As jubilant crowds gather in Tripoli and Benghazi to celebrate the demise of Qaddafi's regime and voters cast their ballots in neighboring Tunisia's first truly free elections, it is tempting to believe that the West's job in the Middle East is done. You would certainly get that impression listening to President Obama's announcement on Friday that the US was withdrawing all its troops from Iraq. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.
While the events in Libya and Tunisia are truly momentous, they are just the beginning of a long journey for the Middle East. What course that journey will take is anyone's guess, but the US and Europe have an obligation to help keep this region on a democratic course. Judging by Friday's announcement, we may not even attempt to fulfill that obligation.
In announcing the withdrawal from Iraq, President Obama talked about re-focusing our energies on re-building our nation at home. But there can be no re-building here if there is no peace and no opportunity there. In fact, the lack of opportunity for Arab youth is a main recruiting tool for al Qaeda and similar organizations. Middle East policy must go beyond simply fulfilling campaign promises. The world is more complicated than any president's domestic agenda and it certainly will not wait for us to catch up if we decide to pursue an isolationist course.
Just like nature, geopolitics abhors a vacuum. The withdrawal of American troops from both Iraq and Afghanistan has the potential to create such a geopolitical vacuum and the nation that will seek to fill it is Iran. Iran fancies itself a regional power and is actively trying to diminish US influence not only in the Middle East, but around the world. The Islamic Republic is bent on achieving a nuclear weapons capability and has been doing so at least since the late 1990s, no matter what the now discredited 2007 National Intelligence Estimate stated. At the very least, Iran must be contained and one way to do so is to go after its allies one-by-one. We already helped the Libyan people get rid of the Iran-friendly Qaddafi. Now, we must do the same to help the Syrian people depose Bashar al-Assad.
Neither the NATO Alliance nor the US have much of an appetite to effect direct change in Syria, but that is precisely where their next efforts are needed. These do not necessarily have to involve the actual use of military force, but they need to be backed up by a credible threat to use such force if we aim to get results. The quicker NATO and the US act, the better our chances of effecting another successful regime change in the Arab World will be.
As an Iranian ally, Syria helps Iran support Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and their never-ending war with Israel. Since 1976, Syria has treated its neighbor Lebanon like a vassal state, upending a delicate sectarian balance and killing many of that nation's top political leaders.
Of greater importance geopolitically was Syria's effort to acquire nuclear weapons, reportedly with North Korean technical help and at least $1 billion in Iranian funds. While the Israelis destroyed a plutonium reactor in a daring raid on the facility at Deir ez-Zor in 2007, there is evidence that other weapons of mass destruction may still be housed on Syrian soil.
Then, there's the question of human rights. Following in the footsteps of his father Hafez al Assad, who massacred at least 10,000 of his own people in the city of Hama in 1982, Bashar al-Assad's regime is responsible for the deaths of over 3,000 of its citizens. That total includes young children like Hamzah al-Khatib, a 13-year-old Syrian boy whose death at the hands of Syrian secret police sparked international outrage back in May. Despite international outrage, the Syrian government continues the practice of imprisoning and torturing countless political prisoners as part of its campaign to silence all opposition.
That opposition is being forced even further underground by the West's failure to focus on Syria's plight. There is a legitimate fear that whatever regime comes after Assad will be even more of a virulent "bad actor" than the current regime is. Many Israelis would rather deal with the "devil they know", in the form of Assad, than with an unknown populist Syrian entity. Some Western governments appear to share this view as well, but such thinking may unnecessarily limit future geopolitical options.
Regimes like Assad's will fall one day due to their internal contradictions and their unsustainable culture of corruption. While we can never know when regimes like this will crumble, we can help to hasten their inevitable demise. It is better to find, mold and support the forces in Syria that seek to institute the rule of law and advocate for human rights. We must use our influence with such groups to steer them away from rogue nations like Iran and into the community of civilized nations.
We would have a better chance of influencing events in Syria had we not precipitously announced the withdrawal of all US troops from neighboring Iraq by the end of 2012. The current Syrian regime, an on-again, off-again partner of Saddam Hussein's, was genuinely shocked by the presence of US troops on its eastern border. The very fact that we were there helped to tame their behavior somewhat and it served to remind both Syria and Iran that we were willing to defend our interests in the region. Now that the US troop withdrawal has been announced, it becomes much more difficult for us to influence the behaviors of both nations. That's why it is now imperative that we help the Syrian people to overthrow the Assad regime. If that regime finds itself on the ash heap of history and Syria's new government turns away from Tehran, then we would have achieved a major strategic victory. We would also be in a much safer geostrategic position from which to withdraw our troops from Iraq.
To make our desire for a new Syria a reality, we have to remember that nations, like people, respond to incentives. If we punish behavior that is antithetical to our interests with sanctions and other punitive measures and reward behavior that is congruent with our interests with political and economic incentives, we can shape how nations behave internationally and domestically. The key is to be consistent in our application of both punishments and rewards and to not be afraid to use our leverage with nations and political groups when we need to.
The Arab Spring has provided US policymakers with a set of golden opportunities to help make the Arab World a better place for its people. The time has come to think boldly of a brand new course that will help the Arab World extract itself from the malaise it has found itself in since the end of the Second World War. After the fall of Qaddafi, we should seize the momentum the West has won and help the Syrian people topple the Assad regime. A genuine Syrian Revolution would blow the winds of change to Tehran and help re-kindle the fires of freedom we so carelessly extinguished in 2009.