President Obama’s statement demanding Bashar al-Assad step down as president of Syria was quickly followed by similar condemnations coming from the French, Germans, British, the EU, and Canadians. “To have them all fall in line is a hell of an accomplishment, especially in summertime,” Syria analyst Andrew Tabler, Next Generation fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me.
So what’s the administration’s second act?
“We’re going to have to be ruthless with Assad,” says Tabler, author of a forthcoming book on Syria, In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria.“There’s a lot of different opinions among our allies about how to be ruthless with him. Like, how do you get him to leave the country? Getting him out is going to be the hard part. Historically, multilateral pressure is what works best with Syria. For instance, it got them out of Lebanon in 2005.”
Indeed, Bush administration officials, at the time, expected that Damascus would merely redeploy its troops and many were surprised when Syria made a full withdrawal in the spring of 2005. The fact that the U.S. had more than 100,000 troops across the border no doubt played a role in encouraging the Syrians to take American power seriously, a role as important—if not more so—than multilateral pressure. As the Obama administration has recognized during the last few months of the Syrian uprising, it no longer has that leverage over Assad. So what instruments does the White House have at its disposal?
There are the energy sanctions Obama announced today, which will require European support, since 90 percent of Syrian oil flows to the continent. Tabler, a valuable resource that administration officials tapped over the last few months, especially regarding the energy sanctions, argues in a paper published today that there are three pillars necessary to bring down Assad. In addition to sanctions and multilateral coordination, Tabler argues that the administration should keep U.S. ambassador Robert Ford in Damascus, “as he liaises with the opposition and the tribes of eastern Syria to help them prepare a viable alternative to Assad's feeble reform plans.”
Presumably, keeping the ambassador in Damascus is what the White House intends to do, even as the Syrian regime has imposed a travel restriction on Ford that limits his ability to meet with the opposition inside Syria. It would appear that the administration fully expects Ford to be kicked out of Syria, a likelihood that might be hastened by today’s statement. In any case, writes Tabler, the Senate, “as a sign of solidarity, should cease holding up his nomination and confirm him at the earliest opportunity.”
By all means, the Senate should confirm Ford in acknowledgment of his courageous effort to represent American interests in a hard place at a difficult moment. But rather than wait for him to be expelled, the administration should recall him immediately. He does not need to be in Damascus to be the administration's point man on Syria policy. As even Tabler admits in his article: “Whether based inside or outside the country, the U.S. ambassador to Syria represents a senior American representative that the opposition and Sunni and Kurdish tribes will take seriously, respect, and be willing to deal with to help bring about a peaceful and orderly transition of power.”
Our Arab partners who are closest to us on Syria policy and perhaps have most leverage on the regime, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have already withdrawn their ambassadors. In the effort of presenting a unified, multilateral front, we should do the same—and expel Syria’s envoy to Washington, Imad Moustapha, immediately, especially since he played a role in intimidating Syrian dissidents on American soil.
The administration is to be applauded for demanding Assad step down and building a coalition that expresses the international condemnation of the Syrian regime’s brutality. Now it’s time to exercise the moral force of American leadership by turning our back wholly on the regime and toward an opposition in whose courage resides the hopes for a better future for Syria, its neighbors, and the world.