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Obama's Syria Policy: Ask Putin

4:15 PM, May 30, 2012 • By LEE SMITH
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Some have argued that last week’s massacre in the Syrian city of Houla, where Bashar al-Assad loyalists killed more than a hundred people, a third of whom were children, may in time come to mark the moment when world opinion turned irrevocably against the Syrian strongman, and the democracies finally decided to bring down the regime in Damascus. Perhaps, some say, it will be Assad’s Srebenica. Maybe. But not if Obama keeps deferring to the Russians.

Obama and Putin

The U.N. Security Council criticized the slaughter, as did the White House and State Department. Many world capitals, from Paris and London to Canberra and Berlin, expelled Syrian diplomats, and the Obama administration followed suit, giving the highest-ranking Syrian diplomat in Washington, charge d'affaires Zuheir Jabbour, three days to leave the country.

Syria has not had an ambassador in Washington since the departure of Imad Mustapha several months ago. Mustapha was reportedly under investigation after evidence surfaced that he and his staff at the embassy were spying on Syrian dissidents in the United States. That alone should have compelled the administration to expel Mustapha and the rest of Syria’s diplomatic mission. But that would have meant taking a stand; it would require, as Douglas Murray writes in the Wall Street Journal, American leadership.

Instead Obama has premised America’s role in the world on an abstraction, an Orwellian euphemism standing for the lack of leadership—leading from behind. Thus, the administration’s actions regarding Syria and its statements, its condemnations of the massacre “in the strongest possible terms,” are incommensurate with the reality of the situation. In response to a bloodbath, the White House has joined a coalition of diplomatic expulsion.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, hinted that atrocities like the Houla massacre might trigger military intervention—but why? What, from either a strategic or a humanitarian point of view, has changed with Houla? Sure, it’s believed that many of the casualties were children, but the uprising started after the regime tortured teenagers in Deraa. And what did the Obama administration do then or in the 14 months since the uprising first began? Yes, more than 100 people were killed in Houla, but by some estimates, the regime has already killed 15,000. So from the administration’s point of view what’s really changed? Nothing.

And indeed, as if to qualify Dempsey’s statement, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters yesterday, military action against Syria "is always an option"—but he cautioned that the administration believes that “it would lead to greater chaos, greater carnage.” In other words, the people of Houla should consider themselves fortunate that the Assad regime kept the casualties relatively low. If the United States actually did something to try to stop Assad, who knows how many the regime might kill?

That is to say, from Obama’s perspective, the United States is, at best, impotent. And therefore the administration has plenty of reasons not to do anything about Assad. First there was the idea that the Syrian opposition may have been infiltrated by al Qaeda. Which is to say, the American intelligence community is incapable of distinguishing between al Qaeda and other members of the opposition, so we shouldn’t arm anyone. Then there was the notion that the Syrian army, with 600,000 armed men and air defenses, is a powerful fighting force, indeed mighty enough to give American military planners pause. Nonetheless, the opposition refers to this ragtag sectarian militia fighting at a very small fraction of its stated power as “the army of the sandals.”

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