‘Standing idly by’ in Syria
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This piece is reprinted with permission and can be found on Abrams’ blog “Pressure Points” here.
The foolish hope – whether real or pretended – that the U.N. plan for peace in Syria would work is gone. At least since the Assad regime’s bloody attack on Aleppo University last week, this has been clear even to previously blind diplomats.
As The Washington Post reported, “’None of the six points are being honored,’ said a senior administration official privy to internal U.S. assessments. … Western hopes for salvaging a nearly four-week-old cease-fire in Syria have all but evaporated … reports from inside Syria point to a determined, but lower-profile, effort by President Bashar al-Assad to crush remaining pockets of opposition in defiance of international agreements. …”
On Feb. 23, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “World opinion is not going to stand idly by.” Quite right: Instead, there are conferences and talk fests, resolutions and observers, none of which have moved Assad. But instead of American leadership there are statements like this one, also from Clinton that day: “They will find somewhere, somehow the means to defend themselves.”
Syria has become a proxy war of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah against the Syrian people. American officials who want to defend our inaction warn that jihadis, Salafis, and other Islamist extremists are entering Syria to fight against the regime. I assume that this is true, and that more will come to fill the vacuum created as the regime goes on killing Sunnis but the population gets little or no help in resisting. Intelligence officials to whom I have spoken warn that there is another, far better organized foreign presence in Syria: fighters from Hezbollah and Iran. They are giving Assad’s badly stretched loyalist forces essential assistance, not just in money and weapons but in tactical advice and actual participation on the ground. While “world opinion” is in fact standing idly by, Iran and Hezbollah are not – and Russia supplies diplomatic protection and sells more weapons.
What is missing here? The United States. American leadership would change the balance diplomatically and on the ground, affect the policies of the Europeans, Jordanians, and Turks, improve the morale and performance of the Syrian opposition, and begin to move those still on the fence into an anti-Assad position. Assad has buried the foolish U.N. or Kofi Annan plan, so it is more difficult now to hide the policy choices we face. Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia are acting in Syria, and the United States is not. It seems the Syrian people will not “find somewhere, somehow the means to defend themselves” unless we do. It is fair to throw Secretary Clinton’s words back at her, but it isn’t her policy; it is the president’s. Only he can decide to abandon the pretense that U.N. resolutions will bring down the Assad regime. Only he can decide that the posture of standing idly by, watching the murders and repression in Syria, must end.
The Washington Post reports that the last few days have brought the following: “quietly rounding up hundreds of university students in the country’s largest city, Aleppo, and the stabbing deaths of several suspected opposition figures by pro-Assad hit squads. … Anti-government activists reported renewed shelling by government tanks on Friday in the city of Douma, near Damascus, as well as snipers firing at protesters from rooftops.” When will the president decide that enough is enough?
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