Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has finally gone too far. After mercilessly slaughtering another 25 of his citizens yesterday – bringing the death toll from the current Syrian uprising over 2,400 – and imprisoning over 30,000 people, in a brutal crackdown that began back in March, he’s finally triggered a call from President Barack Obama to resign.
From the New York Times:
President Obama called on Thursday for the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to leave power, and issued a new executive order providing for additional sanctions. It is the first time the United States has explicitly called for Mr. Assad’s departure from power.
“For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” Mr. Obama says in the statement issued by the White House.
The Times refers to the folks on the wrong end of that crackdown as “pro-democracy protesters,” which is the same kind of starry-eyed shorthand that makes Egypt after the “Arab Spring” such an unpleasant surprise. Some of the Syrian protesters are indeed sincere democracy activists, but it would be more accurate to call it an “anti-Assad” movement at the moment. The term “pro-democracy” should be reserved for those who really mean it. It would be great if they’re the ones running the post-Assad show, but look where jumping to conclusions usually gets us.
This is another demonstration of the Obama “lead from behind” style. The Turks and Saudis have been ratcheting up the pressure on Assad lately. Turkey has been publicly denouncing Assad in increasingly strident terms, while the Saudis recalled their ambassador from Damascus. Even former Egyptian President-for-just-shy-of-life Hosni Mubarak, shoved through the saloon doors by Obama after only a week of Tahrir Square demonstrations, called on Assad to resign yesterday. Obama must have sensed that it was time to get out in front of the “Assad Must Go” bandwagon.
Which is not to say that the White House hasn’t been thinking about this dramatic move for quite some time. A Fox News report from August 9 says “The Obama administration is planning to explicitly call for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down in coming days,” according to “two administration officials.” That was 900 corpses ago.
The New York Times also remarks upon the delay, and provides a splendid example of “lead from behind” thinking by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:
There have been signs for days that the United States may be close to making such a call, but until Thursday, officials had pushed back against the reports, as Secretary Clinton appeared to do as recently as Tuesday.
“It’s not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go,” she said then, during an appearance at the National Defense University in Washington. “O.K. Fine. What’s next? If Turkey says it, if King Abdullah says it, if other people say it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it.”
It must have occurred to the administration that waiting for the day after Turkey and King Abdullah told Assad to hit the road would not look good. Here’s Clinton speaking about the situation in Syria today:
An Intelligence Daily piece from August 9 gives some insight into the reason for White House food-dragging on the Assad eviction notice:
The United States is preparing to issue an explicit call for embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, CNN reported on Wednesday, quoting U.S. government sources.
The statement is expected to be made after U.S. officials consult with the UN Security Council, the sources said. The issue has reportedly been under discussion over the past few weeks.
So far, the United States has only urged the Syrian authorities to immediately end violence against protesters and launch full-scale democratic reforms to put an end to a five-month conflict that has already claimed some 2,000 lives.
According to the sources, the White House is more eager to make the statement, while the Department of State is being more cautious about the ramifications should al-Assad ignore the call.
So, if this is to be believed, Clinton’s people have been cautioning Obama’s people against making a statement that everyone on Earth knows Assad will ignore. I wonder if anybody laughed at the White House advisor who wondered what would happen if Assad said, “Okay, you’re right, I’m outta here, sorry for all the bloodshed” and caught the next flight out of Damascus.
Also, it looks like a lot of people died while the U.N. Security Council was muscled into supporting the call for Assad’s resignation. Note to defenders of liberty: don’t wait for the United Nations. Lead, and let them follow.
These pensive measures preserve international prestige at the cost of moral authority. It shouldn’t take a hundred and fifty days to conclude Bashar Assad is not a legitimate ruler. Calls for his resignation should not await the perfect alignment of international forces to make it look like the President of the United States is a tough guy who doesn’t waste his breath. Such a call is not “futile” simply because everyone knows it will not be instantly obeyed.
After a weekend of brutality in which eight children were counted among the dead, Egypt’s foreign minister said, “The situation in Syria is heading to the point of no return.” What comes after that? The United States is freezing Syrian assets. Will that be enough pressure to get Assad to step down… and if so, why wasn’t it done over 100 days ago?
The civilized world may not be able to get rid of Assad, but it can express its contempt for the butcher of Damascus in a unified voice. Civilization thrives by clearly and promptly distinguishing itself from barbarism.