June 15, 2011

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.” He singled out Syria, where the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has gunned down hundreds of peaceful protesters, choosing what Mr. Obama called “the path of murder.”

“The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests,” the president declared. “It must release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests. It must allow human rights monitors to have access to cities.” As for Mr. Assad, “he can lead that transition” to democracy, “or get out of the way.”

Nearly a month later, Mr. Assad has done none of those things; instead, he has escalated his war against his own people. Over the weekend an elite Army division staged a full-scale assault on the town of Jisr al-Shoughour, forcing most of its population of 50,000 to flee. Nearby Turkey reports that more than 8,500 refugees have crossed its border. Now Syrian tanks are surrounding the town of Maarat al-Nouman, population 100,000, as well as two other towns near the border with Iraq. Human rights groups say the number killed has risen above 1,300.

It seems fair to ask what Mr. Obama has done in response, given his pledge to employ all of the “tools” at the administration’s disposal. The answer can be summed up in one word: nothing. 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.

The French government has adopted the position that the Assad regime has lost the legitimacy to govern Syria. But the Obama administration has not abandoned the notion that the dictator could still steer Syria to democracy — as ludicrous as that sounds. The administration’s former State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, tweeted this week that it’s “odd” that Obama thinks Rep. Anthony Weiner should resignbut not Assad. Why, he wondered, does the president send the message that “sending lewd tweets violates public service, but not killing people?”

The administration has excused its passivity by saying that it does not want to “get ahead” of allies in the region, and that it worries about the consequences of a regime collapse. But Mr. Assad’s violence is already causing serious problems for Turkey and for Israel, which has twice faced incursions on its territory from Syria by Palestinian refugees organized by the regime. Other U.S. Arab allies are observing Mr. Obama’s passivity with dismay: “Why doesn’t the United States have a policy?” one senior official from the Persian Gulf recently asked us.

In fact, Mr. Obama enunciated a clear policy four weeks ago. He said the United States would use all its power to stop violent repression and promote democratic transition in countries such as Syria. He said his words “must be translated into concrete actions.” But he has yet to act.