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John Kiriakou

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Looking for One Syrian General

Posted: 09/08/11 11:05 AM ET

Every passing day brings news of pro-democracy demonstrators murdered by the autocratic regime of Syria's Bashar al-Assad. The killings are an almost daily occurrence in Hama, Homs, the Damascus suburbs, and other parts of the country that in the past have been spared violence.

The West's reaction so far is decidedly weaker than it was with the Libyan uprising: impose a few sanctions, have the president tell the press that his preference is for Assad to step down, threaten to hold a meeting at the United Nations, and make a few other underwhelming pronouncements.

The Syrians are far too tough and resilient for half-measures to have much effect. And history tells us that the nearly 2,000 deaths so far in Syria are child's play compared to what the Assad family is capable of. Remember, in 1982, Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad killed a reported 20,000 people in Hama over a two-week period. There was no international fallout when he committed that crime against humanity, and there have been few tangible international reactions to his son's crimes over the past six months, other than a few Arab countries withdrawing their ambassadors.

International military intervention is out of the question. Where NATO lined up to go into Libya, with Qatari money and Arab League support, no such mandate exists in Syria. The Syrians will have to go it alone.

Politically, the Syrian opposition is fractured, unfunded, and unknown. Unlike the Libyans, there are few exiled former government leaders, technocrats, and military turncoats to lead any real movement. Syrian soldiers are defecting to the demonstrators' side, but, so far, almost no senior officers. And there is no safe haven for them in Syria, like the Libyans have in Benghazi, from which they can gather, train, and launch attacks against the government.

So what are an oppressed people supposed to do? Frankly, Syria's future probably rests on the shoulders of one as-yet-anonymous general, rather than on the demonstrators taking to the country's streets every day.

A military coup is the only way to spare Syria from the spiral of death and violence it is entering. Nobody wants a weak and unpredictable Syria. All of the country's neighbors, Israel included, want a predictable and stable one. Israel, Iraq, and Turkey have been dealing with the same players within the Syrian military for a generation. They are a known entity and would likely garner quick international support and recognition if they were able to seize power.

A military coup is not a panacea, but it would usher in significant changes for Syria and for the region. First, a military junta would almost certainly been Sunni Muslim. Syria is a majority Sunni country and most of its military leaders are Sunni. Assad is an Alawi, which Shia Muslims consider to be a branch of Shiism, but which Sunnis believe is not even truly Muslim at all.

Most importantly, a Sunni junta would probably take a dimmer view of Syria's close relations with Shia Iran and with Hezballah and it would force the Iranian government to begin its own internal soul-searching over who lost Syria for the mullahs. Hezballah, meanwhile, would be without its closest collaborator and without its arms conduit from Iran.

A military junta probably wouldn't change much vis-à-vis Israel (Palestinians are Sunnis) but it would immediately try to improve strained relations with the Gulf States, which, in the long run, is good for stability. And stability is always good for Israel.

Syrian resistance to Assad is inspiring, courageous, even heroic. But it's not enough to cast the dictator into history's trash pile. There has to be one Syrian general who can do the deed, and it's time for him to come forward.