Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Syria: Follow the Region?

by Elliott Abrams
June 12, 2011

The violence in Syria is awful to see. Today the New York  Times reported that “Backed by tanks and helicopters gunships, Syrian army troops stormed the northern town of Jisr al-Shoughour on Sunday, after a bombardment that left much of the surrounding countryside in ruin and sent refugees fleeing to the nearby Turkish border.” The refugee numbers are heading toward five thousand and will obviously go higher; the number of unarmed civilians killed by the regime passed one thousand and is climbing fast. But even the violence of this past week is apparently not awful enough to jolt the Obama Administration out of its failed Syria policy.

Secretary of State Clinton, interviewed yesterday in Lusaka, Zambia had this to say:

“Syria, for example, is engaging in horrific, revolting attacks on its own people. The region, however, is trying to – behind the scenes – get the government to stop. And they believe that that, at the time, is the best way to go forward. So we listen very closely to what people in the neighborhood, in the region, say.”

This is, I suppose, an improvement over the previous view that Assad was a “reformer,” or that (as President Obama put it on May 20) “President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.”

But it is quite stunning that the United States appears unable to call for Assad’s departure—despite “horrific, revolting attacks” on the people of Syria—because “the region” thinks that private pressure on Assad to stop murdering his own citizens is “the best way to go forward.” Secretary Clinton was responding to a question about military intervention, but the United States does not need to choose between that step and silence. The secretary is also establishing a precedent here that many Americans will find troubling, even astounding: that we pay more attention to “the region” than to our own moral standards. “The region,” after all, contains regimes that do not permit women to vote, that persecute Christians, that wish the Jewish state would disappear. That is a strange place to look for moral or even political guidance.

In any event those approaches to Assad have achieved nothing; the regime has killed Syrians at an increasing pace. This is no time for “leading from behind.”

How many peaceful demonstrators have to die, how many refugees have to flee, how many days of military attacks on the people of Syria by the criminal Assad mafia in Damascus must be endured before the United States will call for Assad to go?

Post a Comment 11 Comments

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    The “neighborhood” is unalterably tied to the rest of the world and Western Nations in particular . The pusillanimous inaction which the Obama Administration displays , for all to see , represents an unforgivable moral , intellectual , and diplomatic vacancy .

    I hope they “listen very closely” as more innocent people are being blown to Kingdom Come .

  • Posted by Ed Roberts

    I have sent one of my poems to a poet in Damascus for them to share there. The way to end the fighting is to convince the soldiers fighting fore the government they are fighting on the wrong side. Governments are always willing to provide weapons and bullets but far too few understand words can start wars, they also can end them.

  • Posted by FennecFox

    The Security Council is paralyzed by Russia and China to do anything meaningful to stop mass killings of unarmed Syrians. Here is a viable alternative for Western democracies to help the poor Syrians:
    Help Turkey carve a safe haven for fleeing Syrians in Syria’s north (Turkey is already talking about this option). This does not need UN authorization, since the refugee situation has now made this an internal Turkish problem. The West should make the safe haven a basis for Syria’s democratic opposition to form an interim government and organize themselves to fight to liberate their country from this terrorist regime. The interim government could draw support (political, financial, and military) from the large Syrian expatriate community worldwide, estimated at 2 million, and from sympathetic Arab countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and soon Libya. No need for NATO to intervene, the weak Syrian army is very divided and Turkey alone will be enough to keep it in check. Liberated, Syria will be modeled along the Turkish example, possibly conservative, but democratic, pro-Western and anti-Iranian. A democratically representative government is the only guarantee for stability and peace in the region.

  • Posted by lord garth

    The Jung Il in NKorea has probably killed 100k to 500k of his countrymen. Mugabe has killed at least as many in Zimbabwe. Bashir in Sudan has killed at least as many.

    It is a big bad world out there.

    Hil and Obama don’t seem to realize it.

  • Posted by Ashley Frohwein

    It disgusts me to say that the Assad regime appears positioned to pull through this one, although it’s far from certain. Tunisia and Egypt wouldn’t have “succeeded” had the countries’ respective military and security services remained unified behind Ben Ali/Mubarak (and acted with corresponding brutality against the protestors). Similarly, while massively chaotic and fraught with uncertainty, Yemenites actually have some chance to dislodge their overlord due largely to Yemeni military/security disunity, itself a product of the highly fractious nature of modern Yemen and Saleh’s dearth of legitimacy (a la Arab Republic variety).

