Let’s not forget how this started. The opposition was scrupulously nonviolent until the regime responded with extreme violence. That (to borrow a phrase) opened the gates of Hell.
The rebels have committed some atrocities. Shooting captured soldiers is wrong. However, some perspective is required. Soldiers in war are subject to getting shot; and at least the opposition atrocities seem limited to combatants, whereas regime forces indiscriminately target the civilian population. Indeed, the intent is specifically to terrorize civilians.
That’s especially true of the “Shabiha,” non-military gangs of sociopaths deployed to rape and murder. Some of them, when captured, have also been shot. That, frankly, I’m fine with.
In any case, all this blood is on Assad’s hands, because when you start a war you are responsible for the inevitable consequences. Assad could still choose to stop it at any time.
But this horror could go on for a very long time, until one side or the other is beaten. The rebels won’t give up; they’re never going to return to acquiescence in rule by Assad’s criminal enterprise, and the international community could not bring that about, even if it wished to, which (apart from Russia and Iran), it does not. So the only hope is to end the regime.
I am appalled that the U.S. is not doing more to achieve this outcome. The Brits and even the French have recognized the opposition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Oh, for the days when America exercised real leadership! Ours was the first nation to recognize Israel’s independence in 1948. But Barack Obama’s America is shamefully more wishy-washy.
And it’s not as though we don’t have vital national interests at stake in Syria. The longer the conflict goes on, the more it threatens the rest of the region. And Assad’s fall would be a huge strategic blow to his ally, Iran, arguably our biggest geopolitical adversary.
Some fret that we don’t really know who all these rebels are, and maybe some are bad guys. Well, it would be peachy if Syria could be handed off to a George Washington type, but one never gets such ideal choices in this imperfect world. And whatever government replaces Assad, it could hardly be worse; certainly not worse for us, if it’s not aligned with Iran.
And if we’re worried about the outcome, the best way to influence it is to be involved in the process. If we want a future Syrian government friendly to our interests, or at least less hostile, then it behooves us to befriend now the people who will shape that government, by supporting and helping them as strongly as possible. True, one can’t count on gratitude*, but what should we expect if we don’t even try?
Thus our failing to help the rebels more today could well prove vastly more costly tomorrow. And there’s a lot we can do on the cheap. Yes, we’re suffering war fatigue; is there no end to the Muslims we must bomb? But still, what do we spend a gazillion dollars on our military for, if not to use it? We can afford to lob a few at Assad’s goons – just so they know they’re not merely fighting women and children and ragtag under-armed nobodies. We can disrupt and demoralize the criminal forces without boots on the ground.
Assassinating foreign leaders is a no-no, of course. But in a war situation, military assets are legitimate targets, and that includes military commanders. Bashar Assad commands his military. Killing him with an American bomb, or drone strike, would be a very good thing. While that would not immediately end the war, and the regime would try to soldier on, I suspect it would fall apart, with in-fighting over the diminishing spoils of its criminality.
Would any of this be “legal”? The concept of international legality does have great value, but we should not permit that important value to be held hostage by the obstructionism of one or two shameful countries (Russia and China). The old expression, “The law is an ass,” applies in such a situation; it can be more important to do what is right than what is legal. And in this case, our position would not be a lonely one. This is no longer your father’s Middle East. Even almost the whole Arab world would welcome our acting more forcefully to end this mess. The squeals of Russia and China can be ignored.
*Old tale: Frog and scorpion want to cross the Jordan. Scorpion says, “Give me a ride on your back.” Frog says, “I’m afraid you’ll sting me.” Scorpion replies, “Why would I do that? We’d both drown.” Frog says OK, and they set off. In mid-stream, scorpion stings frog, and as they both go down, Frog says, “Why did you do that?” Scorpion replies, “This is the Middle East.” (Alternatively, “It’s in my nature.”)