August 22, 2013
Bashar al-Assad is, finally, having a very good week.
The latest allegations of chemical-weapons use against the Syrian dictator don’t matter nearly as much as other dramatic developments—in particular, the United States’ willingness to stand aside while Assad’s autocratic brethren in the Egyptian junta cold-bloodedly killed some one thousand protesters, supported by the Saudis and Gulf states.
And this week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, finally said plainly what Obama administration officials have been thinking privately since June, the last time Washington said its “red line” had been crossed and pledged military aid to the Syrian rebels—then did nothing. In a letter to Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., Dempsey said flatly that U.S. aid to the rebels know would just end up arming radical, possibly al-Qaida-linked groups. And Obama wasn’t going to allow that to happen.
What it all means is that we may now be at a historic turning point in the Arab Spring—what is effectively the end of it, at least for now. Assad, says Syria expert Joshua Landis, is surely taking on board the lessons of the last few weeks: If the United States wasn’t going to intervene or even protest very loudly over the killing of mildly radical Muslim Brotherhood supporters, it’s certainly not going to take a firmer hand against Assad’s slaughter of even more radical anti-U.S. groups. “With a thousand people dead or close to it, and America still debating whether to cut off aid, and how and when, that’s got to give comfort to Assad,” says Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma. “The Egyptians brushed off the United States and said…. Well, we don’t want to end up like Syria. And America blinked. And Israel and the Gulf states were in there telling them to hit the protesters hard.”