from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Syria: Will Violence Beget Violence?

May 3, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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In a recent post, I wrote that “The spectacular news of Osama bin Laden’s killing by U.S. forces could not have come at a better time. Al-Qaeda’s message that violence, terrorism, and extremism are the only answer for Arabs seeking dignity and hope is being rejected each day in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and throughout the Arab lands. Al-Qaeda and its view of the world are being pushed aside in favor of demands for new governments, free elections, freedom of speech and assembly, and an end to corruption."

My friend Lee Smith, a superb analyst of  the Middle East and author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, wrote me to raise a question about those words. He has a great concern, as I do, that the United States is not doing enough to pressure the Assad mafia in Damascus. We have not targeted Assad with sanctions, called for his departure from power, kicked his ambassador in Washington out or withdrawn our own from Damascus, despite the growing violence against the people of Syria.

“My concern,” Lee said, “is that...the Sunnis in Syria are now getting the idea that the only way to bring down Bashar is through violence. In due course, a Zarqawi will come to lead them and he will sow mayhem not just in Syria but throughout the region. This White House is at odds with itself—and inadvertently cooking catastrophe.”

Lee’s email points out two among the many reasons to call for a tougher policy against the Assad regime. First and more generally, if Assad murders hundreds of peaceful Syrian demonstrators and gets away with it, Syria will be teaching every dictator a lesson: “kill as many people as you need to; don’t do what Mubarak and Ben Ali did, just shoot.” If that is what Assad’s survival teaches, it will be a terrible precedent and Arab protesters will pay the price in Syria and elsewhere in the region.

Lee’s second concern is that such regime violence will evoke an equally violent response from the Sunni majority in Syria. As moderates rarely lead such violent movements, it can be expected that extremists will. Thus those who say that we should not pressure Syria because the successor to Assad may be an extremist Sunni regime are in fact offering a self-fulfilling prophecy. Here again I agree with Lee, and believe that in Syria as elsewhere in the region region violence will beget a violent response. That is all the more reason for the United States to support far more strongly the peaceful protests in Syria. And all the more reason why we will all be better off the sooner Assad’s regime collapses.

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