The Obama Administration Is AWOL on Syria

by Elliott Abrams

The incoherence of Obama’s foreign policy became even more apparent today at the international meeting on Syria

The real news of the day was the confirmed defection of Major General Manaf Tlas, who is an important military figure and the son of a former minister of defense. The Tlas clan are Sunni, and have been Assad loyalists for decades, so their decision to jump ship is significant — due to rank, influence, religion, and likely impact. Other Sunnis in the regime are now more likely to follow, and those who remain will be under constant suspicion. This is real trouble for Assad.

At the meeting in Paris, Secretary of State Clinton blew off some steam. First she addressed the Tlas defection in her typical language, trying to encourage others to defect: “The Syrian people will remember the choices you make in the coming days, and so will the world. It is time to abandon the dictator, embrace your countrymen and women and get on the right side of history.” This is nonsense, and if a speechwriter drafted it he should be fired immediately. Syrians are fighting for their lives; they do not care what the world will remember; they care about preserving life and limb and bank account, and being on the winning side in Syria, not in “history.” She would have a greater impact had she not been saying this sort of thing for 16 months while doing next to nothing. In February, for example, she said, “World opinion is not going to stand idly by.” Roughly 9,000 more Syrians have been murdered by the regime since then, while “world opinion” has, if not stood idly by, joined us in hiding behind the pathetic diplomatic efforts of Kofi Annan.

Then Mrs. Clinton criticized Russia and China, saying they “are holding up progress — blockading it — [and] that is no longer tolerable.” And, she added, they are not “paying any price at all — nothing at all — for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime.” 

Ah, well. If it is “no longer tolerable” what does she plan to do about that? If they are paying no price at all, whose fault is that? Is it possible that she might say the famous “reset” is over, has failed, is cancelled? If not, what is the point of these little speeches?

Given the real situation in Syria, Mrs. Clinton’s frustrations are nice to see; she met with some leading Syrian dissidents in Paris, too, and that is also nice to see, though it would have been nicer to see in July 2011. Protests began in Syria on January 26, 2011; by this date last year the killings in Hama had begun. The Obama administration has sat back and watched, leaking misleading information about how intervention would be hopelessly difficult, wringing its hands, and making fatuous statements about “world opinion.” If Mrs. Clinton is frustrated and angry, whom can she blame except the authors of our do-nothing policy — presumably herself and the president.

It is possible that the regime will now begin to crumble more quickly; I know no experts who think it will survive. But that will be after somewhere between 16,500 and 20,000 are dead, Syrian society is torn apart by killing and counter-killing, reconciliation is almost impossible, and the United States has — like Mrs. Clinton’s “world opinion” —  sat idly by or acted slowly, late, and weakly. On April 23 of this year, ten weeks ago, the president went to the Holocaust Museum to announce his formation of an “Atrocities Prevention Board.” It is supposed to be forward-looking, thinking about how to stop the next mass killing. Bad timing. The next mass killing is happening now, and the Obama administration is AWOL. 

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