After months of criticism for his inactivity from both sides of the political spectrum and international human rights groups President Obama today finally managed to call for Bashar al-Assad to leave. The Post reports:
President Obama on Thursday for the first time explicitly called on Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to step down, a symbolically significant step intended to ratchet up pressure on the government five months after the start of the uprising in that country.
Obama also issued an executive order immediately freezing all assets of the Syrian government subject to U.S. jurisdiction and prohibiting Americans from engaging in any transaction involving the government.
“We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led,” Obama said in a statement. “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
This is yet another reversal for the Obama team that earlier in the week had suggested such a call to go wasn’t that big a deal. (“Just this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton played down the importance of a call for Assad to go. ‘It’s not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go...Fine. What’s next? If Turkey says it, if King Abdullah says it, if other people say it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it.”)
So why did Obama finally leap into action? Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies tells me, “Very little has happened in recent days that wasn’t happening five months ago. The Assad has been consistently brutal. It has just wielded different tools of oppression. The administration simply held off making this announcement until the death toll mounted to unbearable levels. How the current numbers (by some estimations 2000 dead and another 3000 missing) became the threshold is still unclear.”
Thousands of lives have been lost and valuable time when the U.S. could have been applying pressure to the regime. Schanzer surmises, “As for next moves, it appears that, after three decades, we’re finally slapping Syria with sanctions that bite. While this will encumber Syria’s ability to secure the resources needed to suppress its population, there is very little else the Administration appears prepared to do. The White House has explicitly stated that the use of force is off the table. And while the idea of a new war is absolutely unpalatable, we’ve now relinquished our last real bit of leverage.” Maybe the administration can begin to deploy some of the strategies that others have recommended.
Those who have been pleading with the administration to act more quickly responded to the news with a mix of irritation and relief. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) issued a statement capturing the mood of Obama’s critics: “Bashar al-Assad and his murderous regime’s enablers lost their legitimacy to govern a long time ago. I am pleased the Administration is finally taking these belated steps and hope it will lead to renewed efforts for a strong resolution and multilateral sanctions at the UN Security Council. I urge our partners and allies in Europe and Turkey to join the U.S. on these efforts. . . .The U.S. should use every tool at our disposal to support the Syrian people in realizing a more prosperous and democratic future at peace with their neighbors.”
Of the presidential candidates only Mitt Romney, as of this writing, had reacted to the news. (An ABC News report suggests Texas Gov. Rick Perry campaigning in New Hampshire “did his best to ignore questions from the awaiting press, including one about his views on the White House’s increasing pressure on the Syrian regime.”) In a statement Romney chastised the president: “It has taken President Obama far too long to speak out forcefully against Assad and his vicious crackdown in Syria. In the early stages of this crisis, the Obama Administration referred to Assad as a ‘reformer,’ which had the effect of emboldening Assad and discouraging the dissidents. America must show leadership on the world stage and work to move these developing nations toward modernity. This means using the bullhorn of the presidency and not remaining silent for too long while voices of freedom and dissent are under attack.”
The question remains: what did the delay and hesitation get us? Or to put it differently, how many Syrians died while Obama dawdled?
UPDATE (4:21 p.m.): The Perry campaign emails this very solid written statement “The Obama Administration’s call for Syrian President Assad to step down is long overdue. President Assad threatens the safety and security not only of the Syrian people, but the entire Middle East. He also supports terrorist organizations Hezbollah and Hamas. Every diplomatic option should be brought to bear to prevent President Assad from wreaking further violence on his people and the region.”