In a move coordinated with our European allies and the United Nations, the Obama administration issued a statement on Thursday demanding that Syrian President Bashar Assad step down “for the good of the Syrian people.”
The US also slapped additional sanctions on the Assad regime, including freezing all Syrian assets under US jurisdiction, a ban on oil sales, and a bar to Americans having any business dealings with the regime. The “Big Three” of the European Union — France, Germany, and Great Britain — also issued a statement urging Assad “to step aside in the best interests of Syria and the unity of its people.”
The Syrian opposition hailed the international call for Assad’s resignation. Omar Idlibi, spokesman for the opposition network of Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) told the Global Post, “Now we can say the international community started to take responsibility for the crimes committed by the regime. They have lost confidence in the man they gambled on for five months.” The LCCs, made up mostly of young men, have been dodging Assad’s secret police for months, using social media tools to document the atrocities in Syria and relay images, video, and written reports to Western reporters.
Meanwhile, the United Nations was gearing up to increase the pressure on Assad by considering additional sanctions as well as referring Syria to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. A meticulously documented report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights details atrocities committed by Assad’s security forces, including several grisly massacres, systematic torture, and a list of more than 4,500 Syrians who are “missing.”
Why did it take so long? When the protests started in March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quoted as saying, “There’s a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.” The administration believed at the time that the protests would put pressure on the Syrian dictator to initiate changes in Syrian political society, forcing him to open a dialogue with the opposition.
This attitude turned out to be a product of wishful thinking rather than reasoned analysis. No sooner had Clinton made that curious statement did Assad begin his butchery. It wasn’t until late April that the administration issued its first set of sanctions against the Syrian regime. The second set, targeting Assad and his cronies, came two weeks later. It was shortly after that, on May 19, that Obama delivered his speech on the so-called Arab Spring, saying, “President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.”
Still short of calling for the Syrian strongman’s ouster, it wasn’t until July that Hillary Clinton claimed that Assad had “lost legitimacy.” This milquetoast statement by the administration stood until the beginning of this month — after 1,500 Syrians had already been massacred — when the US finally began to gather international support for Assad’s resignation.
Much has been made of the statement by an Obama national security staffer in a New Yorker article that the president was “leading from behind” on the Libya issue. The statement encompasses the worldview of the president and most of his advisers, who believe that the status of the United States as the only superpower in the world is detrimental to international relations and that we should be “first among equals” when it comes to building coalitions and consensus on world issues.
Clearly, our actions relating to Syria is another example of that policy. Rather than getting out in front of events and trying to influence them, the administration hung back, watching to see if other nations would take the lead in advocating what is clearly the moral course of action: putting pressure on Assad to leave. That it took five torturous months with Syrian tanks blasting their way into dozens of cities and towns killing thousands does not speak well of the “lead from behind” policy nor the president who oversees it. Obama’s statement roused analyst Michael Ledeen to write, “After months of slaughter, as jaws dropped all over what used to be called The Western World at the spectacle of an American leader who danced all around one of the clearest moral and strategic imperatives EVER, we finally get this [statement].”
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