A body count now numbering in the thousands and a tank assault on unarmed civilians that would make even the Chinese government blanche are just two of the indications that President Obama’s Syria policy has failed. But the White House is still missing easy steps to help those seeking a civilized order in Syria. Doing so would not merely be a humanitarian gesture. It would help end the Damascus regime that serves as Iran’s deputy in spreading tyranny and killing Americans.
Washington has only recently changed its tune and replaced adoration of Syria’s dictator with outreach to protestors. As with every other major repressive government, Damascus was courted and embraced by the Obama administration as it began its tenure in the White House. A full-level ambassador was sent. Summer love would lead to a reformed Syria that peeled away from Iran—or so went the theory from the Washington foreign policy establishment and its groupies.
In February, Vogue magazine published a fawning piece about Syrian dictator Assad’s wife, calling her “a rose in the desert.” An academic earlier wrote a hagiography of the dictator himself titled the “The New Lion of Damascus.”
Senator John Kerry visited Assad at least six times and insisted until quite recently that he was a reformer.
Even after Assad had killed hundreds of Syrians seeking basic unalienable rights, language from President Obama and his aides suggested Assad lead reform rather than leave power.
One would think Washington would relish an opportunity to perturb or topple the Damascus regime, given its penchant for sponsoring and using terrorists, subverting democracies and helping kill U.S. troops abroad. But as with every step of the Arab Spring, the ponderous Obama White House started slowly, doubted the appeal of freedom, and only belatedly came to see things from the point of view of those seeking accountable government.
Now the administration is doing much better. Secretary of State Clinton recently pointed out publicly that Assad has had at least 2,000 people killed by his army and security forces. She met this week with Syrian democracy activists in Washington.
More importantly, the State Department’s man in Damascus, Ambassador Robert Ford, demonstrated where the U.S. stood by going to the brutalized city of Hama and meeting with the protestors.
The regime was incensed.
But symbolic acts like these are important to dissidents and protestors.
Now that there is some progress from Washington, more can be done that still falls well short of going to war. The White House that likes to talk about “smart power” should lay some on:
First, we should bring to bear military and civilian broadcast tools to hand dissident leaders inside Syria an open mic to talk to their compatriots. Information is often the most important tool in the success of a resistance movement.
Second, we should get the CIA back in the business of influencing foreign political outcomes. Its officers should liaise clandestinely with the dissidents and provide them with intelligence and resources. The Syrian opposition may not want this, but the door could always be left open for them.
Third, the Treasury Department should peel away Assad’s elite supporters by chasing bank accounts they hold outside of Syria. Their accounts should be frozen or misplaced until they leave Syria. Military direct messaging—known as psychological operations—should be focused upon this group of regime enablers.
Fourth, President Obama should use his charm to do real diplomacy with Turkey. The Ankara government has wavered between good and bad responses throughout Arab Spring. The NATO member, which borders Syria, could be encouraged down the path of helping Assad’s opponents politically and logistically. The president should travel to Ankara, not to preen for cameras, but to conduct private and effective diplomacy.
Congress could also do the cause of freedom a favor by getting serious about foreign policy for the first time in years. This week, when our ambassador to Syria dutifully responded as summoned to a hearing, only one senator bothered to show up. Neither party on Capitol Hill has cared much about foreign policy since the Iraq surge, since there have been few foreign-related options since then for political opportunism and grandstanding. Perhaps Congress could lend some attention nonetheless.
None of the suggestions I've mentioned involve America going to war. It does involve using a combination of levers available to government to advance U.S. national interests and help those who share our values against those who do not—something many thought of as “diplomacy” in an earlier time.
Christian Whiton is the president of the Hamilton Foundation. He was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration and a policy advisor on the Giuliani and Gingrich presidential campaigns. He is author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books 2013).