On My Mind: Why Assad’s reign of terror continues

Syrian protesters deserve wider and more vocal international support

Syria protests at night with flag 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Handout )
Syria protests at night with flag 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Handout )
Echoes of Tehran, 1979, that reverberated from Damascus following the attack on the United States Embassy in the Syrian capital earlier this month dissipated so quickly that, in retrospect, this grave incident stands as just another outrage perpetrated by President Bashar Assad. His regime endured minor international criticism, but within days resumed its bestial campaign of repression and violence against the Syrian people.
But Syrians have shown no signs of cowering. Indeed, hundreds of thousands took to the streets on Friday to call for an end to Assad’s rule. This weekly outpouring of anger following Friday prayers has grown in size and fervor.
The protesters deserve wider and more vocal international support.
Of course, the protesters who stormed the American, French and Qatari embassies were different. While these Syrians did not attempt to take over the US Embassy, like Iranians did 32 years ago, Assad’s escalating provocations – which now include targeting the US – constitute the kind of security threat that should inspire a more assertive response by concerned nations.
True, the UN Security Council issued a statement condemning Syria “in the strongest possible terms” a few days after the July 11 attacks on the American and French embassies. Most governments, even Syrian allies China and Russia, want to protect their diplomatic properties, so a mild admonition was not too difficult to achieve.
But further coordinated international action is wanting.
The Arab League, whose new secretary-general, Nabil Elaraby, visited Assad without criticizing his regime’s behavior, has been mute. Russia has taken a lead (joined by Brazil, China, India, Lebanon and South Africa) in blocking any UN discussion, even though both the UN Human Rights Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency asked the Security Council to adopt resolutions on Syria’s human rights violations and covert nuclear program.
Limited sanctions imposed by the EU and the US are considered by the Assad regime and its supporters as interference in Syria’s internal affairs. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem even called recent EU sanctions “an act of war.” Obviously, Muallem has it reversed. The regime he serves has declared war on innocent Syrians, claiming more than 1,600 lives so far and detaining thousands more. Assad has also risked cross-border confrontations by sending forces into Syrian towns bordering Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, causing Syrians to flee for their lives. And he encouraged Palestinians once, with tragic results, to cross the border with Israel.
GLOBAL APATHY regarding Syria contrasts with the multilateral approach on Libya, which got UN Security Council and Arab League endorsement. The international community was concerned for Libyans threatened with certain death by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces. Assad may threaten his people less publicly, but he is equally determined to crush all opposition. As The Economist recently observed: “If both the Qaddafi and Assad families fell, the Arab spring would turn to summer.”
The assault on the American Embassy ostensibly was perverted retaliation for Ambassador Robert Ford’s visit to the besieged city of Hama. Curious that neither he nor the French envoy (who also visited Hama) did not journey to Deraa, or Latakia, or Jisr al-Shughour.
Perhaps the diplomats feared that Hama was a prime candidate for a reprise of the evil that Assad’s father, Hafez, visited on Syria’s fourth-largest city 29 years ago, when more than 10,000 were slaughtered. Hama may have been spared for now, but the assault on Homs is continuing, following the pattern of other cities besieged by Assad’s forces.
Now, in another verbal salvo, Muallem has warned the US and other diplomats not even to think of traveling outside Damascus. Qatar has already shut its embassy after the regime unleashed protesters against Al Jazeera.
Maybe the US should do the same, or at least recall Ford. His arrival in January was clearly premature – a presidential recess appointment to avoid congressional opposition to filling the post left vacant since the 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Certainly, for those concerned about human rights and the future of Syria, it is clearer now that stronger international actions are needed. Saying, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did, that the Assad regime has lost its legitimacy is not enough; the regime lost its legitimacy months ago.
The status quo in Syria is untenable, and deserves at least as much urgent attention as is devoted to other trouble spots in the region.
The courageous protesters in Syria and their supporters, including Syrian activists outside the country, need to hear more direct encouragement. President Barack Obama should state clearly that it’s time for Assad to leave, while using every diplomatic tool to convince Arab allies and other concerned nations not to abandon the Syrian people.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.