Washington Watch: Obama needs a Syria policy

It's time to put some real pressure on Assad

By D. BLOOMFIELD
April 20, 2011 23:29
4 minute read.
pro-Assad protest

Syria. (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.

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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 and Lebanon.

An Israeli journalist who knows the Arab world intimately said Assad’s days are numbered: “He cannot avoid the tornado sweeping through the Middle East.”

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.

bloomfieldcolumn@gmail.com


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