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Assad’s Noose Tightens

1:00 PM, Aug 9, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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Bashar al-Assad

Beirut—Kuwait and Bahrain are the most recent additions to the list of Gulf Cooperation Council states that have withdrawn their ambassadors to Syria. First Qatar yanked its diplomat, after a regime-led mob attacked Doha’s embassy in Damascus. Now, with the ruler in Damascus laying siege to Deir al-Zour, and murdering Sunni Muslims in the middle of Ramadan, Saudi Arabia has been compelled to act, withdrawing its ambassador yesterday, shortly before Kuwait and Bahrain made their announcements.

These withdrawals leave the Obama administration with one less excuse to take more forthright action against Damascus—like recalling our own ambassador, banishing the Syrian ambassador from Washington, and calling unequivocally for Assad to go. For months the White House was briefing reporters that the Saudis as well as the Israelis were anxious about Washington taking any precipitous action against Damascus for fear of what might replace the Assad regime. These claims came after top Israeli officials—including the prime minister and defense minister—had come out publicly against the regime. Since Assad’s brutality toward his own people would render him incapable of ever mustering enough popular will to sign a peace deal, he was irrelevant to Israel. As for keeping the border on the Golan Heights quiet for forty years, Jerusalem understands that this is more a matter of successful Israeli deterrence than the disposition of the Assad clan. So now that the Saudis have thrown up their hands as well, where are the Americans?

The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, who was in Washington last week, called the Syrian regime's action in Hama  “grotesque” and “abhorrent” in an interview with Christiane Amanpour. It seems that the administration expects that the Senate will confirm Ford (he was dispatched to Syria in December on a recess appointment) and that the Syrians will eventually toss him out. Instead of recalling Ford, the White House wants to put the onus on Damascus, striving not to stray from its policy of engagement—apparently, Obama must show the world that he tried to reach out to despots who murder their own people, and that, in return, the despot proved incorrigible. A better option, suggested by Hudson Institute senior fellow Hillel Fradkin, is for the Senate to confirm Ford, acknowledge his fine work as a diplomat, and then for the White House to recall him. If and when Ford goes back to Damascus, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to travel much outside of the embassy, which was attacked a few weeks ago when he returned from his trip to Hama he took to show solidarity with protestors there. Security forces laid siege to the city shortly thereafter.

The White House justifies Ford’s presence in Syria insofar as it wants him to identify opposition figures who, in the aftermath of Assad’s fall, would be willing to work with minorities as well as the Sunni majority that have spearheaded the uprising. The administration is right to fear sectarian violence but its frustration with the Syrian opposition is less easy to understand.

To be sure, the opposition lacks a unified leadership, and therefore coherence, but after forty years of authoritarian rule it’s no mystery why neither the opposition in exile, nor the local coordinating committees are very bad at political organization. This is a talent that would require years of experience, and it’s the sort of political activism that got Syrians killed, jailed, or banished by Bashar and his father, Hafez. This fact is apparently lost on Obama officials, who are afraid to take the step of calling for Assad to leave until they know exactly what comes next. But berating the opposition for its lack of management skills is only going to further limit the administration’s ability to shape what comes after Assad.

The withdrawal of the Arab ambassadors shows again that the White House is playing catch-up. The question is whether this diplomatic movement is an indication that Assad’s time is running out and regional actors are betting against him.

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