In his 2010 book, The Strong Horse, Lee Smith counseled that, in the Middle East, what matters in shaping the loyalty of the masses is which “strong horse” – whether a person or a country – can impose its will on others.
The title refers to the celebratory remark by Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.”
Smith’s counsel comes to mind in light of the latest from Syria, where Bashar al-Assad appears increasingly likely to hold power indefinitely after turning back recent rebel thrusts and solidifying his hold on Damascus and other strategically important centers.
President Barack Obama said long ago, and has since reiterated, that it’s time for Assad to go, as the brutal strongman continues to slaughter his people in the most disgusting fashion, even resorting not long ago to poison gas. Administration officials, meanwhile, have insisted that Assad’s days are numbered because, at some point, public outrage over his rule will prompt his toppling.
But what seemed inevitable during the heady days of the early “Arab Spring” now seems less likely as Assad receives growing support, in the form of weapons and war-fighters, from an axis of anti-American interests. As the Washington Post wrote recently, fighters loyal to Assad “are beginning to turn the tide of the country’s war, bolstered by a new strategy, the support of Iran and Russia and the assistance of fighters with Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.”
In essence, Syria has become not just a gruesome civil war, but also a proxy war with significant global implications – with the United States, Israel, and like-minded Arab states who seek Assad’s ouster on one side, and Russia, Iran, and terrorist groups like Hezbollah who seek his survival on the other.
If so, Assad’s survival in defiance of widespread expectations and U.S. desires will position Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah as regional “strong horses.” And it will nourish a growing sense in the region and elsewhere that the U.S. has become a decidedly “weak horse,” unable to shape events and, worse, unlikely to spend much energy trying.
Such perceptions are hardly ideal at the moment for the U.S. and its allies – as Tehran approaches a nuclear breakout, forcing decisions in Washington and Jerusalem about military action to prevent it; as Hezbollah and other terrorist groups threaten retaliation for Israel’s air strikes in Syria on Iranian arms bound for Hezbollah; and as Moscow continues undermining U.S. interests on the world stage. The players in question are assuming their roles comfortably; with the strong horses acting evermore boldly to promote their interests while the weak horse of America seeks comfort in fanciful paths to peace.
Take Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who seeks to extend Moscow’s influence far beyond its backyard. Dismissing U.S. requests that it pressure Assad to step down as well as Israeli requests that it not sell long-range aerial defense systems to him, Russia has stood by Assad and sent him the weaponry.
Russian officials said Moscow is now completing the deliveries of those defense systems to Damascus. Russian state TV noted that, consequently, the West could not hope to repeat, in Syria, its success in Libya when it imposed a “no-fly” zone that grounded Moammar Gadhafi’s air force. Nor, perhaps, could Israel easily repeat its success in hitting weapons caches from the air.
Or take Iran, Syria, and their terrorist clients (most prominently, Hezbollah) that, together, comprise a regional anti-U.S. axis.
In Tehran, the radical regime – which seeks nuclear weaponry and regional hegemony – is teaming with Hezbollah, its main terrorist benefactor, to train 60,000 militia irregulars to buttress Assad’s forces.
Meanwhile, an emboldened Assad now threatens to invade the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and where the Israeli-Syrian border has since remained mostly calm. Syria and Hezbollah also vow to assist the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, which says it’s forming combat units to recapture the Golan Heights and other Israeli-occupied territory.
Now, take the U.S., which has long played a huge role in maintaining regional peace and stability. Obama, who still has not responded to Syria’s redline-crossing use of chemical weapons, is still weighing whether to arm Syria’s rebels, opting recently only for $100 million in strictly humanitarian aid.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry secured Putin’s agreement to Russian participation in an international conference on Syria that even Obama acknowledged does not really hold much promise for ending the conflict.
So, while Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah work feverishly to secure Assad’s survival and, thus, their collective triumph over America, the U.S. refuses to do anything of note to turn the tide in its favor.
The notion of strong and weak horses, and who’s playing which role, will not escape attention in the region and beyond.
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and author of “Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.”