Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has scheduled a popular vote on a new constitution that would expand political pluralism but retain sweeping powers for the president, a move that seems unlikely to defuse the country’s rapidly escalating crisis.
His announcement came as a brutal government offensive against pro-democracy rebels gained in strength and scope. Opposition leaders said the constitution falls far short of their demand that Assad be removed from power, and rejected the idea that Syrian residents would be able to vote on it while their towns and cities are being bombarded
While the U.S. is doing little to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people, Russia and Iran have figured out the stakes, and are arming Assad. If the situation were not so tragic it would be high farce:
Russia and Iran are continuing to send arms to the Syrian regime that can be used against protesters, a top State Department official said today.
“Iran is resupplying Syria and through Syria has supplied weapons to Hezbollah,” said Tom Countryman, the assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, at a Wednesday morning breakfast meeting of the Defense Writers Group in Washington. . . .
“We do not believe that Russian shipments of weapons to Syria are in the interests of Russia or Syria,” he said.
Cliff May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, e-mails me: “Mr. Countryman says that Russian shipments of weapons to Syria are not in Russia’s interests. Russia’s leaders beg to differ. They are demonstrating that, unlike the U.S., they stick by their allies when the chips are down.” He continues, “The Russians are saying: ‘We autocrats, secular and religious alike, need to stay united. America, by contrast is a dangerous ally and a feckless enemy.’ It’s not hard to understand why Vladimir Putin would see that message as serving Russia’s interests. It’s not easy to understand why Mr. Countryman thinks Putin doesn’t understand Russia’s interests as well as he does.”
In sum, the contrast between the U.S. administration’s unwillingness to act in our best interest and the despotic regimes could not be more clear. This is how we lose influence — through lack of will, self-delusion and aversion to conflict. And when we do, other powers take our place, shifting the landscape against human rights, against democracy and against the West.
Contrast this with the preferred approach of Mitt Romney, who told me last week: “Where you have someone who is a brutal tyrant killing his people you call him out immediately. You support openly and aggressively the people [opposing him].” In other words, we lead and forestall other powers from gaining the upper hand in the region
May points out that Countryman’s inanity goes beyond Syria. In the same speech Countryman declared, “There is a path forward where Iran can pursue peaceful use of nuclear energy.” Thunk. May puts it, “But surely he is not so credulous as to believe that what Iran’s rulers — awash in oil and natural gas — really want is nuclear energy. What they really want are nuclear weapons and the ability to use them to threaten — and perhaps defeat — their enemies.”
More and more you hear the president and his advisers talk about a diplomatic solution, at the very time Iran is targeting Israeli diplomats and moving swiftly ahead with its nuclear program. Iran threatened an oil boycott of some E.U. countries and announced that “Iran has started loading fuel rods into an aging nuclear reactor used to make medical isotopes in Tehran and has begun operating a new generation of centrifuges at the country’s main uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz. While official media had reported that [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad would also formally declare fully operational the underground Fordow uranium-enrichment facility, he did not mention the complex in his speech.” Time for diplomacy?
May is skeptical, to say the least. He tells me: “As for Dennis Ross’s belief that the economic pressure on Iran has opened a window for diplomacy to work, I just don’t see much evidence supporting that hopeful view. Diplomacy will have a chance to work only when Iran’s rulers are convinced that making serious concessions is the only means to remaining in power – and perhaps staying alive.”
In this regard the mullahs and Obama have a shared interest. The mullahs want to stall the West, averting a military attack. Obama wants to avoid a conflagration in an election year. Presto: Fruitless talks that will allow Obama to say he is making progress and use as another argument to prevent military action by Israel. (You can’t act now, just when we are sitting down to talk!) Once again, Obama’s meekness and penchant for self-delusion (I can make a deal with these guys!) are weakening the U.S. position in the Middle East, encouraging an “every man for himself” approach by our allies and worsening the prospects for peace, stability and democracy.