from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Who Is Losing Legitimacy Over Syria?

July 18, 2011

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American policy toward Syria is increasingly inconsistent and unintelligible.

On Saturday, the Assad regime murdered another thirty-two peaceful protesters. What was the secretary of state’s reaction? She was in Istanbul, where some Syrian opposition leaders are located, but she did not meet with them—nor it seemed did she dispatch any of her aides to do so. Instead, she advised them to negotiate with the Assad government. The Washington Post tells the story:

“Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was meeting with Turkish officials a few miles away, a day after she offered formal U.S. recognition to the Libyan rebel Transitional National Council, also while in Istanbul.

“But she made no effort to meet with the Syrian opposition there, despite hopes expressed before the conference by some opposition figures that she would. Instead, she offered only lukewarm support for the Syrian gathering and made it clear that the United States hopes the protest movement will engage in dialogue with the Syrian government, something most opposition groups reject.

"‘We’re encouraged by what we see the Syrian people are doing for themselves. This is not anything the United States or any other country is doing,’ she said after talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. ‘It’s what the Syrian people are doing, trying to form an opposition that can provide a pathway, hopefully in peaceful cooperation with the government, to a better future.’”

This statement came just days after she said the regime had “lost legitimacy,” a bizarre phrase to use regarding a government that never had any. But that phrase was regarded as a toughening of the U.S. position, so what explains her advice to people being shot dead in the street that they “cooperate” with the man shooting them?

That twenty-three of the thirthy-two people killed by the regime on Saturday were in Damascus shows that the demonstrations have reached the capital and continue to grow. The great scholar Fouad Ajami recently said that aspects of  the Arab Spring are well described as a “prison break” by an entire population, and certainly that term fits for Syria. I understand the Administration’s desire not to urge people into the streets, lest there be a slaughter that we cannot halt or avert. But no one is suggesting that the president call for a mass uprising. U.S. policy needs only to show consistency and moral clarity.

I shudder to think how a Syrian protester must view the United States when he is risking his life and the secretary of state is still dreaming of “peaceful cooperation” from the government shooting him and his fellow demonstrators dead in the streets day after day. Mrs. Clinton’s remark about Assad’s loss of legitimacy was, we are told, unscripted. “The administration’s policy toward the Syrian autocrat has lately been shaped more by diplomatic improvisation than methodical planning within the White House,” the Washington Post reported.

This may explain why the secretary oscillates between tougher and weaker rhetoric and positions, but it is a terrible indictment of the Obama Administration foreign policy team that it cannot get its act together after thirty months in power. This Administration’s Syria policy has now moved from “improvisation” to incoherence.