Syria Embassy Attack: The Last Straw?

A case study in the Obama administration's failed outreach strategy.

Protestors bused into Damascus by the Syrian government attacked the US and French embassies in what is seen as a shocking escalation by Syria in a growing diplomatic dispute over a visit to the city of Hama by the ambassadors from the two countries.

Some of the rioters manged to get into the US embassy itself, tearing down State Department plaques, smashing windows, and spraying obscene graffiti on the walls. Mobs also vandalized the residence of Ambassador Robert Ford a couple of blocks from the embassy compound. Ford was not at home when the attacks occurred.

French embassy guards fired live ammunition in the air to try and keep the rioters from overwhelming security. The Syrian police were nowhere to be seen at either embassy.

The violence comes at a time when President Assad has begun a "dialogue" with some opposition groups while simultaneously ordering tanks into the city of Homs to battle anti-government protestors. And the attack on our embassy, along with the continued rampage by Assad's military against unarmed civilians, may have been the last straw for the United States.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement in which she announced that President Assad had "lost legitimacy" with the US government, because the Syrian president had "failed to deliver on the promises he's made" to reform. She also said that Assad was "not indispensable" and the West has "nothing invested" in maintaining his position.

This is a far cry from the attitude shown toward Syria by the Obama administration in the first days of his presidency when the byword was "outreach" and the State Department considered Assad to be a partner in the peace process. All that is left now is to pick up the pieces of an empty, failed, and ultimately naive policy which has benefited Iran, and did nothing to moderate a brutal regime.

"This is a violent escalation by the regime. You do not bring bus loads of thugs into central Damascus from the coast without its consent," said one western diplomat in Damascus. Indeed, the rioters were members of President Assad's Alawite milita, the small Muslim sect that controls the Syrian government and economy. Both embassies complained to the Syrian foreign ministry that police were slow in reacting to the riots. A French Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Syrian authorities had done nothing to stop the attack: "(France) reminds (Syria) that it is not with such illegal methods that the authorities in Damascus will turn the attention away from the fundamental problem, which is to stop the repression of the Syrian population and to launch democratic reform."

The US State Department went even further - chastising the Syrians for refusing to protect the embassy, while demanding compensation for the damage. "We strongly condemn the Syrian government's refusal to protect our embassy, and demand compensation for damages." The statement also alleged that a pro-Assad TV station encouraged the mobs to attack the embassies.

The diplomatic row began last week when Ambassador Ford paid a visit to the city of  Hama, a stronghold of anti-government sentiment. French Ambassador Eric Chevalier followed up with a visit of his own on Friday. The purpose was to show solidarity with the Syrian people and affirm their right to protest. Both diplomats were greeted by  cheering, flower-throwing crowds in Hama where, on Monday,  Assad's secret police were going door to door arresting suspected regime opponents.

The Syrian government accused the French and Americans of meddling in their internal affairs, and claimed that the visit by Ambassador Ford was a "provocation" and "proof" that the US was trying to undermine the Assad regime. "The presence of the US ambassador in Hama without previous permission is obvious proof of a clear evidence of the United States' involvement in current events in Syria and its attempt to incite an escalation in the situation,"  the Syrian foreign ministry said. The State Department replied that the embassy had informed the foreign ministry of Ford's visit, and that "The fundamental intention was to make absolutely clear with his physical presence that we stand with those Syrians who are expressing their right to speak for change," it said.

The sharp exchanges have now escalated to violence as the Syrian regime has deliberately let loose its hired thugs to intimidate the ambassador and the US government. Ford, writing on the embassy's Facebook page, asked, "[H]ow ironic that the Syrian Government lets an anti-U.S. demonstration proceed freely while their security thugs beat down olive branch-carrying peaceful protesters elsewhere."

Monday's attacks coincided with the first session of a national dialogue that President Assad set up in order to institute "political reforms." Most major opposition groups boycotted the conference, claiming it was a farce. But 90 Syrians representing civil and religious groups showed up to debate such issues as establishing independent political parties, new election laws, and constitutional reforms. "We hope that at the end of this comprehensive meeting to announce the transition of Syria to a pluralistic democratic nation where all citizens are guided by equality and participate in the modeling of the future of their country," said Syrian Vice President Faruq al-Shara.

As he was uttering those platitudes, Syrian tanks were blowing through the streets of Homs, firing machine guns on unarmed civilians, and  killing at least two protestors while wounding dozens. Clashes with protestors were also reported near the Turkish border with activists saying that there was a massive wave of arrests and raids in Jabal al-Zawiya region in Idlib province.

It is impossible to reconcile Assad's promise of "reforms" with the actions his government is taking to brutally beat down opposition to his rule. Thus, Secretary Clinton's statement that the US believes Assad has lost his legitimacy to rule in Syria.

One might legitimately ask, "What took so long?" By some estimates, 1400 Syrians have been gunned down, and thousands have been arrested and thrown into prison where torture is the norm. The crackdown has been going on for 4 months, and US policy - until Monday - was to stand behind Assad while asking him to reform.

Now, like Egypt's President Mubarak, the administration has apparently decided that Assad must go. Not for killing civilians in cold blood but because the dictator loosed his thugs on our embassy. What does that say about this administration's commitment to the Syrian people? Hardly a word in support of the Syrians' desire for a nation with a government that won't murder them for disagreeing with it, and that will recognize basic human rights.

The arc of our relations with Syria since Barack Obama took office has been marked by amateurish attempts to wean Assad from Iran's embrace, engaging in a fruitless "dialogue" that did not advance peace with Israel and elicited nothing but contempt from both Syria and Iran, and now the failure to dissuade Assad from a bloody crackdown that has made him and his regime pariahs in the world. At every turn, the administration has been wrong about Assad and the state he leads.

Now, with relations at the lowest ebb they have been in decades, the scales have fallen from their eyes and they have decided to back his ouster. What happened to Hillary Clinton's "partner in peace?" Someone should probably ask the president that question.