Paralysis on Syria
05/09/2011 - 13:46
James Besser

One of these day the Obama administration is going to have to figure out a policy for dealing with the unrest in Syria and the Assad regime's brutal repression. Unfortunately, it will probably be after it's too late.

Today's New York Times reports that the crackdown is intensifying, with hundreds now under arrest and the death toll rising.

“The breadth of the assault — from the Mediterranean coast to the poor steppe of southern Syria — seemed to represent an important turn in an uprising that has posed the gravest challenge to the 11-year-long rule of President Bashar al-Assad,” the Times reports. “Though officials have continued to hint at reforms, and even gingerly reached out to some dissidents last week, the escalation of the crackdown seemed to signal the government’s intent to end the uprising by force.”

In the Washington Post, columnist Jackson Diehl asks the money question: “Why is the West so sluggish on Syria?”

“The Obama administration and most of its European allies have been consistently sluggish about siding with the Arab revolutionaries,” he writes. “But nowhere has that fecklessness been more obvious, more damaging and less defensible than in Syria.”

So why the timid, uncertain response?

Diehl's answer: “My guess is that U.S. policy in Syria has been hamstrung by some of the same factors that have slowed U.S. responsiveness all through the Arab uprisings. There is, first of all, a reluctance to set aside conventional notions about Arab politics, and disbelief in the possibility of revolutionary change. There is anxiety about what might follow the collapse of dictatorship. And there is unwillingness to get in front of regional allies who are themselves invested in the status quo.”

Those allies include Israel, which – despite decades of portraying Assad and his father as the kind of dictators you don't make peace with – is now deeply worried about what will happen if the regime falls.

Like Israel, the administration seems paralyzed by fears of what could come next in a turbulent Syria.

The criticism of the Obama administration seems justified, but then I'm left with this question: what are its options?

President Obama has already ordered toughened sanction against Syria, but we don't give Assad aid, sell him military equipment or have extensive business dealings with his country, so it's hard to see how U.S. sanctions could be decisive. It's not as if Syria has something the West wants – like oil.

Military intervention? Hardly. U.S. forces are already overextended in Afghanistan and now Libya. Three wars at once? Somehow I don't see it.

There have been calls for the administration to publicly demand Assad's ouster. But such public intervention can easily backfire in a part of the world where U.S. approval can be the kiss of death.

It would be very interesting to know what's happening in the dark recesses where U.S. covert operations take place. Are we doing more behind the scenes to aid the protesters and limit Assad's repression? If we are, the results are not immediately apparent.

I feel the administration’s pain – and Israel's – as the Middle East firmament changes in ways that are impossible to predict. But wishing the old status quo would come back won't make it happen, and it's hard to see how the absence of forward-looking, flexible policy will enable either to manage its way through a tumultuous, dangerous period of dramatic change.

 

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