Obama’s Belated Syria Hard Line

At last, President Obama has called on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to step aside. Obama’s carefully crafted remarks today make clear that “the future of Syria must be determined by its people,” not imposed by the United States or other outside powers. But the president also has emphasized that the U.S. intends to help the Syrian people by standing up for their universal rights, by isolating the Assad regime, and by imposing sanctions that will make a difference to Assad’s ability to continue his brutal repression. Better late than never.

Obama came to this decision at an agonizingly slow pace for the people of Syria, especially compared with his immediate calls on Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi to leave office when they unleashed violence against peaceful demonstrators in their countries. This seemed particularly strange. Mubarak had been a friend and ally of the United States for three decades; Gaddafi had surrendered his nuclear program, paid generous compensation to the American victims of Pan Am 103, and cooperated in the war on al Qaeda. Egypt was our strategic ally; Libya had almost no strategic weight at all.

Assad, by contrast, had been an ally and partner of America’s would-be nemesis, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Assad turned Syria—an Arab regional power—into a conduit for Iranian influence and troublemaking in the Middle East heartland. He allowed Sunni insurgents access from Syria into Iraq to kill American soldiers. He supplied rockets and other advanced weapons systems to Hizbullah. He gave succor to Hamas, hosting its external headquarters in Damascus. He developed a clandestine nuclear-weapons project in abrogation of Syria’s Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations. He used murder and assassination in an attempt to regain control of Lebanon from democratic forces there.

Assad clearly is an egregious case in which American interests in dealing a blow to a strategic adversary and American values in supporting the rights of the Syrian people coincide.

Yet for months the Obama administration has called on Assad to undertake political reforms, restricted its punitive measures to individual members of the regime, and worked unsuccessfully to secure United Nations Security Council condemnation. The slow-motion move toward abandonment of the Assad regime seems to have been dictated by an abundance of caution. The explanation seems to lie in lessons learned by the White House from previous experience with the Arab awakenings.

The perception in the region that Obama was pushing Mubarak out the door caused deep anxiety among America’s other friends there, from Israel and Jordan, to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. For the kings and sheiks of Araby, the superpower that they relied on for their external security seemed to have morphed into a threat to their internal security, raising deep concerns about U.S. reliability.

Insisting on Gaddafi’s departure and securing a U.N. mandate for the use of force to protect Libyan civilians raised expectations that the Libyan dictator would be dispatched forthwith. But Obama’s evident unwillingness to commit the military resources to achieving that objective opened up a gap between a clear U.S. objective and the means deployed to achieving it. The longer Gaddafi manages to cling to power, the more it looks like the United States and NATO have become weak and feckless. This has raised questions about U.S. credibility.

Assad therefore became the unintended beneficiary of Obama’s experience elsewhere in the Arab world. The president would not call for Assad’s departure at least until our Arab and Turkish allies broke with the Syrian. This started to occur last week, when Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah denounced Assad’s violent repression as “unacceptable” and recalled the kingdom’s ambassador from Damascus. Other Arab governments quickly followed suit. But Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wanted to take one more run at Assad to persuade him to stop the violence and start meaningful reform.

It’s clear from the increasingly strident statements of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the Obama administration had little patience for this effort, but having taken so long already, it made sense to hold off if, as a result, Turkey would join in the call for Assad’s departure. Because Turkey is Syria’s neighbor, with a military force capable of intervening, having Ankara on board for a campaign of increasing pressure would make a real difference. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu’s foray to Damascus this week to issue an ultimatum to Assad turned into an embarrassment for Erdogan as Assad stepped up his assault on the Syrian city of Latakia in response. As his foreign minister stated yesterday, “We have nothing more to say.”

As for the credibility gap, Obama’s slow-motion approach at least served the purpose of lowering expectations as people came to understand that if Gaddafi were no pushover, Assad would be an even harder nut to crack. As the head of a minority Alawite regime with a capable Army and its back to the wall, Assad is not about to slink quietly into the night. No one is calling for military intervention in Syria, and therefore the measures that Obama has now announced—blocking regime assets and banning U.S. imports of Syrian oil—look tough in that context, especially if they are reinforced by similar sanctions from the EU, which consumes 90 percent of Syria’s oil.

On their own, international isolation and sanctions are likely to be insufficient to the task of removing Assad from power. But they are likely to have a number of immediate benefits: They will give a morale boost to the Syrian people, encouraging them to keep up their courageous resistance. They will put growing economic pressure on the regime, which is already facing serious economic difficulties; one estimate has oil exports now contributing 60 percent of the state budget. And as Assad’s “kill or be killed” approach leads to the terrible slaughter of even more innocents, the pressure on Russia and China to acquiesce in turning these measures into U.N.-mandated sanctions will become irresistible.

Under this growing pressure, sooner rather than later the Sunni business elites in Damascus and Aleppo that are still backing the regime will split from it, giving a major boost to the opposition. And once that happens, the military, already placed under considerable strain by the months of deploying force against its own people, will start to crack, too. (The first signs of those cracks came last week with the firing of the Syrian defense minister reportedly because of his opposition to the deployment of force in Hama.)

Turkey has the ability to accelerate this process by deploying its forces to the Syrian border, ostensibly to protect Syrian refugees. At that point, Syrian officers will have to decide whether their role is to protect the country or the Assad regime; and they are likely to choose the former and force Assad and his family henchmen to step aside.

Until then, there is much to be done, now that Obama has committed the United States to regime change in Damascus.  The opposition is disparate and disorganized; it needs funds and advice. The international community needs to be mobilized more effectively in support of the effort. And the investment in working with Ankara needs now to be turned into a concerted effort to increase the pressure on Assad to leave.

Unlike the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Syria’s revolution has been a slow-motion affair from the beginning. So it will likely be with the Assad regime’s end. But Obama has now finally moved one more significant step in the direction of freedom for the Syrian people, and he deserves three cheers for that.

Update: Despite Syrian President Bashir al-Assad saying that the military operations stopped Wednesday night, protesters in the besieged city of Homs reported that government forces shot at them Thursday. Forces apparently fired on the demonstrators, who were marching after evening prayers, reportedly killing one and severely wounding another. The United Nations announced it will send a team to assess the situation on Saturday.