Over the last week, the administration has emphasized its unwillingness to draft a serious Syria policy. In response to the Syrian protest movement converging on a demand for international protection and the creation of safe zones, the State Department reacted feebly. “The number one thing that we can do to help them is to get international monitors in there,” spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last Wednesday. “We need witnesses so that we can hold Assad to account.”
This language, more befitting a human rights organization than a great power, has become increasingly prevalent in the administration’s public statements on Syria. For instance, consider how Washington has defined the mission of the recently confirmed Ambassador Robert Ford. His job, according to the White House and the State Department, is “to bear witness” to Assad’s brutality.
This passivity is consistent with the administration’s reluctance to lead and reflects its muddled thinking regarding Syria. In a flurry of recent interviews and in a note on his Facebook page, Ambassador Ford laid out the parameters of what could only be dubbed a posture of disinclination.
He told TIME magazine that the Syrian opposition should not expect a repeat of the Libya scenario. Instead, “The main thing for the opposition to do is figure out how to win away support from the regime, and not look to outsiders to try and solve the problem.” He added, “This is a Syrian problem and it needs Syrian solutions.”
The last comment exemplifies the bizarre obsession to stay detached, as though this “Syrian problem” had no bearing on US interests. As I previously noted, this is a direct result of the administration’s failure to frame the Syrian uprising strategically. In reality, compared to Libya, the stakes are much higher for the US, as Assad''s demise would deal a critical blow to the Iranian alliance system.
Moreover, the notion that the Syrians were looking to outsiders to “solve the problem” was unseemly. For seven months, Syrian protesters have braved death while the Obama administration hesitated even to endorse the opposition’s demand that Assad leave power. It was not until President Obama did so that any semblance of real pressure on the regime began to be applied, namely in the shape of energy sanctions by the European Union.
By dismissing the possibility of even threatening the use of force, the administration eliminates incentives for elements within the regime hierarchy to jump ship. In fact, Ford went even further, saying that the US would “support only peaceful protests and peaceful expression.”This narrow-minded and inflexible policy has already been taken over by events. As leading Syrian dissident Radwan Ziadeh remarked, “The people inside Syria are calling for a no-fly zone and an intervention.” In response to this pressing demand, the recently formed Syrian National Council (SNC) formally adopted the call for “international protection” in its platform.
Moreover, as the representative of the young protesters in the SNC told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, just as the council adopted that call, it will equally adopt any other demand the protest movement inside Syria makes. He added that while it was perhaps undesirable, a call for military intervention of sorts is not being ruled out. What is the administration doing to prepare for such an eventuality?
The administration’s elimination of even the threat of force, especially in light of Russia’s protection of the Assad regime at the Security Council, will only embolden Assad to intensify his violent war to crush the revolution. As a result, the administration’s policy ironically leads to the course of events it dreads most. As the State Department spokesman explained, “The longer the regime continues to repress … the more likely that this peaceful movement’s going to become violent.”
With the administration’s representative in Syria having preemptively declared that the US would not support a non-peaceful movement, the likely alternative for the Syrian protesters and the army defectors fighting for their lives will be to procure weapons and seek material support from other, regional sources.
But if the US is content sitting on the sidelines, Iran is not so charitable. Already it has made public warnings to Qatar and Turkey against any type of intervention (especially after Arab officials told the Wall Street Journal that establishing “safe havens” was a scenario under discussion).
These allied countries could either be deterred, or they could decide to press ahead with supporting an armed resistance covertly, bypassing the US and pressing their own interests and agendas. Either way, the Obama administration would end up as a spectator, not a leader setting the policy and coordinating the actions of regional allies toward a strategic objective that advances its interests.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay. This article was first published on NOWLebanon.com.