Decision time for the U.S. on Assad rule


The Obama administration’s policy toward Syria has been narrowly portrayed as vacillating between heart and mind. On the one side the United States has sought to save lives and defend humanistic values; on the other, it has endeavored to protect its interests in the Middle East.

The tension between principles and political preferences is ever present in the foreign policy of democracies, so it should come as no surprise that Washington has struggled amid proliferating Arab uprisings. However, the Obama administration’s confusion on Syria has also very much had to do with the absence of an overriding strategy. The United States has had no center of gravity when dealing with Damascus.

It was obvious weeks ago, when the Syrian protests began, that the Obama team could not avoid addressing the situation in the country, whatever the outcome. If President Bashar Assad crushed his own people, the administration would face a major human rights challenge; and if Assad and his regime buckled, then Washington would have to attend to a volatile new political reality. Either way, more was required than the reactive, timorous responses we witnessed as the situation in Syria worsened. President Barack Obama and his advisers seem as unprepared today on Syria as they were last month.

The latest twist is that Washington is considering sanctions against Syrian regime figures, even as American officials whisper that the U.S. has little leverage over Syria. The second proposition underlines how low are the administration’s expectations that the first will succeed. Sanctions are there for show, to do something when one doesn’t want to have to do more. Yet Obama has no justification to pursue that vacant path when he was provided with ample evidence that sanctions against Moammar Gadhafi’s regime failed utterly to halt a military onslaught on eastern Libya, let alone ameliorate Gadhafi’s behavior.

If fears of a possible breakdown in Syria are serious enough to warrant excessive cautiousness by the Obama administration, surely that means the country is sufficiently important to impose a U.S. approach more coherent than what we have had until now. The grim fact is that there is no Syria policy in Washington. The Assad regime’s ever higher levels of barbarity have been eliciting ever sharper administration ejaculations of outrage, and feverish consultations with this ally and that. But none of those steps has established that Obama knows what he really wants to achieve in Syria, whether he actually sees beyond the Assads, what his endgame is, let alone whether he is looking to exploit the situation to bolster America’s otherwise uneasy status in the Middle East.

As numerous commentators have pointed out, Syria is that rare place where America’s heart and mind converge. The fall of the Assad regime, if handled properly, would represent a major setback for Iran and its regional allies. Potentially, this could have a positive impact in Lebanon, Palestinian areas and Iraq. More important, it could free the Syrian people from four decades of subjugation by a single sinister family.

Understandably, no one is seriously contemplating a scheme for the U.S. and European states to mount a military campaign to protect the Syrian population. Syrians have not braved the bullets of their security services and pro-Assad crime gangs in the hope of inviting foreign armed intervention. This is one society that has appeared quite determined to free itself largely through its own agency, and peacefully. However, with Western, especially American, apathy measured in lives, Syrian protesters are entitled to wonder why their plight has been so much less pressing than those of the Egyptians and Libyans.

You can still hear Western officials and spokespersons mouthing empty words about the need for Bashar Assad to embrace reform. Have they been watching what is going on? The Syrian regime knows that it simply has no such option. If you give society a bit of breathing space, it realizes better than anyone else, most Syrians will see an opening to overthrow the entire foul edifice repressing them. What many in Syria want is an end to the institutionalized suffocation and terrorization of Assad rule. They see no point in preserving Bashar if they can get rid of Maher, his brother who has led the savage military counterattack.

Bashar Assad is no more a reformer than Moammar Gadhafi or Hosni Mubarak. And with his security forces butchering Syrians from north to south and from east to west, his legitimacy has reached an end. It’s about time that Washington accept these simple propositions and reshape its attitude toward Syria accordingly. Bashar is not about to do what Washington, deep down, pines for him to do: He won’t reform, he won’t break with Iran, he won’t engage seriously in peace negotiations with Israel, and he won’t halt his interference in Lebanon.

What Bashar will do is continue to slaughter his own population, and they will likely continue to resist. It’s as simple as that, and Obama should place the U.S. on the right side of the fight against the Assads and their maintenance in power, while also helping to ease Syria toward a smooth democratic transition. This is not about regime change in Syria; the Syrian regime has already ascertained that change is obligatory. It’s about the U.S. accepting that change is inevitable and ensuring that it can become useful for whatever occurs next.

If politics is the art of the possible, it’s also about knowing what one desires. Barack Obama has so often accepted the restrictions of what is possible that he has frequently proven unwilling to pursue what he finds desirable. The president’s wavering on Syria has been a prime illustration of this shortcoming. And yet the sordid methods of the Assads make even the most difficult decisions fairly easy to take.

Michael Young’s columns

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