My guess is that most Americans recoil, as I do, from the horrific news out of Syria, feeling in their gut that we should at least do something to stop the slaughter, the disappearances, the executions, the burning and bombing of towns and farms, and the terrorizing and torturing of civilians and children.
In a June 12 forum at the Brookings Institution, Secretary Clinton implied that America’s subdued response was conditioned by fear of extremists (al Qaeda) in the opposition and in any new Syrian government. She said the situation was “complicated” by “fear among many elements in Syrian society about what would come next.” She claimed there hadn’t been “a wholesale departure … or even exile of a lot of major players in the Syrian society.” She favored a political transition that would provide “some level of protection to Christians, Druze, Alawites, Kurds, Sunni business leaders and the like.” In a July 16 interview with CBS, Clinton added, “We don’t want to support, either directly or indirectly, the arming of people who could perhaps not use those weapons in a way we prefer.”
It all sounds sensible enough, but it’s misleading. The pre-revolution Syrian opposition strove genuinely for democratic reforms and brought together diverse elements of Syrian society. Activists bravely began to organize in 2006 under the Damascus Declaration’s National Council – a collection of pro-democracy groups. Their goals and tactics were the opposite of Islamic extremists, who want Sharia Law and advocate the use of violence. Syrian protestors were originally peaceful and wanted human rights, free elections, an independent press and judiciary and an end to the hated Emergency Law. The National Council still dominates the opposition. If there are extremists in the opposition now, it is primarily because of the vacuum created by a do-nothing U.N. and U.S. While the administration prevaricated, deferred to others and insisted that any response had to come through the Security Council - wherein it knew Russia and China would veto any meaningful action - others, notably Iran, stepped in. Here are four key points:
1. The protest movement only grew into an armed rebellion in response to the regime’s human rights atrocities. I recommend a report entitled “We’ve Never Seen Such Horror: Crimes Against Humanity by Syrian Security Forces,” in which Human Rights Watch describes events that sparked Syria’s flame. “The Daraa protests, which eventually spread all over Syria, were sparked by the detention and torture of 15 young boys accused of painting graffiti slogans calling for the downfall of the regime.” When the regime arrested and shot the protestors and even bystanders, protests grew still more. As another example of this dynamic: During an assault near Daraa, a child got separated from his father. A month later, the child's body was returned bloated, purple and bruised from torture. In response, enraged and heartbroken residents of surrounding villages joined the rebellion.
2. In no instance did Obama or Clinton make a passionate plea for the Syrian people or make a strong attempt to pressure the Syrian regime. They mostly avoided talking about the horrors in Syria and took pains to make Assad appear better than he was. Remember Clinton suggesting Assad was a “reformer?” Remember Obama’s moral equivalence in calling for an end to the “violence” on both sides? Remember their unwise and unnecessary public declarations that the US “would not” enter the conflict and “would not” supply protestors with arms? When Obama finally - sort of - called for Assad’s exit, the administration was careful not to appear assertive, stipulating that "the United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria” and reiterating that America would not “intervene.” Obama and Clinton failed to mention that Assad is one of the world's worst butchers and one of the world's worst troublemakers - ever. He employs terror as an instrument of both domestic and foreign policy, actively supports Iran and Hezbollah and and causes unimaginable suffering in Lebanon.
3. As reports out of Syria grew much worse and as the Assad regime targeted entire populations for annihilation, the administration turned to others for guidance - and for cover for its own callous, ineffective policies. As the Arab Plan unraveled, the administration nevertheless expressed support for it and said it would “lead from behind.” When the French suggested a Humanitarian Corridor, the White House praised the French for their "leadership," but expressed "surprise" at the proposal. After the Arab plan failed, the U.S. agreed to the Russian-backed UN/Kofi Annan plan, which did not require Assad to step down. (No one pointed to the futility and turpitude of asking Syrians to negotiate with a regime that was slaughtering, torturing and imprisoning them.) When that plan failed, the administration nevertheless expressed "confidence" in it - then reverted to its policy of supporting limited sanctions and occasionally calling on Assad to leave.
4. By the time Clinton began to show more active interest in finding ways to influence the outcome in Syria, Iran and Al Qaeda had infiltrated the opposition movement. Oh that we had shown an interest in helping - and influencing - the opposition from the start. Clinton did, finally, start to emphasize the need for a “democratic transition” and to explore ways to help the opposition short of supplying arms. But she and the rest of the administration continued to downplay the human rights implications of the Syrian cataclysm.
“Never again” was the farthest thing from their minds, and they encouraged the rest of us Americans to be small-hearted as well.