from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Syria: Follow the Region?

June 12, 2011

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The violence in Syria is awful to see. Today the New York  Times reported that “Backed by tanks and helicopters gunships, Syrian army troops stormed the northern town of Jisr al-Shoughour on Sunday, after a bombardment that left much of the surrounding countryside in ruin and sent refugees fleeing to the nearby Turkish border." The refugee numbers are heading toward five thousand and will obviously go higher; the number of unarmed civilians killed by the regime passed one thousand and is climbing fast. But even the violence of this past week is apparently not awful enough to jolt the Obama Administration out of its failed Syria policy.

Secretary of State Clinton, interviewed yesterday in Lusaka, Zambia had this to say:

“Syria, for example, is engaging in horrific, revolting attacks on its own people. The region, however, is trying to – behind the scenes – get the government to stop. And they believe that that, at the time, is the best way to go forward. So we listen very closely to what people in the neighborhood, in the region, say.”

This is, I suppose, an improvement over the previous view that Assad was a “reformer,” or that (as President Obama put it on May 20) “President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.”

But it is quite stunning that the United States appears unable to call for Assad’s departure—despite “horrific, revolting attacks” on the people of Syria—because “the region” thinks that private pressure on Assad to stop murdering his own citizens is “the best way to go forward.” Secretary Clinton was responding to a question about military intervention, but the United States does not need to choose between that step and silence. The secretary is also establishing a precedent here that many Americans will find troubling, even astounding: that we pay more attention to "the region" than to our own moral standards. "The region," after all, contains regimes that do not permit women to vote, that persecute Christians, that wish the Jewish state would disappear. That is a strange place to look for moral or even political guidance.

In any event those approaches to Assad have achieved nothing; the regime has killed Syrians at an increasing pace. This is no time for “leading from behind.”

How many peaceful demonstrators have to die, how many refugees have to flee, how many days of military attacks on the people of Syria by the criminal Assad mafia in Damascus must be endured before the United States will call for Assad to go?