April 13, 2011

WESTERN EXPERTS were saying several months ago that the Middle East’s unrest would not take hold in Syria, because dictator Bashar al-Assad’s hostility to Israel and the United States had made him popular. When protests then erupted in the southern city of Daraa, experts said they were unlikely to spread because Syrians craved stability and Mr. Assad himself would introduce bold reforms. Now that demonstrations have erupted in dozens of communities around the country, the prevailing view seems to be that the regime, which has offered no reforms, is capable of putting them down by brute force.

The experts, including policymakers in the Obama administration, may be right this time. But one thing is sure: Syrians craving an end to one of the region’s most vicious police states have received no significant help from the United States or other nations that claim to support freedom in the Middle East.

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have joined European governments in strongly condemning Mr. Assad’s principal answer to the unrest — massacres of unarmed civilians by police, army troops and the regime’s private militias. Syria’s leading human rights group says that at least 200 people have been killed. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 27 died in Daraa last Friday when security forces opened fire with automatic weapons on marchers who carried olive branches to signal their peaceful intentions. The gunmen then fired at ambulances trying to reach the wounded.

Mr. Obama has called the violence “abhorrent,” and a White House statement on Tuesday said that it was “outrageous.” But the administration has not repudiated the Assad regime; instead, Ms. Clinton, who two weeks ago referred to Mr. Assad as a “reformer,” this week suggested that “Mr. Assad and the Syrian government must respect the rights of the Syrian people.” Does that seem likely?

No action has followed the administration’s words, although steps are readily available: sanctions against those carrying out the repression; referral of Syria’s behavior to the U.N. Security Council for a resolution of condemnation; withdrawal of the ambassador dispatched to Damascus last year. All these would be blows against a regime that is Iran’s closest ally in the Middle East; that supplies Hamas and Hezbollah with missiles to fire at Israeli cities; that destabilized Lebanon’s pro-Western government with a string of murders; and that tried to secretly build a nuclear reactor with the help of North Korea.

The cause for action would seem overwhelming — and yet the administration hesitates, seemingly because it fears that Mr. Assad’s downfall would trigger chaos, sectarian war or the rise of an even worse regime. Such thinking does a disservice to the brave Syrians who keep taking to the streets in spite of the regime’s gunmen. Let’s hope they keep proving the experts wrong.