from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Syria: Where Is President Obama?

April 24, 2011

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On Friday, the Syrian regime killed another hundred peaceful protesters, and then fired at people attending their funerals on Saturday, killing yet another dozen.

What has been the Obama administration’s response? To toughen up its rhetoric a bit, but to do nothing.

On Friday, after an especially weak performance by the president’s press spokesman (who contrasted the terrible situation in Libya with what he apparently thought was a far better one in Syria), the White House issued a new statement from the president.

“The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the use of force by the Syrian government against demonstrators,”  the statement said. And, “We strongly oppose the Syrian government’s treatment of its citizens,” it concluded. What’s wrong with that?

First, where is the president? This statement carefully avoided using the word “I” and was handed out by the White House. The president’s appearance on camera, delivering such words personally so that they can be carried into Syria on al-Jazeera and YouTube, would be much more effective. With hundreds now dead in the streets of Syria, it is past time for him to speak.

Second, the Friday statement continues to appeal to Assad: “We call on President Assad to change course now, and heed the calls of his own people.” That might have been acceptable three hundred deaths ago, but it is now absurd. The president called on Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a long-time American ally, to leave; why the reticence about Assad, a long-time American enemy?

Third, the White House statement is just words. It does not promise, suggest, or announce any actions. This administration has spent two years engaging with the Assad regime and loosening U.S. sanctions on it. “The World Trade Organization’s 153 members granted Syria observer status after the U.S. dropped its opposition in a sign the Obama administration is softening its stance toward the Middle Eastern nation,” Bloomberg reported a year ago, noting also that “President Barack Obama’s administration has already loosened export-license curbs on aircraft repairs for state-owned Syrian Arab Airways.” So this administration, having followed a foolish policy of engagement with this barbaric regime, has a special obligation to correct its course. The first action should be recalling our ambassador to Syria, who should never have been given his recess appointment to the post last year. Second, the United States should be calling immediately for special meetings of the UN Security Council and Human Rights Council, to bring additional focus on the murders of peaceful protesters in Syria and seek sanctions against the regime, in the hope that this attention will constrain its bloody hand.

As in Tunisia, as in Egypt, as in Libya and Bahrain, the president has been slow to react. This is inexcusable in the face of the mounting death toll—and the very real gains for the United States if the vicious Assad regime falls.

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