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Pete Souza/White House
The end of the Khadafy regime in Libya has focused new attention on the rebels in Syria–as has last week’s belated call by President Obama for the ouster of Bashar al-Assad. But it will take a more radical Obama course correction to make a real difference. After six months of bloodshed, with thousands dead, and only mild White House responses earlier, this belated pronouncement is likely too little too late.
At the very least, the administration needs to recognize the false premises behind its mistakes.
First, Obama erred badly in consistently believing that Assad or his regime had any potential for true reform. Since Assad took office in 2000 upon his father’s death (in lieu of his elder brother, the regime’s continued its domestic repression, its support for international terrorism, its pursuit of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and its increasing dominance by Iran.
The inescapable conclusion from this massive record of malevolence is that Bashar was either fully complicit, or utterly ineffective in stopping it. Obama’s persistent, willful blindness to this reality has been central to our feckless Syria policy.
Second, Washington should have declared regime change to be its goal in Syria long ago, not just when protests finally erupted. President George W. Bush gave Damascus a chance after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein to renounce terrorism, give up weapons of mass destruction and make peace with Israel. It chose to do nothing.
“White House mistakes continue to allow Iran to prevail in Syria.” — John Bolton
From that moment, we should have pursued regime change, aiding legitimate opposition groups and thereby empowering responsible Syrian believers in a free and open society. Instead, we face an environment today where radical Islamists are potential successors to the Ba’athists.
Third, Obama has never understood Iran’s domineering role in Syria. Beyond the Ba’ath Party’s historical propensity for brutality and repression, long ago perfected by Bashar’s father, Iran’s increasingly hegemonic position has virtually ensured that he will not contravene Tehran’s will.
Given Iran’s use of Syria to fund and arm Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist groups, and its likely use of Syria to hide aspects of its nuclear-weapons program, Iran was never going to permit “reform.”
Indeed, the administration needs to face Iran’s influence across the region. Syria’s and Hezbollah’s murderous intervention has rendered Lebanon virtually prostrate yet again. Hamas’s indiscriminate terrorism against Israel has destroyed the prospects for Palestinian unity and a responsible path to statehood and representative government. Now, with Mubarak’s fall in Egypt, Hamas can conspire in public with its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, to radicalize Egyptians as well as Palestinians.
Obama either didn’t comprehend this relationship, or was simply unwilling to cross the Iranians because of his ethereal hopes to negotiate with Tehran to end its nuclear-weapons program. White House mistakes continue to allow Iran to prevail in Syria.
Fourth, calling for regime change isn’t just a question of timing but also of leadership. The administration waited far too long, thus minimizing the impact of its rhetoric, which is all that its policy really amounts to.
Moreover, prior sanctions, and those just announced by Obama and being discussed in Europe, haven’t squeezed Syria’s regime, nor are they likely to. Sanctions targeting particular institutions and individuals can almost never be effective because they are so susceptible to evasion. Only sweeping sanctions, swiftly and decisively applied and effectively enforced, have a chance of real effect. That is a far cry from what Obama and the European Union have actually done.
Fifth, Assad’s departure alone doesn’t mean broader change. For example, Alawite and Sunni generals may ditch him but maintain a military dictatorship, quite possibly leaving Iran in a dominant role. Or, absent a deal, Sunnis may use force to exact a heavy, bloody price from Alawites for the long Assad dictatorships. Moreover, Sunni Arab governments certainly want to diminish Iran’s influence in Syria, which means it may simply become another front in the Iranian-Saudi battle for dominance within Islam and in the Middle East, already reflected in Bahrain. That is hardly good news for Syria’s civilian population.
Obama has thus far grievously mishandled Syria, as he has an increasingly long list of other crisis spots. Americans will soon have to decide if they can do better, with a president who remembers that true leaders lead from the front.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.
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