It took long enough, but over the weekend President Obama finally pronounced himself “appalled” at the brutality of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Only now does Obama says, “The reports out of Hama are horrifying and demonstrate the true character of the Syrian regime.” Didn’t we know of Assad’s true character for some time? In the years of efforts to engage Assad, the return of our ambassador to Damascus and in the insistence until recently Assad he had the makings of a “reformer,” his true character evidently escaped his notice.
Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies e-mailed me: “Syria is an increasingly ugly mess, and I don’t see anyone from the international community willing to step up to mitigate this crisis. The slaughter of civilians continues, while the military now shows real signs of fracturing. The Syrian opposition continues to struggle to organize, but has recently been bolstered by some high-level military detections.” As for the Obama administration, Schanzer observes that it “continues to punt on leadership. It refuses to call for the end of the Assad regime. The U.N. Security Council is equally timid.The longer this indecisiveness continues, the more likely we are to see more bloodshed and the potential for a messier outcome.”
Now if the administration were inclined to put aside its quixotic quest for “international consensus” and do something effective, there is no shortage of creative ideas for helping the Syrian people.
Elliott Abrams, in a must-read piece in the Wall Street Journal, argues that the task now is to prevent a civil war and to separate the Alawite minority from Assad and his regime. He writes: “There appears to be no U.S. strategy except prayers that Syria does not turn into Libya.” Abrams contends that the best thing we could do to hasten Assad’s ouster and prevent a bloody civil war would be to “target” Alawite generals “for a campaign of psychological warfare urging them to salvage their community’s post-Assad future by refusing now to kill their fellow citizens.” As Abrams explains, that would be a whole lot more effective if the U.S. emphatically said “Assad must and will go.”
Abrams also recommends that we either recall Ambassador Robert Ford or have him “repeatedly deployed” to Hama and other locations to express U.S. support for the opposition; step up sanctions to pressure the Syrian business community; and urge the Syrian opposition “to state with greater clarity their commitment to civil peace once the Assads are gone.” Moreover, the fall of Moammar Gaddafi would help answer the question of whether “the lesson of the Arab Spring is that dictators are doomed or that dictators willing to shoot peaceful protestors can win.”
The central problem, of course, is not a lack of ideas but the fixation by Obama on one very bad idea: U.S unilateral action is ineffective or counterproductive. If we have learned anything from the bloodshed in Syria and the stalemate in Libya, it is that U.S. inactivity and excessive reliance on multilateral institutions prolongs suffering, perpetuates instability and diminishes our moral standing and influence. Until the administration's faulty premise, or the administration itself, is discarded, there is little hope that the situation in Syria or in Libya will change for the better.