Since the protests calling for new political leadership in Syria began 15 months ago, the question of how to support that move toward democracy has been vexing the international community. As the reaction from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the call for his removal has grown from troublingly violent to reprehensibly so, the demand for meaningful, decisive and effective action stopping him has become urgent for humanitarian, ethical and geopolitical reasons.
Crafting and executing that action is no easy matter, of course, but that difficulty is not reason enough to ignore the obligation. As 10,000 Syrians have died at Assad’s hands since the nonviolent protests began, most recently and gruesomely, more than 100 villagers – including dozens of children – in last week’s massacre in Houla. The violence, torture and imprisonment designed to silence protesters through fear, intimidation or worse, simply must cease. The question now shifts to how.
The multilateral attempts at quelling Assad’s violent response to calls for political change, led by the Arab League and the United Nations through Kofi Annan, have proved devastatingly ineffective. While Assad agreed to a series of steps designed to stop the violence, allow for aid groups to respond to citizens in need of assistance, provide for press access to the country, ensure freedom of assembly and start the move toward dialogue around change, not one of the provisions has been achieved. In flaunting the agreement, Assad has made a mockery of any notion of negotiated resolution without significant human costs. More drastic measures are needed.
Aside from the devastating violence that is shattering the country, it is also being used as a proxy battlefield in a long-standing regional tension that pits various ethnic groups against one another, as well as places countries in adversarial positions. Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Russia each have taken positions in the country’s troubles, and they are not aligned. The potential for Syria to serve as a regional powder keg is significant.
The United States has expressed appropriate shock, dismay and outrage at Assad’s actions, and has called for his resignation. It is time for that call to move to action. The difficulty for President Barack Obama, and those who would align with the United States in taking that action, is when, how and to what end that action is structured. Obama’s foreign policy has evolved during his presidency, and does not follow a hard, fast ideology. While his early days in office emphasized coalition-building, dialogue and setting a high bar for U.S. involvement in other countries’ struggles, he has shown a growing willingness to take a leadership role in heavy-handed, even unilateral action that backs international democracy efforts for their own sake, not just their effect on U.S. interests. According to a recent Brookings Institution paper on American leadership, Obama’s foreign policy has a unique flavor to it: “What is novel about Obama’s version of offshore balancing is its moral dimension, which centers on America’s exceptionalism – including its respect for human rights – rather than just its hegemony. ... He does not fit neatly into a realist or an idealist box. Obama has evolved to a position that might be termed ethical offshore balancing.”
Syria has long since demanded attention for moral reasons, and therefore should meet the Obama acid test for decisive action that should involve a broad and strong coalition. Too many lives depend on it.