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How Many Syrians Have to Die

Syrians in Toronto gather at the Eaton Centre for a rally for Syrian freedom, May 21, 2011.

/ Published June 6, 2011

Bashar al-Assad's credibility as a legitimate ruler has eroded because every reform he announces is delivered to his people with bullets and arrests. But the credibility of America's Secretary of State and the British Prime Minister, both of whom continue to make the “Orwellian” claim that Bashar al-Assad can end the violence and initiate political reforms, is also much diminished. Much like other Middle East dictators, Bashar al-Assad sustains his regime by controlling access to economic opportunity and political office. Without these repressive mechanisms of control, he has no power. And without the resources to sustain these mechanisms, he would lack the means to kill off or sweep away the people demanding freedom. By some estimates, 1,000 protestors have already been killed, and many more are imprisoned. Yet this brutality has triggered only the mildest criticism from the very same leaders who rushed to call for Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak's departure from office and who are now sending war planes to bomb Libya's dictator into submission or surrender. Thus Iran and the Gulf States can extend financial and material support to a regime savagely wiping out its opponents and risk not even the mildest rebuke from the international community. One suspects the silence of American and European political leaders comes from some calculation of national self-interest activated by a collective fear of what comes next.

But are these calculations correct and is this fear of Syria's post-Assad future rational? One might reasonably wonder why the Gulf States, so obsessed with the spread of Iranian/Shia influence, are propping up Syria—the very regime that brings what they deem a highly problematic influence into the Arab heartland. Perhaps a shared interest among these kingdoms in undermining the spread of democracy is far stronger than their suspicions of Iran. Still, the more troubling question relates to the reactions of American and European policy makers who have long focused their concerns on the possibility, even likelihood, of Iran gaining access to nuclear weapons. Efforts to stop the development of Iran's nuclear capacity have led to a cumbersome set of sanctions, widely acknowledged to be ineffective, and a series of rumored undercover cyber warfare tactics whose impact is very difficult to assess. Surely, if the fall of Syria, Iran's longstanding ally in the region, would cut Syria's ties to its proxies in Lebanon and in the Gaza Strip, the consequences for regional stability and a Middle East peace process are far more promising than they are with a Syrian leader more beholden to Iran for saving his regime. It is also conceivable that the end of Syria's dictatorship will energize the Iranian opposition to take to the streets once again. So, it must be asked: why are American and European policy makers hesitating to call for the end of the Assad regime? At the very least, Americans and Europeans are owed an explanation that accords with fact and not with the fantasy that President Bashar al-Assad can bring democratic reforms to Syria.

Donna Robinson Divine is the Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government at Smith College.