Damascus remain relatively calm, while opinion in western capitals is led by reports generated via opposition movements, often using social media of questionable reliability. The army has committed many atrocities but hundreds of its members appear to have been killed, too. In the absence of international media, it is debatable whether the protesters are altogether peaceful.
Already, calls for military intervention are being made by Syrian opposition activists in meetings at the White House and US state department. Yet such movements have led us astray before, as when politicians such as Ahmed Chalabi misled the US about realities in Iraq. In truth, Mr Assad's regime is much less likely to fall than that of Muammer Gaddafi: there have been no high-profile political or military defections, while Mr Assad remains relatively popular among senior military commanders, Syrian mosque clerics, the middle-classes and business leaders.
This brings us back to the “then what” question. The numbers being killed now will wither in comparison with a possible future civil war, if an increasingly sectarian Syria splinters between the ruling Alawites, the elite and urban Christians, the majority Sunnis, the Kurds, Druze and others. There is no civil society to engineer a peaceful transition, while Syria could plausibly become another Lebanon, acting as a proxy battleground for regional powers.
This risk partly explains why Syria's ally Turkey has exerted such effort to rein in the slaughter, and why Saudi Arabia, Russia and China have not joined America's lead. They all want to give Mr Assad more time – because they recognise the thin chance of getting rid of him, and because they fear the violence that would follow if he did fall.
Almost 90 per cent of Syria's crude oil exports go to European countries. Almost $3bn of its annual trade is conducted with Turkey. Saudi Arabia is a regional power with vested interests in the country, and Russia and Syria enjoy historical relations, as well as arms deals. It is these countries that now must be on the front lines of reform, with the US largely working behind the scenes.
For the west, the most powerful and poignant moment in recent months came when US ambassador Robert Ford travelled to Hama, scene of protests, to show solidarity and monitor the regime's actions. His quiet move warmed usually hostile Sunni communities elsewhere in the Middle East to America, while putting fear into the heart of the tyrant himself. Such innovative, soft power strategies will do more to help Syrian democracy than loud statements from the White House.
The most powerful pressure on Mr Assad so far, however, has been from Al Jazeera's Arabic coverage, which encouraged Syrians to take control of their own destiny. This is surely right, for any long-term change must come from within. Sadly, in the short term and in a highly volatile region, at present Mr Assad remains the least worst option.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of The Islamist
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