Several days ago, American ambassador to Syria was seen as little more than a ‘propaganda tool‘ for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to those Americans advocating for a stronger US reaction. Now, a couple of days after visiting the besieged city of Hama, Ford is seen in a very different light in the United States. Predictably, the signal of support for the protest movement has exploded, causing increased tension between the United States and Syria. In its fourth month, the Syrian protests have received more media attention since Ford’s visit, though it is unclear if any of this flair-up will bring positive results for the United States or the protesters.
After Ford was welcomed with flowers in Hama last week, the Assad government quickly used the event as proof that the unrest in Syria was the consequence of foreign (specifically American) interference, saying that ““The presence of the US ambassador in Hama without previous permission is obvious proof of the implication of the United States in the ongoing events, and of their attempts to increase (tensions), which damage Syria’s security and stability.” Afterwords, thanks to encouragement from a pro-regime television station, regime supporters pelted the US and French embassies with rocks and tomatoes.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shot back, calling Assad illegitimate (to the pleasure of the do-anything-crowd) and saying that the Syrian President is not ‘indispensable’ and that the US has “absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power.” Finally, and predictably, the Assad regime slammed Clinton’s comments as provocative and as more proof that the “US’s flagrant intervention in Syria’s internal affairs.”
Meanwhile, the insertion of the US in the Syrian uprising comes during the national dialogue conference hosted by the regime. Syrian VP Farouq al-Sharaa has said that the conference is an attempt to create a pluralist system in which the ballot box plays a crucial role. Many of the opposition, however, view the dialogue as just an attempt by the administration to control the illusion of change while not actually offering real reform. Consequently, the conference seems doomed to fail while playing second fiddle to the recent Syrian-American dust up.
As Josh Landis points out, it is unclear if the opposition will be able to take anything positive away from American support as it seems to justify Assad’s previously hollow claims of foreign interference:
What is unclear is whether the Syrian opposition will gain from this controversy. Will the increased international news coverage and augmented US role in this Syrian drama prove to be a boon for the opposition? Will it make up for any damage the opposition suffers from local accusations that it is but a spearhead of a vast imperialist-Zionist conspiracy?
It is unlikely that the support of the United States will convince many to support the government who are not already leaning in that direction. However, as the attacks on the American and French embassies (as well as Ambassador Ford’s residence) show, proof of American support for the protesters may be used as a rallying call for supporters of the regime to become more active. As for Washington, Clinton and Obama must be sure not to get pressured into promising more than the US is capable of. The severe limitations in American influence in Syria must not be looked over. After years of ‘punishing’ Syria by cutting of economic and political relations, the US has found itself powerless to coerce Assad. Moreover, the ongoing Libyan disaster has effectively prohibited any type of military intervention.
Now that the US government has called Assad illegitimate, calls are already being made to refer the Syrian leader to the International Criminal Court (ICC). While I am sure that Assad has committed crimes against humanity in his suppression of the Syrian protests, usage of the ICC could act as a major obstacle in the quest for a negotiated settlement. This is currently the case in Libya (though apparently the French are calling for negotiations).
The United States must work to end what could be seen as the Americanization of the Syrian protests. More attention should be given to the protesters and their push for equality than to arguments between governments. Moreover, the United States has just about used up all its available coercive measures against the Syrian regime. As observers continue to call for stronger American action, it will become clear that the White House is powerless to help the protesters or harm the regime any more than it already has. Allowing the protests to remain 100% Syrian is essential not only to the success of the Syrian Arab Spring, but also to the reputation of the United States in the region.
Photo from Seattle Pi