Obama Administration Turning Away from Syrian Leader

By Patrick Goodenough | July 13, 2011 | 5:00 AM EDT

Pro-Assad protesters hang Syrian flags and portraits of the president at the wall of the U.S. Embassy compound in Damascus on Monday, July 11, 2011, according to this photo released by a Syrian news website Shukumaku. (AP Photo/Shukumaku)

(CNSNews.com) – Four months after Syrian President Bashar Assad initiated a violent crackdown on anti-government protestors, the Obama administration on Tuesday came as close as it ever has to questioning his legitimacy.

By contrast, it took President Obama about three weeks from the beginning of the Egyptian uprising last January to cautiously prod Hosni Mubarak to leave, and a slightly shorter length of time after violence erupted in Libya in February to call on Muammar Gaddafi to step down.

The shift on Syria came after the regime permitted – or orchestrated, according to some allegations – attacks by Assad supporters on the U.S. Embassy and ambassador’s residence in Damascus.

The American and French diplomatic missions became targets after U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford and his French counterpart last week visited the town of Hama, where scores have been killed in clashes with security forces since early June.

White House press secretary Jay Carney recalled Tuesday that Washington had urged Assad to lead a democratic transition. “He clearly has not, and he has lost legitimacy by refusing to lead the transition,” he said. On Tuesday evening, Obama in a CBS Evening News interview said the Syrian president had lost “legitimacy in the eyes of his people.”

A day earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared Assad to be “not indispensable,” adding, “we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power.”

The regime hit back Tuesday, calling Clinton’s comments further evidence of Washington’s “flagrant interference in the Syrian internal affairs.”

“No one disagrees that relations among countries are based on the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs,” the official SANA news agency quoted an unnamed spokesman as saying. “That is why the Syrian Arab Republic expects that the U.S.A. and its envoys will comply with this principle and refrain from any acts that could provoke the Syrian people's emotions and pride in their national independence.”

The administration’s differing approaches to the situations in Egypt, Libya and Syria arose in part from the fact the three regimes’ relationships with Washington varied considerably.

Mubarak was a U.S. ally of long standing despite a poor record on human rights and political freedom; Gaddafi had evidently set aside decades of antagonism and terror sponsorship in favor of closer ties with the West; Assad’s alliance with Iran and policies in Lebanon and Iraq set him at odds with the U.S., but the Obama administration pursued engagement in the hope of nudging him towards reform and prising him away from Tehran.

That engagement push got off to a shaky start when Assad pointedly strengthened ties both with Iran and the Lebanese terrorist group, Hezbollah. Undeterred, Obama last year nominated Ford as the first U.S. ambassador to Damascus in six years. (The previous administration withdrew the last envoy after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a bombing blamed on Syria and Hezbollah.)

Ford assumed the post early this year, after a recess appointment bypassed confirmation hurdles in the Senate, led by Republicans leery for the U.S. to be seen as rewarding Assad for bad behavior.

Since the crackdown on dissent began in mid-March, an estimated 1,600 civilians have been killed. The government blames the unrest on vaguely-defined “armed groups” and foreign instigators.

Some Mideast experts have urged Obama to take steps to encourage the homegrown revolt, to treat it as a strategic opportunity to sever the Syria-Iran axis, but the administration has until now appeared reluctant to broach Assad’s legitimacy.

A key reason for its willingness to do so in the case of Gaddafi was the stance taken by the Arab League back in March, when it turned against its Libyan member and appealed to the U.N. Security Council to impose a “no-fly” zone. By contrast, the Arab League took three months before it eventually condemned the violence in Syria.

Then there is Russia. Angered by the NATO-led military operation in Libya – which Moscow says went beyond the mandate of a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing intervention to save Libyan civilians’ lives – the Kremlin has consistently refused to back even a mild Security Council resolution on Syria.

Russia did go along with a Security Council statement on Syria Tuesday but the brief text was limited to condemning the embassy vandalism, invoking Vienna Convention requirements on host countries to protect embassy premises. 

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow