The world's moral leadership was the first casualty.
In a move coordinated with our European allies and the United Nations, the Obama administration issued a statement on Thursday demanding that Syrian President Bashar Assad step down "for the good of the Syrian people."
The US also slapped additional sanctions on the Assad regime, including freezing all Syrian assets under US jurisdiction, a ban on oil sales, and a bar to Americans having any business dealings with the regime. The "Big Three" of the European Union -- France, Germany, and Great Britain -- also issued a statement urging Assad "to step aside in the best interests of Syria and the unity of its people.”
The Syrian opposition hailed the international call for Assad's resignation. Omar Idlibi, spokesman for the opposition network of Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) told the Global Post, "Now we can say the international community started to take responsibility for the crimes committed by the regime. They have lost confidence in the man they gambled on for five months.” The LCCs, made up mostly of young men, have been dodging Assad's secret police for months, using social media tools to document the atrocities in Syria and relay images, video, and written reports to Western reporters.
Meanwhile, the United Nations was gearing up to increase the pressure on Assad by considering additional sanctions as well as referring Syria to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. A meticulously documented report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights details atrocities committed by Assad's security forces, including several grisly massacres, systematic torture, and a list of more than 4,500 Syrians who are "missing."
Why did it take so long? When the protests started in March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quoted as saying, "There’s a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.” The administration believed at the time that the protests would put pressure on the Syrian dictator to initiate changes in Syrian political society, forcing him to open a dialogue with the opposition.
This attitude turned out to be a product of wishful thinking rather than reasoned analysis. No sooner had Clinton made that curious statement did Assad begin his butchery. It wasn't until late April that the administration issued its first set of sanctions against the Syrian regime. The second set, targeting Assad and his cronies, came two weeks later. It was shortly after that, on May 19, that Obama delivered his speech on the so-called Arab Spring, saying, “President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.”
Still short of calling for the Syrian strongman's ouster, it wasn't until July that Hillary Clinton claimed that Assad had "lost legitimacy." This milquetoast statement by the administration stood until the beginning of this month -- after 1,500 Syrians had already been massacred -- when the US finally began to gather international support for Assad's resignation.
Much has been made of the statement by an Obama national security staffer in a New Yorker article that the president was "leading from behind" on the Libya issue. The statement encompasses the worldview of the president and most of his advisers, who believe that the status of the United States as the only superpower in the world is detrimental to international relations and that we should be "first among equals" when it comes to building coalitions and consensus on world issues.
Clearly, our actions relating to Syria is another example of that policy. Rather than getting out in front of events and trying to influence them, the administration hung back, watching to see if other nations would take the lead in advocating what is clearly the moral course of action: putting pressure on Assad to leave. That it took five torturous months with Syrian tanks blasting their way into dozens of cities and towns killing thousands does not speak well of the "lead from behind" policy nor the president who oversees it. Obama's statement roused analyst Michael Ledeen to write, "After months of slaughter, as jaws dropped all over what used to be called The Western World at the spectacle of an American leader who danced all around one of the clearest moral and strategic imperatives EVER, we finally get this [statement]."
In response to the statement by the US and European nations, the Syrian foreign ministry accused the US of waging "diplomatic war" by imposing sanctions and calling for Assad's ouster. The ministry said that the administration's statement sends "the wrong message to the terrorist armed groups that they are under American and Western protection." Syria contends that Israel and the West are behind the uprising, aided by al-Qaeda fighters.
Be that as it may, the UN appears finally ready to spring into action following some brazen lies President Assad told to General Secretary Ban Ki-moon. In response to the UN chief's demand to halt the slaughter, Assad informed Ban that his army and police assaults had "stopped." Meanwhile, his gunboats proceeded to fire on demonstrators in the coastal city of Latakia, and Syrian tanks opened up on protesters in Hama. Human rights activists on the scene said that at least 20 protesters were killed as Assad was claiming to Ban that he had halted military assaults.
The Security Council met late Thursday to determine sanctions against Syria, although there is still opposition from Brazil, China, Russia, India, and South Africa, who inexplicably believe that Assad should be given more time to "reform." Whether the statements from the US, the EU, and some Arab states calling on Assad to step down will have any effect on this opposition remains to be seen.
The Security Council is also going to meet sometime next week to consider a report from the UN Human Rights Council that accuses the Assad regime of crimes against humanity committed during the crackdown. An emergency meeting of the rights council is scheduled for Monday where it is expected to recommend that the Security Council refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.
The document is striking in its detail. The 22-page report listed the names of 1,900 Syrian civilians killed by security forces, including 353 civilians who were summarily executed.
The Washington Post blog, Checkpoint Washington, reports:
The report documents a chilling catalogue of alleged state crimes as Syrian security forces, joined by ethnic Alawite militia, known as the Shabbiha, laid siege to restive town after town, shelling civilians with tank, artillery and helicopter fire, and picking off unarmed civilians, including children, with sniper fire as they left their homes in search of food. Syrian soldiers who refused order to kill civilians were themselves executed, according to the accounts.
Survivors told of their harrowing ordeals that included "physical torture, unlawful arrest, deprivation of basic services, including water and medicine, and 'routine humiliation.'" It was also "widely reported that forces conducted regular raids in hospitals to search for and kill injured demonstrators.” Snipers also targeted people "providing medical assistance to victims."
One massacre occurred in the coastal town of Latakia when 26 detainees were marched to a sports stadium, blindfolded, and summarily executed.
The report concluded: "The mission found a pattern of human rights violations that constitutes widespread or systematic attacks against the civilian population, which may amount to crimes against humanity."
The Human Rights Council report highlights the moral shortcomings of the president's "lead from behind" foreign policy. While the West dithered and delayed looking for leadership in the crisis, Bashar Assad brutalized his own people, carrying out a virtual war against civilians who dared defy him. The massacres that took place were not a secret. The Local Coordination Councils in Syria carefully documented the slaughter and gave their evidence to the world via social media and other outlets. Human rights observers also documented the atrocities while pleading with Western governments to take action to stop them.
The reaction to events in Syria by the United States has not been in keeping with our values, or our historic role as a moral leader in the world. If anything, it demonstrates the utter bankruptcy of a foreign policy more concerned with not getting the rest of the world upset at us for standing up for what we believe, rather than showing the world its moral duty in confronting evil.