The Corner

Our Incoherence in the Face of Brutality

The news from Syria reveals once again the incoherence of Obama administration policy. With the Asad regime murdering peaceful protesters, the State Department spokesman had this to say on Monday, April 18: “We are very concerned … about the Asad regime. President Asad needs to address the legitimate aspirations of his people.” The problem is that he is addressing them, the only way he knows how: brutally.

The administration that said Ben Ali must go, then said Mubarak must go, and keeps saying Qaddafi must go cannot find a basis for saying that Asad must go. The president has yet to say a word, though the White House issued a statement in his name on April 8, about 200 murders ago. It began well enough: “I strongly condemn the abhorrent violence committed against peaceful protesters by the Syrian government today and over the past few weeks.”

Nice start, but it was downhill from there. For some reason the president felt compelled to add as his second sentence “I also condemn any use of violence by protesters,” as if that were a major problem instead of a major Asad propaganda line. He then added his trademark “the waters will stop rising” trope: “… the arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture of prisoners that has been reported must end now.” That was ten days ago; is he unhappy that they did not “end now”? The final paragraph was dismal: “Until now, the Syrian government has not addressed the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. Violence and detention are not the answer to the grievances of the Syrian people. It is time for the Syrian government to stop repressing its citizens and to listen to the voices of the Syrian people calling for meaningful political and economic reforms.”

There is zero chance this abhorrent pack of mafiosi will “listen to the voices” of the people they are torturing. The most recent State Department human-rights report on Syria described the regime this way: “The security forces committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, caused politically motivated disappearances, and tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees with impunity.” That’s pretty antiseptic, but the report then acknowledges that this regime is medieval: “Former prisoners, detainees, and reputable local human rights groups reported that methods of torture and abuse included electrical shocks; pulling out fingernails; burning genitalia; forcing objects into the rectum; beatings while the victim is suspended from the ceiling and on the soles of the feet; alternately dousing victims with freezing water and beating them in extremely cold rooms; hyperextending the spine; bending the body into the frame of a wheel and whipping exposed body parts; using a backward-bending chair to asphyxiate the victim or fracture the spine; and stripping prisoners naked for public view.” This stomach-turning account is a reminder why Asad long ago lost the slightest legitimacy. Every day he stays in power his police and army assault the people of Syria.

Beyond human rights, we have significant national-security interests in the demise of the Asad regime. It remains Iran’s only Arab ally, able and willing to trans-ship arms to Hezbollah and through Hezbollah control Lebanon and give Iran a border with Israel. The demise of Asad would mean a tremendous setback for the ayatollahs, and second only to the fall of the Islamic Republic would be a great gain for the United States in the Middle East. The sense throughout the Middle East that Iran has been growing in influence in the last decade, and that the “Arab Spring” brought it more opportunities, would be erased by the fall of Iran’s allies in Damascus.

So the United States should be more than “very concerned” and should not be urging Asad to “listen to the voices” of the Syrian people. We should be using every forum to denounce the Asad regime’s bloody repression and build momentum against it. The Obama administration’s reticence is the detritus of its failed “outreach” policy toward Asad, which led to the disastrous decision to send a U.S. ambassador to Damascus and make believe Asad was a “reformer.” Whether from a human-rights perspective or a realpolitik view, that policy should now be replaced by a determined drive to bring down this regime.

Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was the deputy national security adviser handling the Middle East in the George W. Bush administration.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.

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