As Bashar al-Assad continues to kill Syrians at an average rate of 100 a day, the Obama administration’s hesitations, deviations and tergiversations on this issue appear increasingly cynical.
Obama and his supporters try to explain, and explain away, his failure to develop a credible policy on Syria by citing a number of “problems” ostensibly beyond the US president’s control.
The first “problem”, they claim, is that the Syrian opposition is divided.
Is that true? I think not.
Unity must not be confused with unanimity. No doubt, the millions who are risking their lives to fight a bloodthirsty despot do not all think the same on all issues. Nor are they all members of a single party.
In a society that has suffered under one-party rule for six decades, apparent uniformity is often no more than a facade. Once that façade crumbles, society is splintered into countless slivers. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, no fewer than 120 parties of all sizes emerged from the debris of Communism. Iraq after Saddam Hussein gave birth to over 200 parties.
In any case, what one hopes for Syria is a pluralist system in which people could think differently, believe differently and act differently within a freely accepted framework under the rule of law. Syria is a mosaic of ethnic and religious communities that should have a voice both in opposition and in a future Syria.
Having said all that, the Syrian opposition is united on key issues. In one voice, all parties and groups in the uprising demand that al-Assad step aside, paving the way for a transitional government. They all insist that the al-Assad system be replaced with a pluralist one with governments chosen through free elections.
On a more formal basis, the Syrian opposition has created organs of unity through the Syrian National Army (SNA) and the Syrian National Council which has already been recognized as a legitimate authority by more than 30 nations.
So, the claim that the US should do nothing to stop the bloodshed because the Syrian opposition is divided is manifestly false.
The second “problem” cited by Obama is that Syrians have not managed to set up “liberated zones” as was the case in Libya during the uprising to topple another Arab despot.
“Where is the Syrian Benghazi,” Obama spokesmen ask.
The comparison with Libya is misplaced. Libya is a vast country with a sparse population, and, without air cover by NATO, it is unlikely that Benghazi could have held its own against Colonel Gaddafi’s air force and armored divisions.
Even then, the anti-Assad forces have already set up “liberated zones” in at least five provinces. These pockets of territory are home to almost a million Syrians. A further 250,000 Syrians have fled to neighboring countries. More importantly, perhaps, the Syrian opposition has mini-Benghazis in the heart of the capital Damascus and in Aleppo, the country’s most populous city.
The third “problem”, cited by Obama apologists, is that the US cannot lead on this issue because of the Russian veto in the United Nations’ Security Council.
To be sure, Russia’s views on this as on other relevant issues of international concern must be taken into account. However, one should not forget that the veto concerns only the Security Council. It does not and should not stop a range of measures approved by the General Assembly, the UN Secretary-General and the various organs of the UN.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who, one must admit, is more seriously concerned about the Syrian tragedy, says that the US will continue seeking Russian support through the Security Council. Last week she said that if disagreement with Russia continues the US would support the Syrian opposition. What this means in practice is that the Russian veto is effective beyond the Security Council and also covers aspects of US foreign policy.
The fourth “problem” claimed by Obama apologists is that the United States’ European and regional allies have not done their part. Obama says he wants to “lead from behind”, whatever that means, and insists that the US should play a supportive part in schemes devised and executed by allies.
Leaving aside the nonsense about “leading from behind”, the claim that European and regional allies have been lethargic is patently false.
Turkey has taken high risks to support the Syrian uprising and is now paying the price by becoming a target for terrorism sponsored by Tehran and Damascus. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states have hosted Syrian opposition groups and provided financial support. Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon have to deal with a growing number of refugees from Syria. Egypt’s new President Muhammad Mursi brought the voice of the Syrian uprising to the heart of Tehran during last week’s Non-Aligned Movement summit. For their part, the European Union, especially France and Great Britain, have led the way by imposing strong sanctions against the al-Assad regime and providing a range of support for the uprising.
Finally, Obama apologists cite another “problem”: the fear that al-Assad’s fall could mark the coming to power of “hardline Islamists”.
This old chestnut has been around for decades. It was used by a string of Arab despots to justify their own hold on power. Even Gaddafi marketed himself in the West as “a rampart against Islamists”. Some Western “experts” claimed that Arabs should not have freedom because if they did they would immediately choose Islamist “holy warriors” and declare Jihad on the outside world.
The truth is that wherever we have had reasonably clean pluralist elections in the Muslim world, from Indonesia to Morocco, the Islamist bogeyman set up of Western “experts” failed to attract more than a quarter of the electorate. In any case, the idea is to let Syrians choose whom they want, not whomever outsiders might prefer.
With Russia acting as big power backbone for an alliance to save al-Assad, even at the cost of killing large numbers of Syrians, Washington needs to step forward to counterbalance Moscow. A coalition of the willing seeking to save Syria from a deranged despot is already in place. It needs leadership. Whether one likes it or not, the US is still the only power capable of providing that. Obama has no excuses to shirk that responsibility.