Russia and China’s October 4 veto of a U.N. -Security Council resolution on Syria elicited a strong response from U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice. “The United States is outraged,” said Rice, “that this Council has utterly failed to address an urgent moral challenge and a growing threat to regional peace and security.”
We admire Ambassador Rice’s impassioned defense of the Syrian opposition, who have been bravely challenging the Assad regime for over seven months. But surely Washington was not blindsided by Russia and China’s move. Rice’s comment that the veto was a “cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime” does not highlight American morality but only underscores the incoherence of the White House’s Syria policy. The Obama administration, like everyone else, knows that Moscow has been selling the Assad regime arms for decades, and that the wholesale slaughter of peaceful demonstrators is hardly cause for the Russians to ostracize a repeat customer like Damascus. Same with China—does anyone believe that Beijing is eager to have the U.N. censure a member state for human rights abuses and thereby illuminate its own violent repressions? The only surprise in last Tuesday’s voting was that the delegation from Lebanon, a country now virtually governed by Syria’s ally Hezbollah, mustered the courage to abstain.
Given Rice’s tone, it is worth asking why the White House was so heavily invested in, as she put it, a “watered-down text that doesn’t even mention sanctions.” The reason, we must unfortunately conclude, is that the administration’s position is rhetorical and lacks substance. The administration has no plan to accomplish the goal of getting Bashar al-Assad to step down—a goal that the president took more than six months to articulate. Even now there is no sense that Assad’s exit is good not only for those Syrians standing up to this vicious dictator, but for American interests as well—not least because the fall of the Alawite minority regime will represent a major blow to its one ally, Iran.
We congratulate Robert Ford on winning Senate confirmation this week for his appointment as U.S. ambassador to Syria. The physical courage he has shown in supporting the Syrian opposition and representing American interests is commendable. But it also has to be said that Ambassador Ford has reflected the vagaries of the administration’s Syria policy. The Syrian opposition, he says, is upset with American policies regarding Iraq and the Palestinians. Really? Who has bothered to complain about Israeli settlements when they are busy dodging snipers and avoiding the depredations of a security apparatus that uses torture and rape as matters of policy? And if, as Ford says, the conflict is “a Syrian problem and it needs Syrian solutions,” then what is his purpose in Damascus? Maybe it is just to show “the courageous people of Syria,” as Ambassador Rice put it, that America “supports their yearning for liberty and universal human rights.” But that is not a policy.
News out of Syria indicates that there are defections from the military. Perhaps the Syrian opposition should have followed the Libyan model and picked up weapons at the outset. Violence won the Libyan rebels NATO backing, while peaceful demonstrations earned the Syrians the world’s sympathy—tender mercies that they risk forfeiting, explained Ford, should they pick up weapons in self-defense.
Lest the Syrian opposition think the democracies set a precedent when they went after a dictator like Qaddafi, Ford has explained, the Syrians are not going to get a Libya-style NATO intervention. Rice concurred: “This is not about military intervention,” she said last week. “This is not about Libya.” So, what does Washington have to offer the Syrian opposition? “The number one thing that we can do to help them is to get international monitors in there,” said a State Department spokesman. “We need witnesses so that we can hold Assad to account.”
In other words, Libya’s tribes get NATO support when the White House wants to show that it can work in multilateral comity with its European partners who, rightly, see Libyan oil and a potential refugee crisis as vital interests. But a Syrian opposition squared off against a dictator who has set himself against American interests since he came to power more than a decade ago gets a superpower petitioning like an enfeebled NGO.
Why isn’t this about military intervention? Ford says the people he speaks to don’t want American help. But the opposition in exile explains that its colleagues in Syria seek precisely that—including a no-fly zone, which has recently earned the support of Sen. Joe Lieberman. Major regional powers are already well into preparations should the conflict turn hotter: The Turkish military is drilling on its border with Syria. The Israelis are sending strong messages of deterrence to Hezbollah. The Iran-ians are building a port in Latakia to service the Alawite regime should it be forced to flee from Damascus and compelled to fight with its back to the Mediterranean. The Saudis and other Gulf Arab states are in contact with Syria’s Sunni tribes, who have already borne the brunt of the violence and will undoubtedly be in the vanguard of a war against a regime that has spilled too much tribal blood to be forgotten. So why, with both American allies and adversaries invested in the outcome in Syria, doesn’t the United States have a plan that would include military action?
The fact is that Syria is already embroiled in a conflict that shows no signs of abating. The United States—with allies on all of Syria’s borders and U.S. soldiers and vital American interests in Iraq—has a stake in what happens in Syria. It’s time for the White House to get serious about the dictator in Damascus.