Syrian President Bashar Assad upped the stakes in the bid to save his regime on Monday when he launched an attack on the city of Daraa involving hundreds of troops, backed by tanks and snipers, to crush the anti-government uprising, killing at least 11 people. These latest casualties increased the death toll in the Syrian crisis to about 300 with no end in sight.
The escalating violence in Syria poses a serious dilemma for the White House. As the casualties mount, liberals in America are wondering where their champion of human rights, President Obama, has disappeared to. He was front and center in the Egyptian crisis, and even sent American warplanes to bomb the murderous dictatorship in Libya. But so far in Syria, Obama has only condemned the violence in conjunction with other world leaders, calling the Assad regime’s actions “outrageous.” But why such a milquetoast response to the client regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a world sponsor of terror? Why are Egyptian allies (Mubarak) and Libyan gadflies (Gaddafi) treated more aggressively, and more swiftly than a regime, whose fall might actually benefit American interests?
The White House has made no attempt to impose sanctions or an arms embargo, or even sponsor anti-Syria motions in the United Nations Security Council, as it did with Libya, and as human rights organizations are now demanding. The criticism Obama is receiving from administration-friendly publications, like the Washington Post, is causing his inaction on Syria to appear even more perplexing.
“As a moral matter, the stance of the United States is shameful. To stand by passively while hundreds of people seeking freedom are gunned down by their government makes a mockery of the U.S. commitment to human rights,” the Post stated in an editorial.
Although it is deeply confusing, there has been widespread speculation that the Obama administration’s unresponsiveness on Syria is partially owed to its belief that Assad is both an effective and essential partner in the fleeting Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. “Assad may cling to power, but Syria has vanished as a prospective player in peace negotiations. A comprehensive peace is impossible without Syria, which explains why Washington has not demanded Assad’s ouster along with Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi,” the Asian Times opined. The aforementioned Washington Post editorial articulated much the same.
However, it is worth remembering that the ousted Mubarak regime of Egypt, unceremoniously abandoned by the Obama administration, was also integral to the ongoing peace accords. This did not deter the president from issuing forceful calls for Mubarak’s deposition, which his administration in fact hastened behind the scenes. This is to say nothing of the president’s relative uninterestedness in salvaging peace negotiations. Thus, the primacy of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords to Obama’s decision process on Syria is highly questionable.
Rather, it is important to consider an important difference between Egypt and Syria that would account for Obama’s apparent moral dissonance with respect to human rights in the Middle East: Syria is one of the closest allies of Iran, a country the Obama White House has been careful not to provoke. From his first days in office, Obama has attempted to reach out to Iran in an effort to stop that country’s nuclear weapons program and antagonism on the world stage. What the White House probably fears most in a firm response to the Syrian situation is Iranian reprisals through its extensive network of regional terrorism — another so-called “obstacle” to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
However, if the administration hopes the situation will eventually stabilize in Syria enough so that the president can pursue his Middle East peace dream, he is in for a major disappointment. The instability and the killing in Arab countries will most likely continue for some time yet and even get worse. In the Arab states experiencing unrest, the underlying issues are economic. Unemployment is rampant and food prices have soared 30 percent over the past year, putting millions of people living on or below the poverty line in dire straits.
Syria is no exception. The disturbances there in fact started when a group of students protested rising food prices. The food situation was exacerbated by merchants who then began to hoard non-perishable items like rice and cooking oil. As with Egypt’s poor, millions of Syrians living below the poverty line (of about $2 per day) would have found their survival threatened by steeply rising prices.
Thus, the Obama administration suddenly finds itself in a situation it is doubtless unequipped to deal with. Not wanting to upset the Syria-Iranian axis of terror, the White House is content to countenance the gross human rights abuses of the Assad regime until the opposition burns out. Unfortunately, the anti-regime movement in Syria has only continued to grow in response to each government crackdown to date. If the administration continues to forgo even rudimentary measures of condemnation in the face of such brutality, public scrutiny — from the Left and Right — on the president’s unintelligible policy regarding the Middle East will also continue to mount, and leave an indelible mar on his presidency.