One month ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, citing an apocryphal consensus of “both parties” in Washington, called Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad “a reformer.” As if on cue, Assad made a few token gestures — firing his cabinet, etc. — and proceeded to escalate his crackdown on the protesters against his regime. That pattern, concessionary poses followed by brutal violence, has only accelerated. Last Thursday, he lifted the state-emergency law and then commemorated it by massacring more than 100 demonstrators on Good Friday. The same day, President Obama issued a generic, milquetoast condemnation of the violence. On Saturday, Assad’s lackeys killed at least 18 more.
The total death toll is now over 400, according to rights groups inside Syria, and some witnesses’ reports indicate it could be much, much higher. Independent foreign journalists and monitors have been expelled, so much is uncertain. But we do know that yesterday, Syrian army tanks entered Dara’a and gunfire rang out. And the United States stayed silent.
America’s reservation amid previous Arab protests has been understandable. The upheaval in Egypt was a classic American foreign-policy dilemma. Hosni Mubarak was a relatively benign dictator — certainly not a force for liberal democracy in the Middle East, and unquestionably guilty of human-rights abuses, but also a source of stability, a longstanding ally to American interests, and an essential barrier between Israel and her enemies. The conflicting demands of America’s interest in regional stability and her democratic ideals were real.
The upheaval in Syria is no dilemma. The ruling Assad family famously murdered tens of thousands of its own citizens the last time it was protested, has conspired in the assassination of foreign leaders, supports Hezbollah, lovingly advances Iran’s interests, and has pursued nuclear weapons with persistence. Bashar al-Assad’s ouster would present a perfect confluence of America’s ideals and interests, wounding Iran’s play for regional supremacy, and making an example of a dictator who combines all of the behaviors the U.S. wishes, morally and for its interests’ sakes, to inhibit.
It is to be regretted that so many American and Western leaders (Nancy Pelosi prominent among them) attempted to rehabilitate the Assads’ international standing over the past several years. That was the result of an immoral and diplomatically foolish decision motivated by the deluded idea that Syria could be a reliable partner for Israel, and by the desire to thumb a nose at Pres. George W. Bush, whose hostility toward the Assad regime has since been vindicated.
But that’s in the past. Here’s what the U.S. can do now:
Withdraw America’s ambassador to Syria immediately. With Syria’s regime exhibiting a brutal and manic fight response, our diplomats can’t exercise persuasion from within, but their continued presence is a boon to the regime’s legitimacy and an embarrassment to our claim to oppose violence, let alone support democracy. That Obama has not withdrawn Amb. Robert Ford yet indicates an unwillingness to admit his mistake in rushing the latter’s recess appointment, which was more a snub to Obama’s predecessor than considered diplomacy. Likewise, Syria’s ambassador to the U.S. should be sent home.
Implement the whole gift bag of diplomatic sanctions. Freeze Syrian elites’ overseas assets, forbid them travel in and out of the country, freeze the Syrian central bank (using financial-sanctions provisions of the PATRIOT Act), and ban arms trade with Syria. France and Britain are currently introducing resolutions to the United Nations for condemnations and sanctions. The United States should not take a backseat.
Turn up the volume. President Obama’s only recent statement on Syria never once employed the first person. Obama prides himself on his being a persuasive wordsmith and on the influence of his moral leadership. Why can’t he craft some strong, unequivocal condemnation for Assad?
Things could get very, very bad in Syria. The Alawites (the Shia sect of which the Assads are a part) have long been a politically dominant minority in this majority-Sunni country. The elite are consequently tightly bound together, by ethno-religious solidarity and shared fate: they fear recriminations if they are overthrown. Expect no real concessions, or defections. So there are limits to our influence, and our response must evolve with circumstances. But there’s no doubt that our response so far has been incongruent to the crimes Bashar al-Assad has perpetrated, and cowardly and weak.