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Syria: Is the Devil You Know Better than the One You Do Not?

By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history

The Middle East has long been the epicenter of complex problems that wash like waves into other regions. No different than his predecessors as far back as Truman, President Obama is faced with a complex nexus of interrelated problems and hard choices.

The Arab Spring has brought with it change, much of it unwelcomed in Washington. Under the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, the future of Egypt is uncertain. An Iran armed with atomic weapons is a dismal prospect. Yemen is in disarray, al-Qaeda doing its usual destructiveness. The prospect of an independent Palestinian State on the West Bank has moved to the back burner. The Sinai has fallen into total disorder. Hamas and Hezbollah will surely take advantage of the region’s problems, each being fed by Iran.

And then there is Syria, which presents an unimaginable host of problems that can destabilize the region even further. Much of Syria is in ruins, its ancient cities along the coastline demolished by the Bashar al-Assad regime’s air force, tanks, and fighting between paramilitary units and the regular army. Syria is sinking as a nation and the ability of its leader to rule over what was Syria two years ago is limited. But al-Assad still has a monopoly of power. He is being resupplied by the Russians and the Iranians, using Hezbollah fighters to put down the Opposition in the most brutal way.

Barring a bolt out of the blue, Syria is shaping up as the greatest foreign policy challenge of Obama’s presidency. One suspects his humanitarian instincts push him in one direction, his geo-political instincts in another.

After two wars in the region, he is mindful of the perils of getting involved in a civil war. In the words of The New York Times’ Tom Friedman, “If you torch it, you own it.” After a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is the last thing Obama wants. However, if the U.S. continues to stand on the sidelines and wait to see how the crisis unfolds, Obama will be accused of being heartless or too tepid.

Like many, Obama would like to see al-Assad pack and leave, but if he falls, the gates of hell will open in a region not known for moderation. There is the fear that once al-Assad is gone, Syria could be dismembered, further collapsing into chaos with Hezbollah moving into its western and southern sections, which Israel would not tolerate. Given the prospect of Syria falling into total chaos, dismembered, or worse, one has to question if some of Obama’s advisers want al-Assad  to leave anytime soon.

Obama may be taking a leaf out of the Israeli handbook on the region: better the devil you know that the one you do not. If al-Assad emerges relatively intact and manages to reassert control, it will take years to rebuild a broken Syria. From a humanitarian point of view, this is hard to swallow. But it just may be a very hard reality, a bitter pill. As one Israeli said, the choice is between plague and cholera, both horrific but at least we know al-Assad, so-to-speak.

Letting the situation play itself out, standing on the sidelines may be the best choice, however distasteful. But al-Assad has to be put on notice: opening your arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and committing genocide on an unimaginable scale would be a game changer.

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