The Obama administration has perpetuated a fiction — several of them, it turns out — with regard to Syria. The president entertained the notion that Bashar al-Assad could be separated from the Iranian regime. He fancied that if we turned a blind eye toward Syria’s atrocious human record and the violation of the U.N. resolution prohibiting rearming Hezbollah we would win Assad’s favor. And, of course, he thought sending Sen. John Kerry (D- Mass.) to butter up Assad and returning an ambassador would help grease the skids. None of it worked. All of it was based on a misunderstanding of Assad and the fundamental nature of his regime.
Two GOP senators opened another line of criticism of President Barack Obama’s approach to the Middle East on Thursday, this time calling on the administration to more strongly criticize the Syrian government for its deadly crackdown on popular demonstrations and begin engaging the Syrian opposition.
Government violence against protesters in Syria is escalating, with security forces reportedly killing 15 people on Wednesday during a raid on a mosque in the southern city of Deraa. Some reports put the night’s death toll at 37 or more. The State Department put out a statement condemning the deaths and issued a 90-day travel alert on Thursday that warned Americans about the violence surrounding the protests.
That statement fell short in the eyes of two key senators:
Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) want to know if the Obama administration is reaching out to Syrian opposition leaders and offering them support, as it did in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
“The Syrian people must know that the United States stands with them against the brutal Assad regime. We can ill afford another timid embrace of a democratic uprising,” the senators said in a Thursday statement. “We urge the President, Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Ford to publicly condemn the murders committed by the Assad dictatorship and to demonstrate their support for the Syrian people.”
By invoking Ambassador Robert Ford, Kyl and Kirk are calling for the administration to make good on its argument that the United States needed an ambassador in Damascus to have maximum influence with the Syrian government. Kyl and others Republicans held up the Ford nomination for 10 months because they saw the appointment of any ambassador as a reward to the Syrian regime, and they wanted the administration to more clearly spell out its Syria policy.
The White House statement (made under the press secretary’s name and without public utterance by the president) was entirely devoid of any hint that America would do anything other than issue more paper statements:
The United States strongly condemns the Syrian government’s brutal repression of demonstrations, in particular the violence and killings of civilians at the hands of security forces. We reject the use of violence under any circumstances. We are also deeply troubled by the arbitrary arrests of human rights activists and others. Those responsible for the violence must be held accountable. The United States stands for a set of universal rights, including the freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and believes that governments must be responsive to the legitimate aspirations of their people. We call on the Syrian government to exercise restraint and respect the rights of its people and call on all citizens to exercise their rights peacefully.
In addition to The Post’s editorial board (“For the past two years, the administration has pursued the futile strategy of trying to detach Mr. Assad from his alliances with Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah through diplomatic stroking and promises of improved relations”), criticism poured in from an array of figures.
John Hannah writes in the National Review that the Obama administration needs to set a new tone with Syria, which begins by recognizing a pattern of diversion by Iran, its allies and its surrogates to try to “change the subject” away from the Arab spring by creating a “dustup with Israel”(“Big Iranian weapons shipments seized off the coast of Gaza; an Israeli family of five slaughtered in their beds; a barrage of more than 90 rockets fired at Israeli population centers over the past few days. And [Wednesday’s] horrific terrorist attack at a bus station in Jerusalem”):
The Syrian regime, in particular, should be put on notice privately that we’re wise to its efforts to use Palestinian surrogates to create a diversion, at the same time that we turn up the heat publicly on the atrocities being committed by Assad’s forces in Daraa. Such a public diplomacy campaign will also help establish the legitimacy and necessity of Israel’s inevitable effort to defend itself, preserve its deterrent, and degrade Palestinian terrorist capabilities.
From the other side of the political spectrum, Josh Block, former spokesman for AIPAC and a Democratic loyalist (now in business with Lanny Davis) didn’t much care for the White House statement. He e-mailed me:
Given the escalating violence in Syria against the thousands of brave democracy activists, culminating in Daraa this week, it is well past time for the Administration to step up its pressure on Assad and the Syrian regime, whose human rights abuses call out for much harsher condemnation.
The President should send Ambassador Ford to Daraa tomorrow to investigate what happened and call for a full investigation by the United Nations.
This regime joins Iran in working to destabilize the middle east — it supports the arming of Hezbollah, which has killed more Americans than any terrorist group except Al Qaeda.
It is time to recommit to what President Kennedy described as the United States’ unique duty — to support any friend and oppose any foe in support of liberty and human rights.
However, it’s been clear from the moment he entered office that President Obama had no game plan beyond ingratiation. A year ago former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams wrote:
Assad’s conduct is surprising only if you view him as a seeker after peace, waiting merely for the hand of friendship from Washington to reorient his regime toward the West. That appears to have been the Obama approach. But Assad’s reaction is entirely predictable if you view him as a vicious dictator dependent on Iran’s regime for political, financial, and military support. Similarly, the notion that American “engagement” is the road to a Syrian-Israeli peace deal over the Golan Heights is sensible if you believe he needs only a bit of American encouragement to ditch his alliance with Iran and turn West. But the terrorist trilateral just held in Damascus should be all the proof anyone needs that George Mitchell may as well stay home: A Golan deal is not in the cards. No Israeli prime minister is foolish enough to hand the Golan to a Syria whose main allies are Israel’s two most dangerous enemies: Hezbollah and Iran.
Those words are more true today than they were in March 2010. And Obama’s lack of interest in, commitment to and understanding of the array of tools by which America can promote greater freedom in the Middle East have, in a year’s time, diminished our ability to influence events.