August 30, 2013
Syria in 5774: The unfolding of miscalculations
War is the unfolding of miscalculations, historian Barbara Tuchman wrote — and she didn’t even know Bashar al-Assad.
If the Butcher of Damascus thought there was no difference between killing women and children with artillery and killing them with gas, he miscalculated. Even in a world inured to ever-mounting levels of violence, the images of the slaughter outside Damascus — writhing children, blinded mothers, families dead in their beds — provoked a level of honest outrage that the conventional slaughter of 100,000 Syrians couldn’t approach. It was — and I don’t use the term lightly, or ever — Nazi-esque.
Assad miscalculated if he thought President Barack Obama was just bluffing. No, Obama has not acted swiftly on Syria. The writing has been on the wall since the start of the Syrian revolution in March 2011 — Assad would eventually have to go, it was just a question of how many lives he would take beforehand. The longer Obama waited to intervene, the narrower his options became. But the man who took out Osama bin Laden and turbo-charged the drone war in Afghanistan and Pakistan — he may be slow on the trigger, but he knows how to shoot.
Obama himself miscalculated if he once believed words alone would stop Assad. Appeals to his Syrian nationalism? As long as “Syria” means “the Assads,” there never was a more patriotic family. But the Assads have always run Syria as a mafia clan, not a country.
Obama miscalculated if he thought the more progressive anti-Assad forces could hold on against jihadists and general chaos. Two years ago, in a column calling for the president to act, I quoted Meir Dagan, former head of the Mossad, who said, “There is a way of supporting opposition and bringing it into Western alliance.” As chaos and al-Qaeda influence grow, that option has begun to close — but it hasn’t closed forever.
Obama’s erring hesitancy met Assad’s arrogant callousness, and the end result is a tragic loss of innocent life and the breach of an international norm that leaves us sickened. Now comes a justifiable military action, but one that is too late for the latest victims.
The punishment Obama finally metes out will unleash a new phase of the Syrian battle. The military option is no longer just on the table — it’s the centerpiece. Now it becomes a question of how the president and our strange bedfellow allies — Israel, the Gulf States, Jordan, Turkey, Europe — administer the Assad regime’s inevitable euthanasia.
Will Assad try to distract opponents by launching an attack on Israel, in an attempt to make this conflict about Arabs versus Jews? It’s worked before — the Arab Spring is, in some ways, the ultimate rebuttal to dictators who tried to cover up their inadequacies and justify their cruelties by forever blaming Israel.
But if Assad thinks his own traumatized countrymen will fall for that this time, he’s again miscalculating.
“The most hated country in Syria today is Iran,” a Syrian opposition leader told me this past spring. “It’s not Israel; it’s not the U.S., because [Iran is] directly involved and implicated in the killing.”
Israel, you’ll notice, cannot yet be accused of miscalculating its approach to Syria. It has remained as quiet as a mouse. You’d have thought, from its public pronouncements, that Israel was no closer to Syria than Omaha.
High-profile Israelis have decried the loss of life. Behind the scenes, Israel has worked on refugee relief and strategic issues with Jordan, Turkey and the United States — and provided Obama with the intelligence he needed to confirm Assad’s guilt in the chemical attack. But the country with arguably the most at stake has not made this unfolding tragedy — at least publicly — about itself.
It’s not clear that approach will win Israel immediate friends. The pro-Assad blog Friends of Syria blames the entire Syrian Revolution on Israel. “Syria isn’t being bombarded with bombs and missiles from helicopter gunships or F-16s (at least … not yet),” the propagandists write there. “It is being bombarded by … Zionist-designed, Zionist-enforced ‘democracy.’ ”
The anti-Assad forces, meanwhile, accuse Israel of forcing American inaction. “Aborting the Syrian revolution has now become one of Israel’s strategic priorities,” wrote Gulf State analyst Mustafa Al-Aani in al-Hayat, a leading pan-Arab daily newspaper.
Israel can’t be accused of miscalculating its way into war — but war has again found it.
As I write this, the New Year has not yet begun, nor has the full extent of the possible conflict. The shooting may be over in a flash, but the human costs will linger long into the next year. Refugees, wounded, survivors — the Arab Spring continues to rack up more costs than benefits.
How will it all end? Who knows. I may be the last columnist in the Western world to still stick by the term “Arab Spring,” but so be it. I never saw the term as descriptive, but aspirational. The Prague Spring, after all, ended up in a crushing communist onslaught.
Assad inevitably will fall, like his other neighborhood dictators. And a new order will be born. And, as with any birth, you can’t predict what will grow up. You never know how beginnings end. But it’s good, as tragedy unfolds, to err on the side of hope.
That’s my miscalculation — and I’m sticking to it.