from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

How to Understand Our Policy in Syria

April 27, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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The last few days have produced a series of important quotations regarding Obama foreign policy.

The final line in Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker article on Obama is tops: “One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’” A similar thought was delivered on the record by the State Department’s Director of Policy Planning, Jacob Sullivan. Discussing military activities in Libya, he said the United States “stands ready to play perhaps the central supporting role in this mission…”

One has to assume that when you play the “central supporting role” you are not out front and are “leading from behind.” This is not, to say the least, the traditional American role in NATO, and NATO’s mixed performance in Libya suggests why our leadership and deep involvement are needed. But why is the administration taking this view regarding the Middle East in general?

More quotes. In an article about Syria in “The Cable” at the Foreign Policy web site, Josh Rogin reported that “At the State Department, the bureau of Near Eastern Affairs was also pressing for quicker decision making, multiple administration sources said...However, a push for aggressive action wasn’t necessarily the State Department’s position at the end of the day. Multiple sources said that, when the Syria discussions reached the deputies or principals level, State was often viewed as taking a cautious line, not wanting to give U.S. critics ammunition to claim the protests were driven by the West."

So, with hundreds being mowed down by the Assad regime, the U.S. had to act slowly lest “U.S. critics” attribute the demonstrations to us. What “critics” would those be? Officials of the murderous Assad regime? Iranian ayatollahs?

The administration’s total misunderstanding of the situation in Syria continues, as a final quote regarding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reveals: "’He sees himself as a Westernized leader,’ one senior administration official said, ’and we think he’ll react if he believes he is being lumped in with brutal dictators.’”

This is a man who has just killed over four hundred unarmed protesters, using tanks, snipers, and thugs. The State Department’s annual human rights report on Syria reveals the use of barbaric, medieval torture by Assad and the vicious mafia that rules Syria. Yet there is a “senior official” who thinks Assad will pull back if his feelings are hurt by being compared to “brutal dictators”—like his own father, perhaps?

As the days go by the administration’s failure to grasp the importance of the Syrian situation, and the reasons for that failure, become clearer. An alternative policy would not rely on Assad’s feelings or be guided by the fear that someone, somewhere would accuse the United States of being behind the protests in Syria. It would instead rely on America’s interests in seeing a barbaric dictatorship replaced by a democracy, having Iran weakened by the loss of its only Arab ally, and celebrating the end of a regime that helped jihadis kill hundreds and hundreds of American servicemen and women in Iraq.

That would be a better policy.

More on:

Middle East and North Africa

Syria

Human Rights

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