So the president finally swallowed hard and pronounced the three words: “Assad must go.”
Well, not exactly. That would have been too simple. Here’s what he actually emitted:
“The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people,” Obama said. “We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
E.B. White is thrashing in his grave at the overuse of the passive voice, but we get the point. The Administration, following in the footsteps of its predecessors (as far back as I can remember), had convinced itself that Assad was somehow a pal of ours, and, in the face of the Syrian Spring and Summer, would of course “reform.” 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.
But not to worry; he’s not really going to get involved in a serious way: “The United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria,” Obama said.
It’s like Libya 4.0: First he clucks his tongue. Then he laments the killing, calling on the killers to act reasonably. Then he pronounces himself “appalled.” All of this creates one of those policy vacuums that nature so famously abhors, and various countries (the Saudis, for example) withdraw their diplomats to show their disgust. Meanwhile, Hillary whispers to journalists that they shouldn’t worry, that of course the United States is going to say “Assad Must Go,” but it will mean ever so much more if other countries join in.
In the end, other countries — the Brits, the French, the Germans and “the European Union” (which I thought already included the previously mentioned trinity, so there may be a missing few words — “the other members” — between “the” and “European,” but it’s probably a typo) didn’t so much join in as pile on. Their announcements followed ours. Is it significant? Could be. Maybe, in the end, our allies wanted America to take the lead (which would suggest an end to the Obama Doctrine of Leading with the Behind). Or maybe they were unwilling to join in the sort of sanctions we favored.
Since Hillary unfortunately called the mass murderer of Damascus a “reformer” it was left to her to parse the presidential message. As so often happens, however, the “explanation” raises lots of questions. Maybe there are some journalists around Washington, D.C., and maybe one of them will ask some of the most important matters.
The obvious question is “now that you’ve come out against Assad, how are you going to win?” This might be asked with a reference to a previous announcement that “Qadaffi must go.” And, by the way, recent reports suggest that he may indeed have to go, or be killed. Suppose that happy thought comes true; would it become the template for Syria? And beyond Syria?
Does the president intend to organize or support a NATO military action against Assad? Remember he only said that “the United States cannot and will not impose” the “Assad must go” policy; he didn’t say he wouldn’t join a broader effort to impose it.
Hillary said it would take “words and actions to produce results.” Check. And Obama has instituted “unprecedented sanctions,” including a freeze on Syrian government assets under U.S. jurisdiction, a ban on American citizens from having dealings with the Assad regime, and on all Syrian petroleum and petroleum products.
Fine. But such actions don’t warrant adjectives like “unprecedented.” You might try asking Saddam about sanctions. There are plenty of precedents. Sanctions can bite, even against a big, rich country like Iran, and they carry an unmistakable political rebuke. But they are not a silver bullet, as my tireless colleague Mark Dubowitz likes to say, and there is no case, so far as I know, where sanctions have forced a hostile regime to either reform or “go.” And the journalists have been told as much: “Though the moves may not have any immediate impact on the Syrian regime’s behavior, officials hope it sends a powerful signal that Assad is no longer welcome in the international community.”
So we’re hitting Assad with words and actions to “send a powerful signal.” That’s where we’re at, at least officially and openly. And it’s a good thing. I’ve been calling for it for months. Those signals matter, as we learned from Soviet dissidents in and after the latter years of the Cold War. When Reagan gave his Evil Empire speech, it had a real effect inside the Soviet Empire, and previous declarations of “x must go” have proven consequential as well. Just ask Hosni Mubarack. Or Muammar Qadaffi.
But it’s not enough to send signals; if we’re going to be taken seriously, we have to support the nonviolent revolution under way in Syria, and also in its patron state, Iran. For there is little doubt that the slaughter in Syria has been greatly assisted, and perhaps even micromanaged, from Tehran. Iranian sharpshooters are hard at work, gunning down Syrian protesters. Chinese-trained Iranian cyber experts have taught Assad’s security forces how to block the social networks, and track down users. Syria has created a new domestic security force explicitly modeled on Iran’s hated Basij, and there are thousands of Quds Force officers and killers in Syria, aiding, abetting and encouraging the Syrian Army, and doing a bit of slaughter on their own.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei knows the stakes are very high in Syria, both because it would inspire the Iranian opposition to challenge him more openly, and because it would deprive the Iranian state of the Syrian base of its most important terrorist proxies, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas. A few weeks ago he warned the Turks that if Iran were forced to choose between Syria and Turkey, he would choose Syria. And not a day goes by without some high official in Tehran warning the world of very dire consequences if anyone acts against Assad.
Whatever Obama may think, and whatever Hillary may say, we are now at war with the Assad regime, and there is now an added dimension to the thirty-plus year war that the Islamic Republic of Iran declared in 1979. Do we have a strategy to win that war? For extras: there are other members of the Syriana axis of malevolence. Venezuela, for one, and Russia for another. The two cases are enormously different, needless to say, but if we’re going to war, we’d best have a clear view of the full battlefield.
Finally, as others have cautioned, it’s always possible to make bad things even worse. If Assad survives, it will further confirm the region’s conviction that Obama is a wimp, although the fall of Qadaffi would mitigate things at least a bit, at least for a while. Moreover, if Assad survives, the world will see it as an Iranian victory and an American defeat. And the world will be right. Moreover again, the “new Syria” might turn out to be even more hostile to us than the old one. I tend to doubt this, but I doubt that we know for sure, or even for probable…
We should not want Libya 4.0 in Syria and Iran. We should not want to send NATO forces into those countries, a move that would be morally and strategically wrong. Obama was right when he said that such decisions should be made by the people of the countries in question. But he failed to pronounce the next sentence: “they have indeed decided: they do not want their regime, and so we will do what we can to help them get there.”