Obama, tell Syria’s Assad he has to go

June 19, 2011

Six months into the Arab Spring, the Obama administration is struggling to keep pace with events and communicate a revised regional policy. The administration has supported change broadly, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did in a prescient speech in Qatar in January. But it remains uncertain about what to do and say regarding specific countries.

One White House official described the current approach as “leading from behind,” a curious yet valid reflection that the United States cannot control events as they unfold. It might also be called leading from the shadows, doing many things in private and saying little in public.

But this traditional diplomatic approach ignores the networked nature of the Arab Spring. Events are playing out in real time and in the open. These are genuine revolutions, but social media have served as an accelerant, enabling protests to jump borders while compressing the time that governments, including the United States, have to respond. Regimes have turned off the Internet and new media (Egypt) or traditional media (Syria), attempting to shut down these rebellions, but they have survived.

Six months ago, almost no one, including American diplomats, knew these reform networks existed. Now they are new political interest groups that must be taken seriously and fully engaged. Given their increased connectivity and situational awareness, protesters have specific demands. They want other countries to choose sides. They want recognition and support — now.

Whatever happens in the months ahead, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and even Syria will not be the same. Neither will other countries that have been able to contain or co-opt protest movements.

And while the United States waits for the region to draw a new map, hesitation carries real costs.

Reduced credibility now could translate into reduced influence down the road if these transitions are successful. Polling since the Arab Spring shows little change in regional attitudes toward the United States. In Egypt, while the United States never publicly called on President Hosni Mubarak to step down, President Obama pushed hard behind the scenes. But public opinion there gives the United States little if any credit. Elsewhere, the administration is seen as doing not enough (Bahrain) or too much (Saudi Arabia). Some of this is inevitable and attitudes could change over time, but so far there is no “new beginning” as Obama sought in his Cairo speech two years ago.

At a truly historic moment, the United States is an uncertain player. This is most evident in Syria. Last month, despite weeks of violence, Obama still gave Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a choice: “He can lead [the] transition or get out of the way.”

There is no plausible expectation that Assad will lead a process of reform, one that inevitably forces him and his cronies out of business. This U.S. caution reflects fear of the unknown and what might come next.

However, the “devil we know” not only violates the universal rights of his citizens but also constrains crucial U.S. national interests. Under Assad, Iran has a stronger influence on regional events. Syria continues to compromise Lebanon’s sovereignty and long-term interests. And it has now threatened to destabilize its border with Israel, political blackmail that undermines the U.S. pursuit of comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

Our president, through various speeches, has outlined a bold yet simple approach to the Arab Spring rooted in our values and long-term interests. We need to apply it to Syria.

Having declared on March 3 that “Moammar Qaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead,” it is time to say the same about Assad. With Libya, the president took the lead and the international community followed. The response to Syria will not be the same — there is no military option at this point — but such a statement, long overdue, will send a strong signal to Syrian elites who continue to support the Assad regime, further isolate the regime politically and create a catalyst for additional international sanctions.

More important, by again taking the lead, the president will restore faith with those who continue to stand up to repressive regimes, not only in Syria but across the region. As he said on March 28, “Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities that occur in other countries. The United States of America is different.”

Two years ago, as post-election violence roiled Tehran, the administration said little and let events speak volumes about the nature of the Iranian regime. In my view, that was the right decision and has led to a steady delegitimization of Iran’s rulers. Now, with dramatic events unfolding across the region, most remarkably in Syria, at stake are the credibility of the United States and whether we will stand up for our interests and our values.

We cannot solve the Syrian challenge overnight, but it is time to get off the fence and on the right side of history.

The writer, a former assistant secretary and spokesman for the State Department in the Obama administration, is the Omar Bradley chair of strategic leadership at Dickinson College, the Penn State Dickinson School of Law and School of International Affairs, and the Army War College. He is on Twitter: @pjcrowley.

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