As Obama Says Assad Must Go, Administration Misrepresents How Quickly Sanctions Were Imposed

Patrick Goodenough | August 19, 2011 | 5:40am EDT
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In this photo taken during a government-organized tour, a Syrian man shouts in support of President Bashar Assad, in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)

( - As the Obama administration Thursday defended itself against criticism that it took too long to call for Syrian President Bashar Assad to stand down, officials incorrectly claimed that sanctions had been imposed from the start of the crisis.

"You will recall that as soon as protests began and violence was perpetrated against those protestors we started to impose sanctions on the Assad regime," a senior administration official told reporters in a background teleconference briefing arranged by the White House.

The assertion was repeated twice more during the briefing, with reporters told that "we moved to punitive measures in Syria right away," and again, that "we pursued punitive measures from the beginning."

In fact, the first U.S. sanctions imposed on Damascus this year occurred seven weeks after the violent crackdown began in mid-March - seven weeks during which more than 450 people had been killed, according to human rights groups.

And those sanctions did not target Assad himself; instead the administration imposed an asset freeze and a ban on business dealings with the U.S. for three senior regime officials as well as two security agencies.

That first U.S. response to the violence came after growing calls from U.S. lawmakers from both parties for a firmer response - not military action, but steps to undermine the regime and strengthen the opposition, and a clear statement from Obama that it was time for Assad to go.

President Obama's call Thursday for Assad to "step aside," accompanied by an executive order further tightening economic sanctions, came 22 weeks and two days after the beginning of the violent clampdown, which has now cost an estimated 1,800-2,000 lives.

By contrast, it took Obama one week from the beginning of the Egyptian uprising last January to call for a "transition" to democracy and about two more to prod Hosni Mubarak to leave. It took Obama about a week and a half after violence erupted in Libya in February to call on Muammar Gaddafi to resign.

Over a number of weeks, reporters have been pressing State Department spokesmen on the issue of why Obama has been unready to call on Assad to leave.

"How many dead Syrian innocent civilians do there have to be before your strategic patience wears out?," asked one reporter on Tuesday, while a day earlier another asked, "So it's important to stop the killing, but maybe not just yet?"

The official response has been an argument for the need to build international support - while at the same time denying that the U.S. has been leaving it to others to take the lead.

'Smart power'

The biggest change in the international response to the crisis came a fortnight ago, when Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf states turned against Assad. (Turkey's slow shift away from its neighbor began somewhat earlier.)

That process was much slower than in the case of Libya, where the Arab League early on first suspended Gaddafi's regime, and then called for international intervention.

Why it was necessary for the U.S. to wait until the Arab governments had lost patience with Assad before coming out with Thursday's stance remains unclear, but administration officials have rejected the notion that the U.S. approach has been one of "leading from behind."

"On the contrary," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said this week in response to that question. She cited U.S. sanctions and its efforts at the U.N. Security Council and Human Rights Council to secure statements condemning Assad.

"We are trying to not only lead by example but also work with as many others as possible to follow the lead that we have set in increasing the pressure on Syria," she said.

In Thursday's White House background briefing, the administration official took the same line: "We wanted to make sure we weren't just issuing statements [alone], but were doing so in an internationally coordinated way."

"We've recognized from the start that American leadership is crucial to this effort and that to have maximum impact in Syria we want to lead the chorus of voices and pressures, not just make this a solo act."

Nuland Thursday characterized the approach as "smart power" as practiced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"As you know, it's a hallmark of her approach to diplomacy. And when she talks about smart power, it's about combining political, economic, diplomatic, development tools not only of the United States, but of our friends, allies, partners, regional players, to create communities of common action."

Immediately after Obama's statement was released Thursday, it was followed by similar ones from the European Union and the British, French, German and Canadian governments.

In their responses to Obama's statement on Thursday, a number of politicians, including Republican presidential aspirants, referred to the time it had taken to reach that point.

"It has taken President Obama far too long to speak out forcefully against Assad and his vicious crackdown in Syria," former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said in a statement. Showing American leadership meant "not remaining silent for too long while voices of freedom and dissent are under attack."

"It is about time that the Obama Administration stepped to the plate and called for the long-awaited resignation of President Assad," said former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), adding that it was "shocking that it has taken President Obama this long to realize that Syria is a threat to not just the region, but to its own people."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Obama's call was "long overdue."

Defending engagement

While campaigning for the presidency, Sen. Obama was asked during a Jul. 2007 presidential primary debate whether as president he would meet with Assad (as well as the leaders of Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea) "in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries."

He replied that he would, adding that "the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them - which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this [Bush] administration - is ridiculous."

Once in office Obama sought to engage the Syrian regime, encouraged by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who has met with the Syrian leader at least six times.

Six months into his presidency, Obama sent Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell to Damascus, followed several months later by undersecretary for political affairs William Burns.

Officials cited as reasons to engage hopes to promote the Israeli-Arab peace process, and to draw Assad away from his alliances with Iran and Hezbollah.

In response, Assad strengthened his ties with Iran and Hezbollah, and no movement occurred on the peace-talks front.

Nuland on Thursday took issue with the suggestion that the engagement policy had been a failure.

She said the administration had come in "committed to offering engagement to countries where relations have been difficult across the board and trying to turn the page and having a fresh start."

"With some countries, that has resulted in a positive reset in relations that has paid dividends for both countries - the United States and the country in question - strengthened regional security, helped us to work together. But with some countries like Iran, like Syria, like North Korea, these offers of engagement have not been met with steps to come closer to the international community, to make the kinds of changes that we've been looking for so that we can have a better relationship."

"So from the United States perspective, it was the right thing to try to have a fresh start," Nuland said. "But these were squandered opportunities, unfortunately, in some of these places.

The Boston Globe quoted Kerry as saying Thursday that Assad had "missed an historic opportunity for a new relationship with the West and economic transformation for Syria."

(See here for an updated timeline of U.S. engagement with the Assad regime.)

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