Congratulations to President Obama for finally calling on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down. It was past time for the White House to break decisively with a regime that has been slaughtering its people for almost six months, with a death toll conservatively estimated at 2,000 and climbing. But we applaud the president’s statement as well as the administration’s capable diplomacy that brought the major Anglo-European democracies on board.
It is worth noting, however, that Assad’s fall is not only good for the future of Syria. It is also very much in the interests of the United States. This is a fact that the president, if one is to judge from his statement, seems not to have fully grasped. Syria identified itself as an American adversary long ago. Yet the Obama administration, like others before it, was predisposed to ignore Syrian malfeasance—including its support for terror and its collaboration in killing U.S. troops in Iraq—in the hopes that it could persuade the Assad regime to change its spots.
In many ways, Assad was central to Obama’s vision of the presidency even before he took office. To show how different he was from George W. Bush, then-senator Obama promised on the campaign trail to engage the rogue dictators that the sitting president had isolated. Assad seemed to be the low-hanging fruit, a much more appealing candidate for engagement than Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supreme leader Ali Khamenei, since Washington had enjoyed cordial, if not warm, relations with Assad and his father before Bush “alienated” the regime.
Obama believed, as some of his advisers and staffers had long argued, that there was a deal to be had with Damascus. By wedging Syria away from Iran, the administration would weaken Tehran and make it more susceptible to a combination of American pressure and engagement. Moreover, by bringing Syria back to the negotiating table with Israel and reinvigorating the peace process, Obama would establish his bona fides with the Arab masses, for whom he imagined the Arab-Israeli conflict was the central issue in their lives.
The Arab Spring put paid to those plans, however. What most concerned Arab citizens were local matters—not Jerusalem but their own cities, villages, homes, and workplaces, where their regimes ran roughshod over their liberties. The president acknowledged this reality by calling for Hosni Mubarak’s resignation and joining the NATO action against Muammar Qaddafi. But when it came to Syria, Obama balked, even as the opposition braved their chances for five months against snipers, tanks, artillery, and the Syrian Navy.
The administration justified its relative silence by letting on that it did not know who might follow Assad. Moreover, it claimed that Saudi Arabia and Israel had warned Washington to act cautiously. In fact, the issue was that the White House could not see past its own idée fixe. Yes, Assad was bad for the Syrian people, the White House acknowledged. But his survival might yet advance American interests.
Calling on Assad to leave, then, required a shift in administration thinking that is not yet complete. Certain passages in the president’s statement suggest that its author is still agonizing over the decision. “The United States,” said President Obama, “cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria. It is up to the Syrian people to choose their own leaders, and we have heard their strong desire that there not be foreign intervention in their movement.”
The White House does not need to broadcast that American military power is limited at present. There are no longer more than 100,000 U.S. combat troops across the Syrian border in Iraq to present the sort of credible threat to the Assad regime that forced him to withdraw his troops from Lebanon in April 2005. No one understands more clearly than Assad that, with commitments in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the Obama administration is unlikely to deploy American soldiers to stop Syrian security forces from killing Syrian civilians. Still, if you advertise that you cannot and will not use force, you are stripping yourself of a tool that is especially useful when dealing with a state that sponsors terrorism to advance its policy goals.
After all, it was former Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlass who is alleged to have said, “When we negotiate we put our gun on the table.” By declaring that it has left its gun at home, the White House has weakened its hand immeasurably. Obama has adopted a Syria policy with ambitious goals while abjuring means that didn’t have to be taken off the table explicitly—and that might still, in a limited way, be useful.
Assad is not about to go quietly. Energy sanctions will weaken the regime, hindering its ability to pay the security forces going about their bloody work, and persuading the merchant middle class that its interests may no longer be aligned with Assad’s. But sanctions are unlikely to break the regime’s back. Assad will fight, and so will his Iranian allies, whose 30-year investment in Hezbollah may depend on the survival of the regime in Damascus that arms Iran’s Lebanese asset.
So the administration should prepare for the worst. The attacks last week in Israel near the Sinai border may well be a sign of events to come. Those operations were organized out of Gaza, with the support—at least tacit and perhaps active—of Iran’s proxy Hamas. In time, Syria and Iran and their clients in Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere may hit closer to home by targeting direct American interests and U.S. military and diplomatic personnel. If it is a matter of defending and protecting American interests against Syria and Iran, will the administration still refrain from forcing Assad out?
Obviously the Syrian people will choose their own leaders, as they have during the course of the uprising. More leaders will come to the fore. But the White House would do well to recognize that the goal of the Syrian opposition—Assad’s exit—runs parallel to American interests. And now that we have embraced that goal, we need to achieve it.