President Obama deserves some credit for using strong language to condemn the Syrian regime’s massacre of peaceful protestors over the weekend in Hama, Deraa, Idlib and other cities in the pre-Ramadan onslaught. With reports still coming in, the most conservative assessment estimates that 145 were killed.
In the wake of the bloodshed, Obama now promises to work with world leaders to isolate Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. That would suggest the president is returning to the policy of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who removed the U.S. ambassador from Damascus after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
To be fair, it was not Obama who rescued Assad from isolation, but rather Israel’s former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who found it convenient to open indirect negotiations with Damascus when he was in political trouble on the domestic front. Turkey and France soon followed, and Saudi Arabia wobbled, paving the way for American engagement with Syria. In reality, Bush’s isolation was not effective, insofar as the Assad regime was never punished for its string of murders and terrorist attacks in Lebanon, or helping to kill U.S. soldiers and allies in Iraq. Nor did Washington make Damascus pay a price for its role in the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war when it resupplied Hezbollah with arms during the conflict.
Still, the Obama administration’s 180-degree turn on Syria policy was feckless. It saw engagement with a state sponsor of terror that tortured its own citizens as cost-free, an experiment in statecraft. What was the harm in trying? In the end, it has cost many dearly.
The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, traveled to Hama three weeks ago to show sympathy with the protestors and perhaps serve as a human shield to protect them from the regime’s depredations. When he returned to Damascus, the American embassy was attacked and the White House did nothing. This weekend, Syrian security forces laid siege to those same protestors in Hama. There’s no doubt that Assad would’ve killed them anyway, but now the crime must also trouble the conscience of the Americans as well—we stuck a pin on the map and Assad smashed it.
There was no surprise in any of this—the murders and tortures of this regime are well known. It was also understood that Syrian security forces would wage a vicious campaign prior to Ramadan, a month in which the opposition might well gather enough force, like thirty Fridays in a row, to topple the regime.
The only surprise is the opposition.
Much has been made of the fact that cell phones and social media networks have documented the Syrian regime’s depredations. Unlike the 1982 massacre at Hama, everything is now on record in real time. However, this variety of cyber-optimism misses the essential point: Assad is slaughtering his own citizens in spite of the fact that it is all on record, and no one is doing anything to stop the massacres. The Syrian opposition goes into the street day after day even if as knows perfectly well what Syrian security forces are doing throughout the country. It is one thing to fear losing your life, and it is something else to see a YouTube video of someone’s head blown off and then go out into the street against the same forces.
Around the world people still talk about Tiananmen Square as a signal event, when hundred of Chinese protestors were mowed down by the army. But the Syrian uprising, going on five months now, is one Tiananmen after another, with the opposition girding itself in the knowledge of what it is facing. Like Tiananmen, this is an astonishing human event; it is courage in the face of terror.