    In Syria, however, minority Alawites and the military establishment they dominate (i.e., the Assad regime’s major power base) remain firmly behind the regime. It’s unclear where else they would/could turn; more likely than not, a genuine successor regime to that of Assad’s will NOT be Alawite-ruled, with fairly predictable consequences for the ancien regime.

    Syria’s close relationship and proximity with Iran further complicates matters. They’ve been here, and done it successfully.

    Notwithstanding Iranian influence in Lebanon [read: resurgent attempted hegemony], especially in light of Lebanon’s newly constituted government, Iran’s ability to project its power their (and thus right up against the Blue Line with Israel) would undoubtedly be weakened, although likely not fatally compromised, should Assad fall and the subsequent regime move away from Teheran (as would seem natural if a Sunni-dominated government viewed by the West as acceptable emerged).

    Strains between Hamas and the regime in Damscus, in addition to the intense pressure on Hamas to radically moderate its agenda, policies, and positions vis-vis post-reconcilliation with Fatah, could create a wedge between Iran and Hamas, further increasing Iran’s need for Syria to project power westward.

    Turkey and Israel – both for very different reasons – are less than enthusiastic about the prospect of a Assad regime collapse/change. Israel wouldn’t love to see him stay, but many in Israel’s security establishment would hate to see Assad go. Yes, he’s hostile to Israel, but predictably so.

  • Posted by Ihab ElBadawy

    We are looking at an interlinked pieces of puzzle that is falling a part one piece after the other (Arab countries in spring possibly summer of change). This has been destined to happen for the last 93+ years, in particular after the 1918 Paris Piece Treaty that shaped the map of the world after the 1st world war. The variation is that some countries/ regions have reached their boiling point faster than others. Now it is the turn of the middle east, due to globalization, the growth of average/ high literacy of it’s young people, & the eye opening of social media to the same group of people in these countries to what they have been missing: to be particular: basics of human rights, employment, national dignity, economical stability, & foreign policy sovereignty, along with seeing on a personal scale the everyday atrocities committed by the corrupt police state & it’s strong security apparatus. As a result, this is not going to be America’s field that she always dominated any more. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. These regions will have to formulate on their own, and all the current/ future administrations can do about it is point out their priorities of each piece of the puzzle individually & it’s relationship with the others and impact on it/ them and based on that complicated formula measure it’s visible actions toward it & possibly it’s covert actions as well, which in many cases might be totally opposite: Which this administration has done so well up to this point, from dealing with Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Jordan, Syria, & most importantly Saudi Arabia, and soon to come Iran & let’s hope that the human toll is to a minimum (America can not be the World police any more, and to answer your question, it can not lead from the front like J.W. Bush once did: There is a price for freedom and unfortunately who seeks it will have to pay it)

  • Posted by Abdullah

    If democracy will change the mindset of syrian people and democracy will reign the country,then they have to strike to the Assad government.Syria led by Assad has always been exporting terror acts to the world, to Turkey, to Iraq and elsewhere.Arab mindset must change.

  • Posted by Maine's Michael


    Both the current US Admin and the ‘Arab World’.

    The latter is on a decades long slow motion train wreck. No freedoms, no meaningful education, no productivity, no competitiveness on a world scale.

    As Eastern Asia gets richer, this region will end up with subsistence economies, with many actually starving.

    I don’t know that refocusing public attention on Israel and Jew hatred will help the regimes as much as it has in the past, but they will certainly try. Witness Egypt.

    As for the US? A lot is riding on 2012.

  • Posted by Tom Davey

    Commenter Ashely Frohwein, in his last paragraph, is on the right track. Surely the administration’s position on the Syrian violence has been coordinated with Israel? Israel is not calling for the end of the Baathists; nor did Israel call for the ouster of Mubarak, correct?

    In the case of Syria, I think that Obama is acting with Israel’s interests uppermost in mind. Baathist Syria and Israel have reached a modus vivendi. Why should Israel trade the devil it knows for one potentially worse, in a post-Assad Syria?

    The Obama administration deserves credit for its Realpolitik vis-a-vis the Syrian/Israeli accommodation.

  • Posted by Lianna

    I wrote an opinion piece in response to your blog post.

    I argued that although I believe the Obama administration’s policy in Syria was not a failure, I believe it was incomplete. I argued that the Obama administration may have been doing exactly what was necessary- let the region figure things out themselves. I also argued that to make the policy stronger, the administration must support and strengthen Turkish diplomacy in the region- assisting an independent actor to take care of issues in their own backyard perse.

    You can read it here: http://www.e-ir.info/?p=10065

    Thank you for your insightful and through-provoking posts!

  • Posted by Tommy Bounds

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