WASHINGTON -- For more than two years, Syrian opposition activists implored Western nations to help their rebellion against Bashar Assad’s regime, flying to world capitals to lobby policymakers and posting thousands of videos that offered foreigners a glimpse of their misery.
The holy grail was U.S. military intervention, which activists finally thought was imminent just last week but now appears to be a fading prospect as the Obama administration and Congress look instead to a proposal that would avert a strike if Assad surrenders his chemical weapons to international authorities.
To the opposition, the move is tantamount to betrayal as the U.S. narrows its strategic interest in Syria to Assad’s chemical arsenal. And if such weapons do end up contained and eventually destroyed, it’s unclear what else, if anything, would draw the United States in, even if the regime continues to crush the rebellion through conventional warfare.
Opposition activist Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Washington-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the U.S. shift away from intervention was all the more bitter because he learned of it Tuesday during an emotional trip to Sarajevo, the European city where in the 1990s brutal attacks on a civilian population forced a NATO intervention. He was part of a Syrian delegation studying the experience of the Bosnians, who took their Arab visitors to mass gravesites and to meet survivors of Serb massacres.
“They told us they lost faith in the international community until the Americans took leadership,” Ziadeh said. “It’s clear that what’s going on in Syria is like what happened in Bosnia, so it’s not acceptable for Assad to hand over his chemical weapons and continue killing us by other means. It’s a shame on the international community.”
The debate over a strike has exposed just how deeply unpopular any form of U.S. intervention in Syria is among Americans, who’ve made it clear in poll after poll that they want the United States to sit out this fight. They don’t want to strike Syria, and they don’t want the United States to arm the rebels, according to poll results released this week.
A McClatchy/Marist poll showed that Americans oppose airstrikes by a margin of 58 percent to 31 percent. A CBS/New York Times poll found that 74 percent oppose arming the rebels. And Gallup found that “Americans who oppose U.S. military action in Syria are most likely to explain their position by saying that the events in Syria are none of the United States’ business, that the U.S. does not need to be involved in another war, or that the action is not well thought out, won’t work, or would lead to negative consequences for the U.S.”
Those statistics undoubtedly figured into Congress’ apparent rejection of Obama’s request for authorization of a military strike – the first time legislators had ever been asked to take a public stand on the Syrian conflict. Judging from the swift consideration of the chemical weapons proposal, the Obama administration, too, is searching for an exit from deeper commitment.
So, for all the grisly YouTube videos, the impassioned speeches about children choking on poison gas, and the declarations about giving Syrians a shot at democracy, the United States appears ready to tell Syrians good luck with their civil war.