After more than a year of violent repression of protests that have taken the lives of thousands of people, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has figured out exactly how much he can get away with before his actions will provoke action from the West. Rather than being deterred by the prospect of an intervention to save the lives of his people, Assad now knows he can kill as many people as he likes. With reports of yet another massacre of dozens of women and children having been committed in the Homa region, the Syrian regime is demonstrating again that it will not be deterred by the condemnation of the international community from inflicting atrocities (let alone relinquish power). Indeed, rather than giving Assad pause, it may be that the latest statements of outrage issued by Secretary of State Clinton about events in Syria may just be confirming his impression that talk is all the United States and the West ever intend to do about the situation.
Clinton repeated earlier tough statements about Syria during a joint press conference with her Turkish counterpart. But as the U.S. has made it clear that no action will be taken without the consent of Syria’s Russian and Chinese allies, that is a virtual guarantee Assad has absolutely nothing to worry about. That the latest instance of mass slaughter — this time in the village of Qubeir where 78 persons are thought to have been killed, half of whom were women and children — happened while a United Nations peace plan was supposed to be implemented and U.N. personnel were in the country is just the latest evidence that Assad understands he can continue to act with impunity. If Assad is laughing at American suggestions he leave Syria, who can blame him for thinking U.S. policy is a joke?
U.N. observers were prevented from going to the site of the latest massacre by Syrian troops, but we expect the U.N. to be an impotent onlooker when mass slaughter is going on. The United States however, ought to be regarded differently. But with his trademark “lead from behind” style, President Obama seems to be emulating the behavior of the world organization he so admires.
The trouble here is not just the failure to act, though that is deeply troubling and a stain on America’s honor as well as that of the West. Rather, it is the combination of that lack of action with loud talk about Assad’s beastliness that is undermining the last shred of U.S. credibility as a force to be reckoned with in the region.
While silence about events in Syria would have been shocking, it might have made some sense if the president and the secretary of state had also made it clear the atrocities there were not America’s business. But to go on record as treating the crimes against humanity as an outrage that deeply offends Americans and then to do nothing about it is far worse. That is because the clear reluctance on the part of the administration to do something more than simply talk about Syria is not only being observed in Damascus. The real audience for this scandalous lack of backbone or a conscience on the part of the administration is in Moscow and Beijing.
More than just the people of that unhappy country will regret the consequences of America’s lack of guts and leadership on Syria. Though there are good reasons to worry about what would follow even a limited U.S. or Western intervention in Syria, the combination of talk and inaction will convince the Russians and Chinese they can dig in and back their awful Syrian client without fear of consequences. Even worse, it will convince them that President Obama is no more likely to go to the mat with Iran about its nuclear program than he is about Assad’s mass murders.
This is a real problem that is no less a matter of concern if the president sees these two cases differently, as some of his supporters insist he does. But after having demonstrated that he is a paper tiger on Syria, it is going to be very difficult to persuade the other members of the P5+1 talks with Iran that President Obama’s moral outrage is more than hot air. If Assad is allowed to go on killing people with no more than the prospect of a strongly worded statement from Hillary Clinton to deter him, the president may find out that once you lose your credibility, it takes more than a press conference to win it back.