Pick a side: Murderous generals or jihadists. That’s pretty much the choice the United States faces in Syria and Egypt.
A couple of years ago, in the seeming promise of the Arab Spring, it was possible to imagine the rise of humane governments in both countries. That moment has long passed, as the atrocities of recent days have demonstrated.
In Syria on Wednesday, someone fired poison gas missiles at rebel-held neighborhoods east of Damascus. Hundreds of noncombatants — including many children — died in the attack, some reportedly twitching and foaming at the mouth. Those are hallmarks of sarin, a nerve gas developed in Nazi Germany prior to World War II.
The obvious suspect is the increasingly depraved regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. His forces have been fighting a rebel campaign that started out as peaceful protest movement, took up arms in response to government attacks, and has since become increasingly dominated by jihadists, some directly linked to al-Qaida.
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Poison gas had already been used in the Syrian civil war, in smaller-scale attacks. It’s almost as if Assad’s government has been baiting Barack Obama, who famously declared last summer that he would not tolerate Syria crossing what he called a “red line” by using chemical weapons.
Trapped in his own vague ultimatum, the president responded by promising weapons to democratic factions among the rebels. The U.S. arms pipeline so far hasn’t amounted to anything. That may not be such a bad thing: Any heavy weaponry sent to Syria could fall into the wrong hands.
In Egypt, the generals who recently deposed the country’s first elected leader, Mohammed Morsi, have also covered their hands in blood in recent weeks. They’ve turned military weapons against street protesters led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the long-suppressed political-religious party that put Morsi in power.
But this isn’t a case of black hats vs. white hats, either.
Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had used their election to push Egypt toward theocracy and Shariah law, running roughshod over Christians and moderate Muslims. Since the coup, Muslim Brotherhood thugs have scapegoated Coptic Christians and burned dozens of their churches.
The Egyptian Islamists aren’t champions of a new democratic Egypt — though that doesn’t excuse the generals’ enthusiasm for slaughtering them wholesale.
Many Americans are demanding that Obama do something about Syria and Egypt. In Syria, there’s not much the United States can do beyond rallying international condemnation of whomever turns out to have used chemical weapons.
In Egypt, there are more options, including cutting off American aid to the military. That, of course, would cut off American influence over the Egyptian military, which could have dire unintended consequences.
Sometimes even a superpower has no good choices.