Syria is an avowed enemy of the West, a strong candidate for membership in the Axis of Evil. Closely aligned with Iran, it is inherently hostile to Israeli and American interests, funds terror and is now slaughtering its own civilians. And yet, in the Obama White House, the ongoing chaos in Syria has been treated with limited interest. There is certainly none of the apparent umbrage that was directed at former Egyptian leader (and longtime U.S.-ally) Hosni Mubarak in his final days in power, and there is little worry that President Bashar Assad’s government will share the same fate as Gaddafi’s regime, which is being bombed by NATO for committing crimes very similar to the ones currently taking place in cities and towns across Syria.
If one were to use Libya as the standard for when Western intervention is warranted, Syria would certainly qualify. The military crackdown against anti-government protesters continues. Military forces loyal to President Assad have killed more than 400 civilians since March, with more than 100 of those occurring in the last week alone. Syrians have braved gunfire from soldiers to collect the bodies from the streets and to ensure they receive proper burials. The latter, especially, has proven dangerous: On Saturday, military snipers opened fire on a funeral procession for those killed by government forces, adding a reported nine more to the death toll.
Such use of military force against civilians is despicable, but not exactly out of character for the regime. Syria has been classified as a state sponsor of terrorism by the State Department since 1979, and has continued to support anti-Western groups active in Iraq and the Palestinian territories. It is also deeply involved in the destabilization of Lebanon, which Syria has long hoped to control. Assad’s regime, for example, is widely suspected of involvement, as is Hezbollah, in the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri in 2005. Hariri had been critical of Syria’s influence in Lebanon, and was killed by a suicide bomber.
Syria has also dabbled in acquiring weapons of mass destruction. In 2007, there was a strange series of news reports detailing Israeli aircraft violating Syrian airspace and firing munitions into an empty field. Before too long, it became public knowledge that what Syria hoped people thought was an empty field was actually a nuclear facility that the regime was secretly constructing with the help of the North Koreans. Once Israel and the United States became aware of its existence, the Israeli Air Force destroyed the facility in a surprise air attack. Syria denied that the facility had a military purpose and then refused to cooperate with the international inspectors sent to examine the rubble.
In short, Syria is just as devious and dangerous a regime as Libya, arguably more so, particularly insofar as Israel is concerned. And yet the West has decided to sit this one out.
President Obama has, of course, condemned the violence. On Saturday, he called for a halt on the use of force against unarmed protesters (the UN and some European countries have made similar statements). But beyond such boilerplate, there has been little said or done in response to the violence. Compare that to Libya, where a similarly unpleasant dictator, after ordering the use of force against protesting civilians, spent his Saturday dodging NATO missiles fired into his leadership compound, while the U.S. agreed to deploy armed unmanned drones to the country. There has been speculation that these American drones might be used specifically to locate and eliminate Muammar Gaddafi.
Aaron David Miller, a retired State Department advisor, correctly identified President Obama’s strategy in the Middle East as being akin to a game of whackamole — the administration is confronted by a series of problems popping up all over the region, and does its best to address each of them in turn, with no overarching strategy guiding the decisions. This has been frustrating to both critics outside the Obama administration and to doves within it. The United States has gone easy on Syria and Bahrain, demanded ally Mubarak step down in Egypt after several embarrassing missteps, and bombed Libya. Perhaps the simplest explanation is the one suggested by Foreign Policy magazine: The administration itself doesn’t know what to do, and its response to each emerging crisis depends largely on whichever internal faction won the debate that day.
On the other hand, the answer to why the administration’s foreign policy decisions appear so crudely ad hoc may be much more straightforward: Obama has always been eager to follow a different path than George W. Bush, especially with Iran. While Bush did not hesitate to criticize Iran and argue for democracy across the Middle East, Obama has preferred instead to reach out to hostile regimes in an effort to cultivate diplomatic ties. Iran and Syria are joined at the hip — there has even been evidence that Iranian security forces are assisting Syrian troops in their crackdown against protesters. Tehran is clearly worried that it might lose one of its primary allies in the Middle East, and with it, easy access to its Hamas and Hezbollah proxies. Strong American action against Syria would enrage Iran — something Obama has already shown himself hesitant to do.
Thus, the Obama administration has opted to employ a clear double standard in its response to the Syria crisis – one that is so jarring, that even many of the president’s liberal supporters have been unable to withhold their criticism. Token sanctions and the odd public statement condemning the violence are the least Obama can do to retain his pro-human rights credibility. His decision to do no more might be one of the few things that Syria, Iran and Obama could all agree on.
Matt Gurney is a columnist and editor at Canada’s National Post. He can be reached on Twitter @mattgurney.