Obama Can’t Stop the Killing in Syria, and Certainly Not Like That

Maybe Obama should ask Assad nicely to leave too?

UPDATE: Marc Lynch agrees with me.

Tony Badran has a piece in  Foreign Policy  discussing the various steps that US President Obama can take in order to facilitate the fall of Assad and the end of violence in Syria. As Badran notes, Washington has a poorly defined policy in regards to Syria and the increasing violence that has claimed over 1,400 lives. However, Washington’s ability to direct the flow of events in Syria is very limited and President Obama knows that there is little he can do to halt the violence in Syria. The steps outlined by Badran, on the other hand, would do little to end the suffering and would both eliminate options for the United States and force Obama to take fundamentally flawed positions that could potentially harm the United States.

Badran’s first suggestion for the United States is to withdraw the American ambassador from Damascus, suggesting that removing the only official, diplomatic link between Syria and the United States would “dishearten” Assad and embolden the protesters while sending “a clear signal to the silent majority in Syria, which is watching apprehensively and wondering who will win.” The call to remove the ambassador from Damascus is not new; the Senate, in fact, held up Ambassador Robert Ford’s confirmation for nearly all of 2010 due to relations between Assad and Hezbollah.

Removing Ford from Damascus, however, would be a costly and completely empty gesture from the United States. A diplomatic mission in Damascus allows the United States to not rely on state media or unconfirmed rumors to inform American policy; removing Ford would remove the one source of verifiable information in Syria. Ford and the embassy has also kept in contact with the opposition movement; removing the ambassador would cut the one link the United States has with the opposition leaders within Syria.

Moreover, since the United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus for five years in 2005 in response to accusations that Syria was behind the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, it is not if losing the American ambassador would new or particularly tragic for the Assad regime. Indeed, there has only been an American ambassador in Damascus for about half of Bashar Assad’s tenure as President. Badran does not attempt to explain how exactly removing Ford would dishearten Assad, presumably because such an action would have little effect on the Syrian leader.

Lastly, it is clear to Syrians that there is little Obama can directly do to push one side to victory. Syrians know that there is very little direct action that the United States can take against the Assad regime; military intervention is not an option, the recent sanctions are purely symbolic and the Assad regime is diplomatically protected in the United Nations Security Council by Russia, China, Brazil, India and Lebanon. Removal of Ford would do little to convince the “silent majority” that Assad’s time is limited.

To be clear, there would be no positive advantage for the United States or the Syrian opposition of removing the American ambassador. Doing so would limit the means of communication not only between America and Assad, but also with the opposition movement.

Badran also suggests that the President Obama should come forward and declare Assad to be ‘illegitimate,’ arguing simply that other countries have already done so. France and Israel have called Assad illegitimate, Qatar houses the Al Jazeera news network as well as Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi who have both pushed for revolution (although there has been no official state condemnation of Assad), and Turkey has condemned Assad and hosted an opposition conference. Yet Obama issued a condemnation of Syrian state violence at least as harsh as the words coming from France, Israel and Turkey, the United States is home to politicians calling for military intervention and the President was one of the first world leaders to slap (symbolic) sanctions on Assad. In other words, Badran simply wants to hear Obama utter the word ‘illegitimate’ – a public utterance that, again, would not help the opposition or harm the Assad regime.

Badran’s first two suggestions scream out as illogical answers to those calling for Obama to do something; neither recalling the American ambassador or playing games in semantics are empty actions that do not accomplish anything. Despite the first two pages of Badran’s article, I agree with  some of the basic concepts of his final page. Obama must work with regional allies to create incentives for change in Syria, reduce the possibility of sectarian violence in Syria and to offer viable alternatives to the current path. The United States must openly work with Syria’s neighbors to help create a meaningful plan for political transition that offers the Assad family incentives for making real change.

Even with such a multilateral regional consensus and a clear policy, the United States must realize that there is nothing that can be done to guarantee an end to the violence in Syria. The best that Obama can do is offer Assad a way to avoid driving Syria into a civil war that would destroy the country and most likely lead to the fall of his regime. Recalling the American ambassador and blaming Obama for not using the word ‘illegitimate’ are meaningless gestures that would simply limit American policy options.

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