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Right Turn
Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 06/17/2011

The administration’s non-policy for Syria [Updated below]

The Post editorial board wrote yesterday: “It has been four weeks since President Obama delivered an address on the Middle East in which he said it would be ‘a top priority’ of his administration to oppose violent repression and support democratic transitions across the region, using “all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.” However, the Obama administration seems to be doing “nothing.” This is no exaggeration: “Apart from a passing reference at a May 25 news conference, the president has not spoken in public about Syria since his May 19 address. The token U.S. sanctions applied to the Assad regime at the time of the speech have not been stepped up. While Britain and France have pressed — unsuccessfully — for a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian repression, the United States has taken a back seat.”

Although Ambassador Robert Ford remains in Damascus there is little indication he is doing anything productive, certainly not speaking hard truths to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. At a State Department briefing this week, there was this exchange:

QUESTION: Mark [Toner], on Syria, yesterday [a reporter] raised the question of what the ambassador, Ambassador Ford, is doing there. Can you update us on exactly what does he do if the Government of Syria continues to ignore his requests to meet with officials?
And also, this does raise a broader question. When he was named by the President back at the end of last year, the criticism was: Isn’t the U.S. rewarding Syria? And lo and behold, he goes there and he’s ignored by Syria. Doesn’t it send a message that maybe it was a mistake to return an ambassador?
MR. TONER: I disagree with that question or the premise behind your question that he’s somehow not fulfilling the role that we sent him out to perform. We believe and have always held that it is in our national security interests to have an ambassador in Damascus. The fact that he had been unable to meet with his Syrian Government interlocutors over the last couple of weeks, I think only illustrates that they don’t like the message he’s delivering.
But that said, he remains on the ground and he remains in contact with members of the Syrian opposition and with civil society leaders within Damascus and outside — and beyond Damascus as the security situation permits.
And it allows us two things. One, it gives us a U.S. — a high-level U.S. voice in Syria, and if not speaking directly to the government, then to the Syrian people. And then secondly, it sends a clear message that we’re engaged, we’re not going to back away, and we’re going to continue to press the Assad regime to end its human rights abuses.

So he’s not there for the reason that prompted Obama to return him to Damascus. Where is the evidence that he is speaking to the Syrian people? No open meetings, public speeches or op-eds that I know of. And is he really in “contact with members of the Syrian opposition and with civil society leaders within Damascus and outside — and beyond Damascus as the security situation permits”? Surely he is under surveillance, and those people would be subject to arrest and execution.

In fact, when I inquired of the State Department about the contacts with dissidents, spokesmen repeatedly refused to give me any data, not even the number of meetings or the types of contacts for fear those contacts would be killed. So how is it Ford is having contacts in Damascus with such people?

And if the State Department is concerned that Assad will kill people who meet with the U.S. government, why have we not cut off diplomatic ties or taken other action to declare Assad an illegitimate ruler?

The pro-democracy Syrian community in the U.S. is mistrustful. Sherkoh Abbasof the Syrian Democracy Council tells me, “The State Department has been working with only groups who are not democratic, nor have any interests in real democratic change in Syria. End result, waste of U.S. tax dollars to show that democracy programs being implemented.” Likewise, Mountasir (who asks that I use first name only) tells me, “The inaction of our administration and our State Department is unconscionable. As an American of Syrian descent, at the minimum I demand that our government withdraw our Ambassador from Syria, and dismiss all Syrian diplomats from our soil immediately in order to finally begin doing everything in its power to declare the illegitimacy of Assad’s government.”

Even if we suppose the administration is having more than token contact with pro-democracy forces either here or in Syria, there is no evidence it is doing anything with the information it has gathered. It is both a mystery and an abomination that Obama has not carried out on his promises. But then this is an administration that places great emphasis on Obama’s speeches and spends very little energy constructing effective policies.

UPDATE (2:45 p.m.): Two senior officials just completed a background briefing on Syria. Perhaps sensitive to the charge that nothing is happening they stressed how “appalling” and “disturbed” they were by violence, which continued today. However, twice the president’s mantra “lead or leave” was repeated, all the while reeling off a list of atrocities perpetrated by the regime. One of the senior officials insisted the administration is working unilaterally regionally and internationally to build a broad base approach to support further action. I know. Gibberish. They did say that additional sanctions were under consideration. (When? Who knows.) They are also looking at the potential for a referral of charges for possible war crimes. To be clear, they have been doing all of this for weeks . Reporters tried in vain to get a response as to when there would be a “point of no return.” No luck.

As for Ambassador Ford the first senior official insisted that he meets daily with opposition figures, has freedom of movement and remains the eyes and ears on the ground. Yet, he also noted that opposition figures can’t possibly participate in dialogue with the regime because of fear of reprisal. In response to my question as to how then Ford can meet with such figures, the first official cautioned not to make to much of the contradiction. He stressed that people do seek out the ambassador.

If so, it’s not clear who these figures are or what they have conveyed. The first senior official admitted that in a perfect world things would be moving faster. But even in the imperfect world, couldn’t the administration move at more than a snail’s pace? This is of course precisely the same conduct as we saw with regard to Libya. Prizing international consensus above all else, the administration sacrifices speed, effectiveness and the high moral ground. In many administrations the endless cud-chewing and process-oriented disposition of the State Department are overridden by the White House. Not in this one.

By  |  11:30 AM ET, 06/17/2011

Categories:  foreign policy, Human Rights

 
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