U.S. left Syrian children to the devil

The barbarisms inflicted on the young in Syria continue unabated while Americans grieve for the children of Newtown.

In the U.S., we try to fathom the cruelty, and the faces of Connecticut first-graders torment us. Similar stories are told by Syrians suffering at the hands of Bashar Assad's brutal regime. One such account was given in "Untold Atrocities," a report released several months ago by the Save the Children charity. It opens with the tale of one Syrian child, Alaa, as told by Wael, a narrator who is 16 years old.

"I knew a boy named Alaa. He was only 6 years old. He didn't understand what was happening. I'd say that 6-year-old boy was tortured more than anyone else in the room. He wasn't given food or water for three days, and he was so weak that he used to faint all the time. He was beaten regularly. I watched him die. He only survived for three days and then he simply died. He was terrified the whole time."

In the matter of Syria, the ordeal has lost its shock value. Early in this rebellion, the world stirred to the suffering of Hamza Khatib, a child who died under horrific torture, and whose disfigured body was returned to his family — a warning of what the regime had in store for those who dared to rise against the tyranny.

There were the boys in the forlorn town of Deraa, south of Damascus. They had been picked up and tortured for scribbling graffiti on the walls of their city calling for the fall of the dictatorship. In the nature of such things, the regime hunkered down and bet that the outrage over the horrors would blow over, that no foreign cavalry would come to the rescue.

Empty warnings

In this drawn-out war, the end was always near. A long year ago, Frederic Hof, then the State Department's man on Syria, described Assad as "a dead man walking." Now there is new talk of the Syrian regime coming apart, of Assad giving up what is left of Damascus and making a run to the coastal town of Latakia and the Alawite mountains to its east, carving out a ministate for himself and his sect.

Behind him, he would leave scorched earth: He has all but reduced the fabled northern city of Aleppo to rubble, and all signs indicate that he would do the same to Damascus. Ancient cities, among the oldest human habitations on Earth and bearers of the civilizations that left their mark there, have been punished by a despot who was strangely offended that the people had risen against the regime that imposed their servitude.

We should grant American diplomacy under the stewardship of Secretary Hillary Clinton its due: It ran out the clock on the Syrians. There was always another "Friends of Syria" diplomatic gathering, another meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and always another test of pluralism and inclusiveness that the Syrian opposition had to meet before we deemed it worthy of our support. When Kofi Annan failed and called it quits, another United Nations envoy was dispatched, the Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi.

Mission accomplished: The war in Syria never intruded on the U.S. presidential contest. Many months earlier, in August 2011, President Barack Obama had given up on the legend of Assad the reformer, and called on the Syrian ruler to abdicate. That declaration was the sum of U.S. policy. America had put itself on the side of good things in Syria, and no more needed to be done. "Complexity" was always the cover, and the pretext, for abdication.

American power couldn't break the cruel stalemate, and the U.S. couldn't support a no-fly zone on Syria's frontier with Turkey because Syria was a country with a complicated history and sensitive borders.

Jihadists' opening

The passivity would become self-fulfilling. In due course, Syria's war spilled over into neighboring countries. It came to Lebanon, the most vulnerable of those neighbors; even Turkey, a powerful and big country, came under great stress. Refugees overwhelmed Jordan — in the best of times a country of limited means and precarious stability. Syria had always been a pivot of the region around it, and it had been folly to think it could burn while the peace in the region held intact.

A Syrian future is being shaped, and the U.S. will have no say about the kind of order to emerge out of this war. We have made much of the jihadists who came into Syria to do battle against the dreadful regime. This month, the State Department designated one such jihadist group, the Nusra Front, as a global terrorist organization. "We are all Nusra Front," Syrian protesters proclaimed as an answer to that decision. A population fighting for its life was willing to take the devil's help.

Obama had drawn his own red line: The use of chemical weapons would change his "calculus," he said. No Syrians paid heed to that declaration. The regime's fighter jets and its artillery, and the massacres by its vigilantes, were ruin enough.

Recent surveys confirm that there is no support among Americans for a more robust U.S. role in Syria. A poll of some 1,500 adults, conducted Dec. 5-9, found 64 percent of respondents disagreed with the assertion that the U.S. has a "responsibility to do something about fighting in Syria," while 25 percent were in favor. Furthermore, 65 percent opposed supplying arms to the Syrian rebels, and only 24 percent favored it.

The political calculus had its own power: There was no constituency for a Syrian rescue. One would have thought that it is the burden of leaders to lead, to spell out to a skeptical, reluctant public what the stakes are in distant quarrels. But that is too much to ask for in this moment of American doubt and retrenchment.

Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the author of The Syrian Rebellion.

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