(photo credit: Reuters)
Bashar Assad has been playing arsonist and fireman simultaneously as the fires of revolution break out around his country, said Michael Doran, a former senior National Security Council Mideast official.
The Obama administration’s initial response was to urge both the Syrian dictatorship and the pro-democracy activists to show restraint. Weeks went by before Washington condemned the slaughter of demonstrators and put the blame squarely on the Assad regime.
Even now, after more than 200 have been killed and hundreds arrested, the administration still hasn’t shifted from rhetoric to action.
Many on Capitol Hill are questioning whether Obama really has a Syria
policy. Why is an administration so anxious to see Hosni Mubarak and
Muammar Gadaffi leave so hesitant to tell Assad it’s time to go? “Is our
policy ‘passive consistency’ or ‘consistent passivity?’ Or don’t we
have any Syria policy at all,” asked Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), second
ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Syrian intelligence officials planted snipers among protesters with
orders to shoot security officials and soldiers, thereby “provoking” the
army to fire on the protesters, according to a document posted on
Facebook by opposition sources. While not authenticated, it is
consistent with other reports that demonstrators were infiltrated in
order to justify Assad’s brutal crackdown.
Assad has publicly blamed the violence on “Zionists” and other foreign
provocateurs, and warned demonstrators that since he has promised
reforms all protests will be considered “sabotage.” Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton has been taking a drubbing for calling Assad a reformer;
actually, she said that’s what she’s been told by members of Congress
from both parties, particularly Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), chair of the
Foreign Relations Committee.
Many Republicans and Democrats think, in the words of one Congressional
source who has made several trips to Damascus, that Kerry was “played
for a fool.” Assad keeps telling Kerry what he wants to hear – that he’s
ready for peace with Israel, and can be weaned from Iran – but after
years of this courtship the senator keeps returning empty handed.
THE ISRAELI government can’t seem to decide whether it wants Assad to
stay or go. A big reason to keep him on is fear of what might come next.
A prolonged power struggle could destabilize the region, and there is
an exaggerated fear that the Muslim Brotherhood could take over.
Israel, however, has many better reasons to want the Ba’athist regime
dumped. Assad is a close ally of Iran, he is arming Hezbollah and Hamas
with missiles to strike Israel, he has his own bulging arsenal of
missiles and chemical warheads, he gives sanctuary and aid to numerous
anti-Israel terror groups, he is actively destabilizing Lebanon and
possibly Jordan, and he has proven nuclear ambitions.
His demise could be a serious blow – depending on what comes next – to
Iranian influence and weaken both Hezbollah and Hamas. Dayenu. Syria is
Iran’s gateway to the Mediterranean, and shares borders with five
countries important to the United States: Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey
An Israeli journalist who knows the Arab world intimately said Assad’s
days are numbered: “He cannot avoid the tornado sweeping through the
Assad’s promise to end the emergency law is meaningless, because nothing
will change as long as he remains in power. A sure sign of that was his
decision to name the head of his hated military police, which has a
reputation for brutality, as his new interior minister. “This regime is
going to hell, and that’s good for Israel; those Israelis who prefer the
devil you know are wrong,” he said.
Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East
Policy, agreed. Assad has been promising reform since he took office 11
years ago, and done nothing.
It’s time for some “focus and creativity” in US-Syria policy and to show Assad he will pay dearly for this crackdown, he said.
The administration has to stop complaining it has no leverage and begin
tightening economic sanctions to deter foreign banks and companies from
doing business in Syria, use authority under the Syria Accountability
and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act to suspend all US investment in
Syria, work closely with European allies to establish effective
economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation, freeze the accounts of
individuals responsible for human-rights violations,and take Syrian
rights violations to the UN Human Rights Council.
When Congress returns from spring break next month, look for legislation
further tightening sanctions on Syria and Iran. It’s time to put real
pressure on Assad, beyond Secretary Clinton telling Assad he should
“stop repressing [Syrian] citizens and start responding to their
aspirations” and “refrain” from further violence.