The Obama administration and most of its European allies have been consistently sluggish about siding with the Arab revolutionaries. But nowhere has that fecklessness been more obvious, more damaging and less defensible than in Syria.
Let’s start with some facts. The first protest occurred outside Damascus’s Umayyad mosque on March 15, under the slogan: “God, freedom, Syria.” The unrest soon spread to the southern city of Daraa, and every Friday since then it has gotten bigger. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in scores of cities and towns across the country.
The regime’s response, from the very beginning, has been brutality rivaling that of Moammar Gaddafi in Libya. On March 23, security forces opened fire on crowds in Daraa. Mass shootings of peaceful marchers have occurred every few days since then. Altogether, more than 700 Syrians had been reported killed. Nearly 10,000 have been detained, of whom several hundred have disappeared.
The Western response: Four days after the first mass shooting, Hillary Clinton called Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad “a reformer.” The first, weak U.S. sanctions came on April 29 — 45 days after that first call for freedom. On Friday, as troops turned heavy machine guns and artillery on protesters, Europe finally followed suit. A White House statement threatened further measures, but said they would depend on the regime’s actions — as if it had not yet done enough.
Perhaps most significantly, President Obama has yet to say about Assad what he said about Gaddafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — that he must go.
Is Syria less important than Libya? Just the opposite: Regional experts agree that Damascus is a pivoting point for the Arab Middle East. If the Assad regime crumbles, Iran will lose its closest ally and its bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. The Iranian shadow empire could collapse; the dictatorship in Tehran would be in mortal danger.
No one in Syria has asked for a Libya-style military intervention, and nothing else the United States and Europe could do, even in concert, would probably be decisive. But why do so little, and so slowly?
My guess is that U.S. policy in Syria has been hamstrung by some of the same factors that have slowed U.S. responsiveness all through the Arab uprisings. There is, first of all, a reluctance to set aside conventional notions about Arab politics, and disbelief in the possibility of revolutionary change. There is anxiety about what might follow the collapse of dictatorship. And there is unwillingness to get in front of regional allies who are themselves invested in the status quo.
I sorted through some of these obstacles last week with Ausama Monajed, the energetic spokesman of the National Initiative for Change, which is a coalition of Internet-based Syrian activists in and outside the country. The first problem, as he sees it, is that the United States “doesn’t have a Syria policy. It has a Middle East peace policy, but not a Syria-
He’s right, of course. The Obama administration’s “engagement” policy for Syria was centered on obtaining results in other countries: peace for Israel, stability in Lebanon, the isolation of Iran. One reason it has been so slow to abandon Assad is that it would mean setting aside a mind-set that perceives Assad as capable of delivering those breakthroughs.
The bloodbath of the past few weeks has mostly snuffed out this fantasy of “Assad the reformer.” But the fear of what could follow him remains. A Post news article last week summed up the conventional wisdom, asserting that the fall of the regime “would unleash a cataclysm of chaos, violence and extremism.”
Asks Monajed, reasonably enough: Where’s the evidence for this? So far there has been no “sectarian strife” in the protests — on the contrary, the slogans raised by the demonstrators have stressed Syrian unity. No al-Qaeda suicide bombers have turned up — just young students and workers who, like people across the Middle East, are demanding that their countries join the 21st century. “The only ones talking about sectarian conflict are the regime,” says Monajed. “The people in the streets know that this is a trap — and they are determined not to fall into that trap.”
Lastly, there are the neighbors to whom Obama would defer — Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel. But in the latter two countries, at least, there has been a shift in the past couple of weeks. A realization is dawning that Assad may not survive — and that if he does, the regime will be dangerously weak.
“What I’m hoping is that Washington will learn what even the Israelis realize, that he is going,” Monajed said. “So it would be better for the future at this point to show at least some signs of siding with the Syrian people. Our guess is that 24 hours before the end, Washington will finally switch sides.”
Better late than never.