Obama’s Syria Strategy

The Damascus Spring of 2001 was so called because Syrian democrats hoped that President Bashar al-Assad, a mild-mannered doctor trained in London, who had been installed as the successor to his ruthless father, Hafez, might forswear tyranny. That Spring ended, and some of the hopeful landed in torture rooms. Four years later, activists issued the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change, which called on Assad to hold free parliamentary elections, “launch public freedoms,” and “abolish all forms of exclusion in public life.” Instead, he imprisoned the document’s leading signatories.

Last Thursday morning, Radwan Ziadeh, a signer of the Damascus Declaration, went to the State Department, in Washington, D.C., to hear President Obama assess the current Arab Spring, which has brought forth popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt as well as mass protests elsewhere, including in Syria, where Assad has responded by shooting demonstrators. Obama arrived late, after doing last-minute rewrites at the White House. On Syria, the President offered just eight parsed sentences. He accused Assad’s regime of murder but did not call forthrightly for the President’s departure, as he had when Libya’s dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, ordered that protesters be shot. Syria’s ruler “has a choice,” Obama said. He can lead “a transition to democracy . . . or get out of the way.” But Ziadeh was pleased, he said, because Assad now “has to understand that he has to step down.”

A Syrian spring that rewarded its hopeful citizens would signal a major change. The country, though not as influential as Egypt, has modernized in certain respects; it has a sophisticated middle class. Moreover, because of its geographic centrality, Syria has been a fulcrum of regional politics, and it is pivotal to the futures of Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinians. In the meantime, the regime is making it difficult to provide a full accounting of the cruelties its security forces have inflicted: almost all foreign journalists have been barred from the country. Human Rights Watch estimates that about eight hundred people have died and many thousands have been arrested.

The uprising started, in March, in Dar’a, a southern city of smoky streets and eucalyptus trees. Schoolboys scrawled anti-government graffiti on walls, and were jailed. Protests erupted and the police opened fire, igniting an escalating cycle of demonstrations and violence. In late April, Assad’s forces laid siege to Dar’a, shutting off the electricity, water, and telephones. They arrested scores of young men simply because of their age and where they lived. The tactics seemed derived from those of Hafez al-Assad: his forces killed some twenty thousand people while putting down an uprising in Hama, in 1982.

Brutality sometimes works. The numbers of people willing to die or to face imprisonment by taking to Syria’s streets have so far proved less overpowering than those in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen. Syria is a mosaic of religions, sects, and ethnicities, and the Assad family, from the Alawite minority, is well practiced in the art of divide-and-conquer. Large sections of the urban middle classes and the Christian minority have so far stayed at home. Nonetheless, the revolt is far from expiring. On “The Syrian Revolution 2011,” a Facebook page that has played a part in the unrest, users issue polemics and post fresh video clips about every ten minutes. Pop political art and photographs of bloodied young men scroll by—part media installation, part war-crimes documentary. The day after Obama’s speech, thousands of Syrians took to the streets; the police reportedly shot and killed at least twenty people.

American policy toward Syria presents mainly a record of failure. One strain of that policy has sought unsuccessfully, through diplomatic engagement, to coax Assad to instigate internal reforms; weaken Syria’s alliances with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas; and broker a peace with Israel. As recently as 2008, Assad told an American diplomat that he was “a few words away” from an agreement with Israel. He never delivered. Washington has also sought to pressure Assad through sanctions imposed by the Syria Accountability Act of 2003, and by covertly funding democratic campaigners, in a program that was initiated under George W. Bush. That didn’t work, either. The Damascus Declaration activists publicly rejected American support, and the covert program, recently exposed by WikiLeaks, endangered some of the people it was designed to help.

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