Obama Can Stop the Killing in Syria

The United States has leverage with the murderous Bashar al-Assad; it has simply chosen not to use it.


As the Syrian uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad concludes its third month, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is coming under increasing fire for its slow, reluctant reaction. The administration continues to call on the Syrian president to lead a transition to democracy and argues that the United States simply lacks the leverage to affect the situation in Damascus. As one senior U.S. official told the Atlantic in May, "The Syrian government knows it can act with a certain amount of impunity because we have no real leverage over them."

Not all significant players agree with Washington. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak have stated that Assad’s rule is "illegitimate." Washington is lagging behind.

Against all odds and expectations, the Syrian revolt has spread to almost every part of the country. The spark that began in mid-March in the southern town of Daraa has extended to the Kurdish areas in the northeast, the mixed Sunni-Alawi coastal towns, central Syrian cities such as Hama and Homs, and even the suburbs of Damascus.

Initially, Washington was skeptical. An anonymous U.S. official revealed in April that the Obama administration’s general assessment was that such a broad uprising "wouldn’t happen, that Assad was too good at nipping these movements in the bud, and also that he was not afraid to be brutal."

Save for the last part, that analysis has proved wrong. Despite unspeakable brutality, including the wanton torture and murder of children, the uprising continued apace and quickly became a national movement whose demands have coalesced around toppling Assad. The protesters’ chants have echoed the refrain heard in Tunis and Cairo: "The people demand the removal of the regime."

Yet even after its initial analysis proved wrong, the Obama administration hesitated to support the protesters. Syrian dissidents who met with administration officials in Washington in April relayed their overall disappointment with America’s "lukewarm" response.

Lukewarm is the right word. Even as the administration moved to impose sanctions on senior regime figures, its reluctance was obvious. Anonymous officials lamented to journalists that, due to a lack of leverage, they doubted whether sanctions would have any tangible effect. "We already have sanctions," a senior administration official said in April. "We could pursue whether there are additional ways to tighten pressure, but I don’t want to suggest there is anything imminent."

These lamentations are a self-fulfilling prophecy. The evolution of the Syrian uprising has presented Washington with a unique opportunity to squeeze Assad. The United States has leverage; it has simply chosen not to use it.

The first and easiest avenue for Washington to pursue would be to recall Robert Ford, whom Obama appointed as his ambassador to Damascus despite congressional objections. Bringing Ford home would be an obvious way to deprive Assad of the legitimacy that comes with relations with the world’s only superpower. It would send an unambiguous message that the United States is done dealing with the Syrian regime. That message would embolden the protesters and dishearten Assad. Perhaps most importantly, it would send a clear signal to the silent majority in Syria, which is watching apprehensively and wondering who will win.

In addition to severing diplomatic ties, Obama should finally come out and declare Assad’s rule illegitimate. The president’s current reluctance to make such a declaration is incomprehensible, especially when other allies, such as France and Israel, have already done so. Yet the administration persists in its fanciful call for Assad to "lead the transition."

The Arab media is already rife with perceptions that America is soft on Assad, an impression his regime surely wishes to foster. That is why Assad’s advisor, Bouthaina Shaaban, recently expressed to the New York Times her belief that the international community will fall back in line once the regime has restored control. Obama could lay this notion to rest by washing America’s hands of Assad once and for all.

Assad’s brutality has already cost him critical relations with three countries that have been instrumental in his efforts to rehabilitate himself in the world: France, Qatar, and Turkey.

In 2004 and 2005, France was Washington’s principal partner in the effort to isolate the Assad regime in the wake of its alleged murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The French then shifted gears and tried to engage Assad, but to no avail. Now they are spearheading the European effort to impose sanctions and other restrictions on Assad and his cronies, and are leading the way at the U.N. Security Council in seeking a resolution targeting the Assad regime.

Qatar likewise invested in Assad and even played a role in Paris’s opening to Damascus, while counterbalancing Saudi Arabia’s sometimes fraught relations with the Syrian regime. Today, the Doha-based satellite channel Al Jazeera has been a powerful tool in exposing Assad’s crimes, while providing a platform to Syrian dissidents and human rights activists. In late March, the influential Doha-based Egyptian preacher Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi publicly expressed his support for the Syrian revolution, declaring "the revolution train has reached a station it was bound to reach: the station of Syria." The Syrian media retaliated by unleashing its venom on Doha and its assets.

Turkey, meanwhile, has not only criticized Assad’s brutality, but is also playing a direct role in setting in motion a transition in Syria. To that end, it allowed a conference of Syrian opposition leaders to be held on Turkish soil, much to Assad’s ire. For that, it too came under attack from the Syrian regime’s media. In recent days, as the Assad regime’s assault on towns in northwestern Syria has sent thousands of refugees across the border into Turkey, Ankara has escalated its rhetoric and expressed support for efforts to pressure Assad at the Security Council.

These states form the nucleus of a coalition capable of putting tremendous pressure on Assad. Washington’s regional allies are not holding back. Even the claim that Israel is somehow protecting Assad is false and has been dispelled by a number of Israeli officials, including the ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren.

The United States, along with Britain and France, is halfheartedly seeking to overcome Chinese and Russian objections to a Security Council resolution condemning Assad. But one crucial element is missing here: a clear strategy, backed by strong American leadership. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laments the lack of international unity on Syria. Yet consensus requires American leadership to coalesce. French, Qatari, and Turkish officials are operating on their own because they cannot be sure of Washington’s position.

That is why it is essential for the United States to abandon its hands-off approach to Syria. Once Washington states unequivocally that it sees no role for Assad except for him to leave, everything else will follow. The position of the superpower, after all, matters. The Turks, for example, who are divided on how to proceed, will stop vacillating if Obama makes it clear that he would like to see Assad depart in a manner that safeguards their interests.

Once the administration makes that decision, its ability to muster leverage increases. Washington could then widen the coalition against Assad to include other key Arab states, including Saudi Arabia. Washington should make clear that it seeks Assad’s ouster as part of a broader strategy of countering Iranian influence in the region — something about which Riyadh remains deeply concerned. There are several signs that the Saudis will be receptive to this argument, not least of which is the relentlessly critical line Saudi-owned media have taken against Assad over the last three months.

The administration could then induce other regional allies to use the leverage they have on Syria to its advantage. To assuage their worsening financial distress, for instance, the Assads have been reaching out to the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Iraq. Obama can lean on these Arab allies to refrain from assisting Assad’s regime and investing money in it, just as he works with the Europeans to choke off sources of revenue for Damascus. These measures could become a significant factor in the calculation of the Sunni business class still on the fence and might potentially accentuate rifts in the army, which is already showing signs of cracks and fatigue amid growing reports of defections.

There is much more the United States could do. Washington could approach allies that share borders with Syria — Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey — and make contact with local leaders in the country’s border towns. America has plenty of leverage with Iraqi Kurds, and it could build on this relationship to communicate with Syrian Kurds. Similarly, it could encourage advantageous alliances between tribal groups that span Syria’s borders with Iraq and Jordan. It could also supply the protest movement with communications equipment.

In the end, the real problem is not the lack of leverage so much as the Obama administration’s refusal to use it. Obama and Clinton have said much about multilateral diplomacy, and Syria now presents them with an opportunity to put it on display. So what are they waiting for?

Syrians are fully aware who stands behind them in the international community. In recent weeks, they have burned the flags of China, Russia, and Iran. Why haven’t they burned the American flag? Perhaps it’s because they still hold out hope that Washington will come to their aid. That hope is itself a form of leverage. Obama should not squander it by continuing to bet on Assad as he murders people in the street.

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