Bashar al-Assad’s security forces have brazenly slaughtered more than 10,000 Syrian civilians, and injured or detained tens of thousands more, since the anti-regime protests began in March 2011. Despite these facts, America’s policy towards Syria—a terror-sponsoring government that is Iran’s closest ally in the Arab World, a possessor of weapons of mass destruction, and a supporter of foreign fighters that killed American troops in Iraq—remains incoherent and ineffectual.
Indeed, President Obama still refuses to forcefully back up his August 2011 demand that Assad step down. Consider his high-profile speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum last week: He rightly condemned Assad’s mass murders, but showed only enough resolve to announce more sanctions against Syrian officials and the formation of a new “Atrocities Prevention Board.” The fecklessness of the announcement surely was not lost on Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, who critically said in his introduction of the president, “So in this place we may ask: Have we learned anything from [the atrocities of the Holocaust]? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power?”
Meanwhile, Congress is still struggling to find its collective voice on Syria. Take last week’s debate over a non-binding resolution (S. Res. 435) by Senators Bob Casey (D, Penn.) and Marco Rubio (R, Fla.) that calls for democratic change in Syria. During the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s markup of the resolution, several Republican lawmakers argued for an amendment to remove language reaffirming “that it is the policy of the United States that the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people cannot be realized so long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power and that he must step aside.” Although the committee rejected the proposed amendment and eventually passed the Casey-Rubio resolution in a 13-6 vote, it is shameful that any member of Congress would even countenance the notion that Assad’s departure may not be in America’s interest.
There remains, however, a solid core of lawmakers that is continuing to work for greater U.S. involvement in Syria. During a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Senator John McCain (R, Ariz.) rightly lambasted the ceasefire plan in Syria brokered by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan and backed by the Obama administration. McCain—who recently joined Senators Joe Lieberman (ID, Conn.), Lindsey Graham (R, S.C.), Jon Kyl (R, Ariz.), Kelly Ayotte (R, N.H.), and John Hoeven (R, N.D.) to introduce a non-binding resolution (S. Res. 424) that recognizes the right of the Syrian people to defend themselves—even cornered senior administration officials into conceding that the Annan plan is failing.
In March, the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously approved an amended version of the Syria Freedom Support Act (H.R. 2106) by Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R, Fla.) and Congressman Eliot Engel (D, N.Y.). In particular, the legislation imposes harsher sanctions on the Syrian energy and financial sectors, as well as the Assad regime’s proliferation activities, and also authorizes the State Department to provide financial and political assistance to carefully vetted foreign and domestic entities that are seeking to facilitate a democratic transition in a post-Assad Syria. But it remains to be seen how the Syria Freedom Support Act, which was subsequently referred to four other House committees, will progress in the weeks and months ahead.
What’s deeply troubling is that, while Washington keeps wringing its hands over how to halt the crisis in Syria, the Assad regime is continuing to use mass violence to maintain its hold on power. Fortunately, there are things the United States can do to advance its strategic and moral interests in Syria and the wider Middle East. As the Foreign Policy Initiative (where we work) and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies have argued, the president should work closely with Congress to:
§ Initiate and intensify direct contact with the Free Syrian Army and associated forces, and provide them with a full range of assistance, including self-defense aid;
§ Establish safe zones for civilians within Syrian territory; and
§ Use limited retaliatory airstrikes against select Syrian military targets in order to protect the safe zones.
If the United States still can’t bring itself to stop the mortally wounded Assad regime (which lacks nuclear weapons) from murdering its own people and destabilizing its neighbors, then how likely is it to deal with much harder cases in the Middle East—like a nuclear-armed Iran that starts inflicting Syria-like mass atrocities on its own people or menacing its own neighbors? Indeed, not only Damascus and Tehran, but also America’s allies and partners throughout the world, are waiting and watching to see whether the Obama administration and Congress will truly side with the Syrian people and show resolve against Assad.