Where does the United States stand with regard to the destructive and rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria? The state of affairs in Syria present one of those tricky sets of circumstances for which thoughtful people are genuinely trying to find a solution. Others, however, are busy trying to see how they can respond to such a situation while maintaining political cover. While the so-called international community discusses, debates, takes votes in the UN Security Council, and issues public condemnations, the fact is the Syrian government is continuing to massacre its own citizens. What has been the reaction of the United States?
A little less than year ago, the official position of the U.S. government as articulated by the State Department was to continue with sanctions and financial pressure in an attempt to stop the Syrian government. A November 9, 2011 statement by Jeffrey Felton, Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs concluded, “What we have to say to President Assad can be summed up very briefly: step aside and allow your people to begin the peaceful, orderly transition from authoritarianism to democracy. Bashar al-Assad has proven that he is incapable of reform.”
A year later, the “unrest” in Syria has turned into full-blown, extremely bloody civil war. Despite the worsening conditions, the most recent statements from the State Department in many ways look like more strongly worded letters. On August 6, 2012, the U.S. was “encouraged by reports of the defection of Prime Minister Riad Hijab. Hijab is the highest-profile official to defect from the Assad regime.” Defectors are usually written off by the government from which they defected, however their political and PR usefulness to the rest of the world is limited and time-sensitive.
On August 10, the U.S. announced sanctions on the state-owned Syrian oil company for selling oil to Iran; “Today’s sanctions action sends a stark message: the United States stands resolutely against sales of refined petroleum product to Iran and will employ all available measures to bring it to a halt. Moreover, any business that continues to irresponsibly support Iran’s energy sector or helps facilitate either nation’s efforts to evade U.S. sanctions will face serious consequences.” On August 11, Secretary Clinton stated that while we can’t know when the Assad regime will fall, we must be prepared for what comes next; on the same day the State Department announced increased humanitarian aid for those fleeing Syria.
However, on August 20, President Obama appeared to move toward a more defined position and increased pressure on Syria when he announced in a press conference that if the Assad regime deployed its chemical weapons, the U.S. would consider that a “red line” necessitating a direct U.S. response. The President stated that the United States has “…communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region, that that’s a red line for us, and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front, or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.” So far, the Administration has argued that its reluctance to intervene militarily has been due to concerns that such intervention would further complicate the situation and reduce the chances for a political solution. However, waiting to act decisively until the Assad regime threatens to use or actually uses chemical weapons seems like closing the barn door after the horse leaves, only with much more deadly consequences.
Of course, it is possible that the U.S. is already undertaking covert actions in Syria. If that is the case, as it appeared to be in the hunt for bin Laden, hopefully those details will not be leaked by either independent entrepreneurs (i.e. Wikileaks) or the Administration itself.
I hope that the United States will find the political will to take concrete steps to stop the Assad regime before it depopulates Syria. There are two reasons for U.S. intervention; the first is to help the Syrian people (especially if Assad were to use his significant stockpiles of chemical weapons) and the second is to advance U.S. foreign policy. Possible actions that could be taken by the United States will be discussed in a later post; I intend this post to be an examination of the situation as it currently stands.
Violence-prone, oppressive dictators determined to stay in power regardless of the cost in human lives, do not really respond to strongly worded letters. It is ridiculous to think that Assad would have stepped aside because the U.S. said he should. Even with the statement regarding chemical weapons, the current Administration has made it clear that they prefer a political solution over direct involvement in Syria. Right now, there is no reason for Assad to believe that he is in any immediate danger from the United States.