For over a year now, the best minds in Washington have assured me (and you) that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is about to fall. These assurances are always delivered with great confidence, winks and nods oozing gravitas, and yet the wispy Assad, an ophthalmologist masquerading as a despot, hangs on, slaughtering his own people, destroying and despoiling whole neighborhoods, calling the bluff of the Arab League, the Turks and even the European Union, which just the other day -- in a measure apparently intended to give Assad a fatal case of the giggles -- banned his wife from shopping on the Continent. Sherman was right: War is hell.
Having sheathed his credit card, Assad pressed on with his war that has cost as many as 10,000 lives, produced well over 100,000 refugees and brought large-scale misery to Syria. But it has also lifted "the veil of fear" -- a useful phrase coined by former Assistant Secretary of State James P. Rubin. He was referring to the once widespread belief that the Assads were invincible and that to challenge them would bring the most horrendous consequences. This is no longer the case. A great many people have been challenging them for some time now. The costs have been great, but the insurrection goes on nonetheless. The veil has been shredded.
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What has also been shredded is the naive belief that Assad would fall in Syria as did Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and wind up, to the delight of the vengeful, in a defendant's cage. But Mubarak either would not or could not use unrestrained force against his own people. Assad did, and will continue to do so unless and until the United States takes the lead in getting rid of him. As it turns out, neither the Saudis nor the Turks are up to the job.
As with Libya, there are reasons to stay out. In the strictest sense, Syria is not our fight. But a good many lives are at stake and there is nothing wrong with using American might in a humanitarian cause. The U.S. had no dog in the fight in the Balkans, to recall James Baker's felicitous phrase, but it ended the horror there by bombing Serb military positions and then Serbia itself. That operation was hardly brief -- it lasted for 78 days -- but it cost not a single American life. The same was true for Libya. No American lives lost.
U.S. air power can make the difference in Syria. It can limit or eliminate the damage being done by Assad's helicopters and tanks -- although the regime's reported practice of using human shields and placing children on tanks makes this a bit harder. Nonetheless, this is a regime that in a year has not been able to dispatch a divided and disparate opposition. It can be defeated, maybe easily.
If the U.S. finally acts, Russia will throw a fit. Pity. But more importantly, so will Iran. Syria is virtually its puppet state. The demise of the Assad regime would be a heavy blow to Iran. More pragmatically, it would be a boon to Israel. Iran supplies Hezbollah and Hamas through Syria. You can predict anything other than the future in the Middle East, yet bloodying Assad's nose has nothing but favorable consequences for America and its allies in the region, not only Israel but Saudi Arabia as well.
The argument against the U.S. taking action -- arming the rebels, establishing a no-fly zone or even bombings -- is that the slippery slope looms. But Bill Clinton did not slip on that slope in the Balkans -- no boots on the ground there -- nor did President Obama in Libya. These operations can be contained.
Pathetically, the lessons of Bosnia are being ignored. Refusing to arm the opposition will not end the conflict or limit it; it will drag on. Establishing safe havens means inserting possible hostages and establishing killing fields -- remember Srebrenica (8,000 Muslims massacred)? Assad, chillingly, has plenty of chemical weapons. They need to be secured.
The West has imposed sanctions on Syria. They undoubtedly hurt. The currency is worthless, and soon smuggling will become the country's No. 1 enterprise. America has now announced it will provide nonlethal supplies to the opposition. This will undoubtedly help. But the creep toward real involvement -- a virtual plea to the blackhearted Assad to have a heart -- has to stop. Obama dawdles, and lives are being lost. In Libya, Obama led from behind. In Syria, he's not leading at all.
Richard Cohen's email address is email@example.com.
© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group