It doesn’t seem like a gutsy call to put sanctions on a head of state who has jailed protesters and shot peaceful demonstrators since early March. President Barack Obama’s overdue call to add Bashar al-Assad to a sanctions list restricting his travel outside of Syria is a slow start to one of the greatest U.S. foreign policy opportunities of our generation. And today’s Middle East Speech did nothing more to push Assad.
The end of Assad’s regime would be a blow to Iran and help isolate Ahmedinejad’s government in the region by removing its main ally and partner in crime. Isolating Iran, especially right now, could have profound consequences for Americans’ security, too, since the Iranian government announced it has mastered the technology needed to make a nuclear weapon. The Iranian leader also said that Israel should be wiped off the map.
But the Obama team either believes it can charm Assad into ending his relationship with Iran or doesn’t see the strategic importance of ending the Assad-Iran partnership. Obama’s engagement policy with Syria and his decision to send a U.S. Ambassador into Damascus normalized relations with a man Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called “a reformer.” Assad responded to Obama’s overtures and acquiescence with more violence and terror and less reform. But Obama is unfazed. Syria has strengthened its ties with Iran and has continued to send and support terrorists into Iraq, Israel and Lebanon; And Obama can only muster enough outrage to say that Assad must stop using violence against his people.
Syria has allowed Iraqi Sunni insurgents to mobilize and plan attacks from its territory, has been accused by the United Nations of planning and assassinating Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and has supported Hezbollah and Hamas efforts to destabilize Israel and Lebanon. The reluctance by Obama and Clinton to act decisively on the Syrian government’s brutal actions against its people allows Syria to maintain its position as a legitimate member of the international community. Obama’s Middle East missteps have also encouraged neighbors like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan to abandon his normally pro-western positions in favor of his comfortable relationship with Assad and Ahmedinejad.
Obama’s refusal to call for an end to the Assad regime is consistent with U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s trip in 2007 to Damascus to meet with the Syrian President despite pleas from the Bush Administration to not legitimize the dictator and Vice President Joe Biden’s refusal to call for Egypt’s Hosni Mubarrak to step down or characterize him as a dictator.
The recent evidence of brutality by Assad’s government is undeniable. More than 10,000 people have been arrested, 800 protesters killed and 120 government security forces killed since the protests began. Opposition forces are calling for an end to President Assad’s regime and an expansion of economic and civil liberties; a goal Obama should wholeheartedly support.
An April 4th crack-down by government forces was caught on tape and posted on YouTube showing Syrian protesters shot outside a mosque and lying in the street – some dying on camera:
(Warning: This video is very graphic)
Images like these have rallied hundreds of thousands of people throughout Syria to continue fighting for their rights. These compelling stories have also prompted
human rights activists to call for more direct action from the White House.
For an Administration that criticized the international community’s slow response to Darfur and committed to utilize the United Nations more, little has been done to rally the world to support an obvious U.S. priority. Obama and his Ambassador to
the UN Susan Rice haven’t forced a vote of the UN Security Council on Syria nor
put the UN members on record to either support the protesters or the dictators
in Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia. While the Arab revolution has unfolded over the last several months, Rice has failed to even offer draft resolutions for discussion.
Instead, Rice has allowed Russia and China to dictate the non-agenda.
It’s clear from Obama’s Middle East speech today that he has sidelined the UN. Team Obama should be applauded for realizing their previous commitments to utilize the UN for all international issues was a foolish campaign promise to look un-Bush (see also: Iraq pullout in one year, closing GITMO, enhanced interrogations, military tribunals).
Obama should speak more forcefully about Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and call for him to step down. He should also immediately withdraw the U.S. Ambassador from Damascus, kick out the Syrian Ambassador in Washington and call upon Europeans to do the same. If Obama believes that the status quo is unsustainable then he should stop supporting it. Timidity is exactly what Assad and Ahmedinejad are looking for.