Escalating violence against prodemocracy demonstrators in Syria has put President Obama in a difficult spot, politically as well as diplomatically.
For too long, critics say, the United States – and Obama in particular – has treated Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as if he were a genuine reformer, when in reality he was following in his father’s footsteps as an authoritarian despot quite willing to attack his own people if they pushed for greater political freedoms.
Friday was the worse day yet in some two months of protest, with at least 75 people killed by government forces, bringing the total to more than 200 – a number that could rise since many of the wounded have been prevented from reaching hospitals.
Saturday began with funeral mourners attacked as well, the number of those killed initially reported as a half dozen with the number rising throughout the day. There were also reports that children caught writing anti-Assad graffiti had been tortured.
In a statement late Friday, Obama “condemn[ed] in the strongest possible terms the use of force by the Syrian government against demonstrators.”
“President Assad and the Syrian authorities,” Obama said, “have placed their personal interests ahead of the interests of the Syrian people, resorting to the use of force and outrageous human rights abuses to compound the already oppressive security measures in place before these demonstrations erupted.”
In an indication of the complexity of the situation in a region already steeped in turmoil, Obama added: “Instead of listening to their own people, President Assad is blaming outsiders while seeking Iranian assistance in repressing Syria’s citizens through the same brutal tactics that have been used by his Iranian allies.”
In particular, Israel – the key US ally in the region – faces a situation whose outcome is impossible to determine but likely to be dangerous in any case.
“Assad has maintained stability,” Shlomo Brom of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University told the Washington Post. “He has kept the border with Israel quiet, and though he has harassed Israel by assisting Hezbollah and Hamas, he reacted cautiously to events such as the bombing of a Syrian nuclear facility that was attributed to Israel…. On the other hand, there is no sympathy for Assad and his links with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, and any regime change in Syria will hurt this axis.”
For Obama, the situation in Syria comes as the war in Afghanistan slogs along, the US tries to disengage from Iraq while escalating its military action in Libya with the use of armed drone aircraft, and the American public is wary (if not weary) of foreign entanglements with no apparent connection to national security.
His statement Friday followed increasing criticism of what appeared to be fence-sitting on Syria.
“The administration has sat on its hands despite the fact that the Assad regime is one of the most implacable US adversaries in the Middle East,” the Washington Post editorialized Friday. “As a moral matter, the stance of the United States is shameful. To stand by passively while hundreds of people seeking freedom are gunned down by their government makes a mockery of the US commitment to human rights.”
Blogging in the Daily Beast, Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey and John Barry write that Obama is “missing in action” rather than asserting a leadership role that can’t be avoided by the world’s most powerful nation.
“The drama – the tragedy – increasingly apparent at the White House is of a brilliant intellect who is nonetheless confounded by events, a strategist whose strategies are thwarted and who is left with almost no strategy at all…,” they write.
And yet Obama’s critics have little to suggest other than tougher talk and diplomatic symbolism.
“President Obama should immediately recall the ambassador that he sent to Syria and move to invoke additional economic sanctions,” Republican presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty urged in a statement Friday. “Moreover, he should instruct the US Ambassador to the UN to call a special meeting of the Security Council to condemn the Syrian regime’s murderous conduct.” csm