After months of dithering and refusing to confront Syria’s dictatorial regime over its attempts to suppress dissent, it looks like last week’s visit by the American and French ambassadors to the besieged town of Hama got the Assad government’s attention. A mob of Assad’s supporters stormed the American Embassy in Damascus today and vandalized the building.
Like his Iranian allies, Assad appears to take a dim view of the Obama administration’s seriousness when it comes to such confrontations. Since Washington has been careful up until this moment to not rile him too much, Assad clearly believes the U.S. will back down in the face of a physical threat to American personnel. The question now for Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is whether they are prepared to answer this provocation in a manner the Syrians will understand. If they do not act now to convince the Syrians to back down, the cost to the West and its friends may be measured in blood rather than broken glass.
Lest there be any doubt about the message to the United States with these attacks, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford nicely summed up the situation after the first assaults on the embassy over the weekend: “How ironic that the Syrian Government lets an anti-U.S. demonstration proceed freely while their security thugs beat down olive branch-carrying peaceful protesters elsewhere.”
President Obama may think the inconsistency of his decision to ignore the depredations being carried out by the Assad regime while going to war over much the same issue in Libya doesn’t matter. And indeed, it may not matter to many Americans who are not interested in yet another Middle East conflict. But the Syrians may take a very different point of view.
Backed as he is by Iran, and buttressed by his alliances with Hezbollah and Hamas, Assad may believe it is this fact, and not American war-weariness, that has given them carte blanche do what they like, even if it means a repeat of his father’s epic massacres in Hama. Thus, rather than restraining Syria from further depredations, the Obama government’s curious ambivalence about the Assad regime may have emboldened it to further crimes.
That means the nature of the U.S. response to this attack on our embassy could be a crucial turning point in the region. If Obama lets it go as just a case of the Arab street running amuck rather than as a deliberate act of state-sponsored violence, then you can bet both Assad and the Iranians will take it as yet another sign of American weakness. If so, then it will affect more than just the course of events in Syria. It may lead to further provocations by Hamas and Hezbollah, not to mention an Iran that is not convinced Obama means business about preventing them from obtaining nuclear weapons. Unless the administration demonstrates that Iran and its allies will not bully it, the next provocation may be one even Barack Obama won’t be able to ignore.