When Bashar al-Assad gave his first major speech in response to the outbreak of protests in Syria in late March 2011, the Arab Twitterati's response was an amused, "one down, two speeches to go." That was the script followed by Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak: The president flounders about with a series of unsatisfying reform offers in the face of massive, cascading popular mobilization, and then, after the magical third speech, disappears forever. If Assad opted instead to unleash military force against his people, then Syria would presumably switch over to the Libya script -- a U.N.-authorized, NATO-led military intervention.
It's been a long time since anyone invoked the magical third speech. Two years, more than 70,000 dead, and millions of refugees later, it's painful to remember that easy joking about the inevitability of change. It reminds me of the famous preface to the third and final edition of Malcolm Kerr's The Arab Cold War: "[S]ince June 1967 Arab politics have ceased to be fun. In the good old days ... it was like watching Princeton play Columbia in football on a muddy afternoon," Kerr wrote. "The June war was like a disastrous game against Notre Dame ... leaving several players crippled for life and the others so embittered that they took to fighting viciously among themselves."
Washington today is consumed by another round of its endless debate about whether to intervene in Syria, this time in response to the regime's alleged use of chemical weapons. I have little to add to the thousands of essays already published on this, beyond what I've already argued. I might add that defending American "credibility" is always a bad reason to go to war. The reputation costs of not enforcing a red line are minimal, and will evaporate within a news cycle; military intervention in Syria will be the news cycle for the next few years. The United States should act in Syria in the way that it believes will best serve American interests and most effectively respond to Syria's horrific violence, not because it feels it must enforce an ill-advised red line.
Rather than continue that debate right now, I want to take a step back and look at how profoundly the Syrian nightmare has destroyed the spirit of fun, hope, and positive change of the early Arab uprisings. The promise of the Arab Spring has given way to Syria's highly visible and protracted violence, divisive identity politics, focus on international intervention, crushing of expectations, fragmentation of the media landscape, state failure, and strategic proxy warfare.
The most obvious way in which Syria has eaten the Arab Spring is the ongoing violence. Egypt and Tunisia may not have been quite as peaceful as many like to believe -- many protesters died in clashes with the police -- but it mattered that the militaries opted not to open fire on their people. The NATO intervention began in Libya barely a month after the first days of the uprising, before Muammar al-Qaddafi's violent backlash gained full strength. But Syria's almost incomprehensible scale of death and devastation has ground on for two long years, with only worse horrors on the horizon.
The Assad regime's decision to deploy all means at its disposal in order to hold on to power drove what began as a peaceful uprising into an unstoppable spiral of militarization. And those atrocities have been profoundly visible, documented in endless YouTube videos. The Libya intervention and early Arab diplomatic mobilization over Syria held the possibility of the formation of a new regional norm against leaders killing their own people. Those hopes are now long gone.