It is chilling to read details of Bashar al-Assad regime’s assault on the city of Hama. Tanks are rolling through the streets, snipers are indiscriminately shooting civilians. At least 130 Syrians have died since Sunday’s assault began, bringing the total number of fatalities to more than 2,000 during the course of Assad’s bloody war on his own people. One somehow doubts Assad and his Alawite clique will be deterred by a toothless resolution of condemnation passed today by the UN Security Council.
There are many more steps Washington could take on its own—steps far short of using military force—that might begin to alter the political equation in Syria in ways inimical to its current rulers. My colleague Elliott Abrams offered many sensible suggestions yesterday in the Wall Street Journal. He recommends trying to peel Alawite leaders away from Assad, putting more pressure on the Syrian business community and pressing for statements from the opposition committing them to respecting the rights of all groups in a new Syria. These are all smart steps, but what we need above all is clarity from the administration.
President Obama is willing to condemn Assad but not call for his removal. He is willing to impose some sanctions but not others. Above all, he is not willing to break diplomatic relations or bring home Ambassador Robert Ford. Ford, a superb diplomat, has actually done a good job of siding with the people against their dictator; for example, he journeyed to Hama to highlight the oppression of the Assad regime. And he has gotten some backing from Hillary Clinton—but not, it seems, from Obama.
Considering Obama has pledged to support the Arab Spring, his failure to do more in Syria is shameful and puzzling. If Assad is overthrown, the entire power equation in the region changes in ways favorable to the West and unfavorable to the mullahs in Iran. Short of an invasion—which no one advocates—we cannot decisively alter the course of events in Syria. But we do have the ability to bring considerable influence to bear, if we take a strong stand along with regional allies such as Turkey. So far that hasn’t happened, and the people of Syria continue to pay a price for this president’s characteristic ambivalence.