from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Disgrace in Syria

May 27, 2012

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Headlines around the world this weekend tell of a massacre in Syria: artillery killed ninety people, of whom a third were children, in one village. The Assad regime has of course denied responsibility, but the village was in an area of anti-regime activity and no other group in Syria has the ability to use artillery in this way except the government. Accordingly even the UN--in a statement jointly from Kofi Annan and Ban ki-Moon--has blamed the government for shelling a residential neighborhood.

This shocking event is no surprise, for the Syrian government has been killing civilians for 14 months and the death toll is now above 12,000. The disgrace is ours, for letting it go on, month after month.

I have previously referred to Secretary Clinton’s very unfortunate February remark that "world opinion is not going to stand idly by." Three months later, it is, and so is she. American leadership on Syria is absent, and in its place have come all sorts of excuses and explanations of why we can’t "do more" in Syria.

In this context the President’s announcement of a new "Atrocities Prevention Board" a little over a month ago defies parody when he is in fact watching atrocities occur. The President said this:

We must tell our children about how this evil was allowed to happen -- because so many people succumbed to their darkest instincts, and because so many others stood silent...."never again" is a challenge to nations.  It’s a bitter truth -- too often, the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale.  And we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save.... Elie [Wiesel] alluded to what we feel as we see the Syrian people subjected to unspeakable violence, simply for demanding their universal rights.  And we have to do everything we can.  And as we do, we have to remember that despite all the tanks and all the snipers, all the torture and brutality unleashed against them, the Syrian people still brave the streets.  They still demand to be heard.  They still seek their dignity.  The Syrian people have not given up, which is why we cannot give up.

Those words should be a source of shame today. We "cannot give up" but in fact are doing next to nothing to help the Syrian people defend themselves, seeking instead excuses for inaction. Those who believed the Gulf Arabs or the Turks would act effectively without American leadership may be forgiven for the error--but error it was, more and more clearly with each passing day and the deaths each day brings in Syria. We have no more excuses.

On the White House web site, we are told that the President’s words that day came "after an introduction by Professor Elie Wiesel." This is misleading, for Wiesel not only introduced the President but took him to task. It’s not surprising that the White House does not show us what Wiesel said, about the Holocaust and about Syria today:

It could have been prevented. The greatest tragedy in history could have been prevented had the civilized world spoken up, taken measures in 1939, ‘40, ‘41, ‘42. Each time, in Berlin, Goebbels and the others always wanted to see what would be the reaction in Washington and London and Rome, and there was no reaction so they felt they could continue. So in this place we may ask: Have we learned anything from it? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power?

How indeed? In large part because President Obama has provided no leadership, apparently preferring to watch these massacres to taking the risks of acting. He is, to use Clinton’s phrase, standing idly by, making speeches from time to time but denying the opposition the assistance they need. If the killing goes on at these levels of brutality he may be forced to act, but that will not eliminate the stain on his record that these 14 months will leave. An "Atrocities Prevention Board" is a nice thing to have; I’m for it. But I’d trade it in an instant for a president determined to prevent atrocities.

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