Now more than a month and a half after peaceful demonstrations kicked off in the small city of Deraa, the Syrian uprising gives the Obama administration another shot at getting history right. The first time was June 2009, when the people of Iran took to the streets to protest the fixed presidential elections that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to office. But in time the protests expanded to critique every aspect of Iran’s closed society: from the lack of freedom of speech to Iran’s abysmal women’s rights to support of foreign terrorist organizations like Hezbollah. The Green Movement was a rebuke to the essential nature of Tehran’s obscurantist government. The Iranian people sought nothing less than freedom.
And the Obama administration blinked. Caught unawares by the rift between a despotism and a population that wanted to rejoin the fraternity of nations, the White House deliberated over tactics. Would American support hurt the Green Movement? Did we even know who led the Green Movement or what it wanted? Its policies, said the president, didn’t seem to be much different from the clique already ruling the country.
What we know today is that the political aspirations of the Iranian people frustrated the administration’s plans to reach out to their rulers. According to an administration official quoted last week in the same New Yorker article that described the president’s strategy as “leading from behind,” “We were still trying to engage the Iranian government and we did not want to do anything that made us side with the protesters.”
President Obama came to office with high hopes for engaging Syria, too. He’d promised as much on the campaign trail. If George W. Bush had isolated the Assad regime after its suspected involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, an Obama White House would bring the Syrians in from the cold and show them that it was in their own best interest to change their behavior.
The problem is that, after several decades of U.S. envoys and policymakers making the pilgrimage to Damascus with the same evangelical purpose, the Assads (first the father Hafez and now the son Bashar) know how the game is played. The Americans want concrete results—like abandoning support for Hezbollah and Hamas, splitting from Iran, closing down the jihadist pipeline into Iraq—that would cost the Syrians too much. So instead the Assads promise much, give nothing, and profit handsomely from the prestige that comes to them merely from sitting at the same table as the Americans.
It is perhaps strange that a country whose most notable export is terrorism should figure so prominently in the calculations of Washington policymakers. But for the Obama White House, Syria was central. The president intended to show his bona fides to the Arab and Muslim masses by advancing the Arab-Israeli peace process, thereby dampening anti-American sentiment. As the Palestinian track faltered, Obama needed the Syrian track even more—not least because the Syrians could crash the entire peace process at any time with one spectacular act of violence against Israelis or Arabs or both. Moreover, the administration believed, progress on the peace process was a way to sideline the Iranians.
In other words, the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy and regional security strategy both depended on flipping Assad. The White House is essentially protecting a man who sent tanks to fire on his own people because Syria is the cornerstone of its Middle East policy.
Events have overrun the administration’s understanding of the Middle East. As it turns out, Arabs are more concerned with the governance of their own polities than with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is why they have risen around the region to reject their autocratic leaders. It is why Syrians have braved the regime’s sniper fire and tanks to protest, “silmiyyeh, silmiyyeh,” as one of the uprising’s mottoes has it: Peaceful, peaceful.
This is Obama’s second chance to get the Middle East right, by speaking out loudly and clearly against Iran’s chief ally. Unfortunately, according to administration officials, the White House doesn’t believe it has much leverage with the Syrians. Such resignation is the natural consequence of not recognizing how the United States is truly perceived in the world: as a leader, albeit an imperfect one, and a symbol of moral clarity. If the president wants to win the respect and admiration of Arab and Muslim peoples, the opportunity has presented itself, again.
As a first step, the White House should recall our ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, and expel Damascus’s envoy to Washington, Imad Mustafa. We owe no prestige to a state whose snipers are firing on its own children. Sanctions leveled against the regime should not stop at the president’s brother Maher or his cousin Rami Makhlouf. Sanctions must include Assad himself. After six weeks of bloodshed, it should be obvious that Bashar al-Assad is not a reformer in the making but an accomplished serial murderer.
As one Lebanese friend says, “Syria never had anything more to offer Washington than blood—the blood of Lebanese, Palestinians, Israelis, Iraqis, and Americans. Now that the regime is letting its own blood, the blood of Syrians, will the leader of the free world finally stop negotiating in blood?” A nation that has reckoned honestly with its own failings throughout its history has not only the prerogative but the duty to lead with the truth. The danger of leading from behind is that history will pass you by.