Slow waltz on Syria

Slow waltz on Syria

The U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, former Secretary General Kofi Annan, reported to the Security Council yesterday that the government of Bashir al-Assad has agreed to a cease-fire commencing April 10th. Annan also reported there has been no abatement of the violence by the government of Syria against its citizens. Assad’s government is estimated by the U.N. to have killed more than 9,000 people in the past year, when Syrians began demanding the rights we Americans consider universal.

In that year, the Obama administration has gingerly moved away from defending Bashir al-Assad. When thousands of people had already been victims of murder by their own government in Syria, Secretary of State Clinton described Assad as a "reformer" who should be supported by the United States. Astonishingly, she contrasted him with Arab despots we supported protests against.

While Obama administration policy has improved somewhat with the advance of revolutions in the Middle East, it continues to chase rather than positively affect change. Our president now concedes that Assad should step down, but endorses a U.N. peace plan that would leave the murderer of nine thousand in power. Moreover, the Obama administration considers itself restricted from intervening in Syria because Vladimir Putin shields a fellow despot with Russia’s vote in the U.N. Security Council.

So while Assad’s forces shell neighborhoods in Homs and Hama, Secretary Clinton promises communications equipment to the disparate Syrian opposition. Make no mistake: Syrians are paying the price for our diplomatic nicety. They understand it, and those who would challenge despotism elsewhere understand that the United States is moving slowly enough that the Assad government may well succeed in breaking the resistance before we are of any help.

In fact, the Assad government seems to believe they’re close to crushing the resistance: Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi declared as much last week, and the April 10th timeline agreed to by Assad for the U.N. peace plan is probably intended to allow consolidation of government gains against the resistance.

By valuing a United Nations mandate more than we value the lives of Syrians, we have given authoritarian governments a veto on our ethical responsibilities — multilateralism trumps morals. It is discouraging that our government champions this concession as though it were a virtue.

While our own president shirks the responsibility to speak in the language of ethics, the Prime Minister of Turkey has done so, and eloquently. Prime Minister Erdogan yesterday said "in not taking a decision, the U.N. Security Council has indirectly supported the oppression. To stand by with your hands and arms tied while the Syrian people are dying every day is to support the oppression."

Working with other governments through international institutions is a good thing. It benefits the United States in numerous ways. But it is not a substitute for doing what our values — values we claim as universal standards of human rights — call for. As Atticus Finch says in the classic American novel To Kill A Mockingbird, "the one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience."

What is urgently needed for Syria is to bring together the disparate Syrian opposition, surround and support them with regional involvement, broker a leadership consistent with our interests and legitimate within Syria, sharply and immediately penalize the Assad regime for using military force against its citizens, incentivize defections from Assad’s supporters, provide Assad an exit he might actually take, expose and prevent Iran’s murderous assistance, foster debate within Iran about whether its government’s foreign policy choices are benefitting Iranians, drive up the cost to Russia and China for shielding Assad, and dozens of other supporting elements that will add up to more than photo op meetings of "friends" groupings.

The Obama administration went to most of that trouble in Libya, where our interests were not engaged; it ought to be doubly activist in Syria, where bringing down an evil government would actually benefit our interests and our values.