You have to wonder if President Barack Obama ever rereads his speeches.
At the State Department last May, the president spoke at length of democratization in the Middle East. He chose his words carefully, dropping caveats and provisos. But Obama also bluntly declared that, “it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.” He justified the intervention in Libya by recalling that “we saw the prospect of imminent massacre ... Had we not acted along with our NATO allies and regional coalition partners, thousands would have been killed.”
Yet precisely such sordid outcomes have come to pass, not in Libya but during the four-month uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Around 1,600 people are believed to have been killed, not mentioning some 3,000 disappeared, many of them presumed dead. Massacres have proliferated, and on Sunday, the eve of the holy month of Ramadan, the Syrian army entered the city of Hama, which had effectively escaped from government writ weeks ago.
Throughout, the White House has painstakingly avoided demanding that Assad step down, saying only that he must lead a transition to democracy or get out of the way. The Syrian dictator has, of course, done neither. Yet, as the casualties in Hama continued to rise, the best Obama could offer was a promise that Washington would “work with others around the world to isolate the Assad government.”
This was thin gruel, indeed. By slaughtering his own people, Assad has lost legitimacy—a point acknowledged by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Yet the persistent refusal internationally to insist that he step down has emboldened Assad and his entourage—above all, his brother Maher, who commands the regime’s praetorian units—to pursue their repression.
Obama is not alone in dodging tough decisions on Syria. The UN Security Council has failed to meet over the crisis because Russia and China refuse to condemn Assad. Turkey, which has sway over Damascus, lately toned down its criticism of the Syrian president. Until now, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah have quietly supported Assad—the first, because he fears that removal of the minority Alawite leadership in Damascus would leave Shiite-led Iraq will with an unfriendly Sunni-ruled Syria on its eastern border; and King Abdullah, because he senses that successful revolts in the Arab world will ultimately undermine the Saudi monarchy.
The problem with these calculations is that they could provoke regional instability, the outcome everyone fears most. Despite the Syrian opposition’s determined disavowing of sectarianism, the Assads have viewed the upheaval principally through a sectarian prism—as an existential threat to Alawite supremacy. It’s a fact that Alawite-dominated military and security forces are mainly suppressing Sunni-majority cities and districts.
Now, after the assault on Hama, sectarian polarization may well worsen. In 1982, Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, crushed a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the city. The episode carries great emotional weight as Syrian troops brutally conquer Hama once again, this time at the start of a period of religious celebration.
Today, much has taken place on the ground to feed sectarian and ethnic animosities. In the southern district of Deraa, the Assads have stifled dissent in a rural Sunni area once a backbone of the ruling Baath Party; the regime’s clearing of Sunni villages near the Turkish and Lebanese borders have been localized exercises in ethnic cleansing; and the ferocity of the mass arrests in Sunni-majority areas near Damascus reveal anxiety that if the capital and its environs were to slip away from Assad control, this would sound the symbolic death knell for minority primacy in Syria.
The Syrian regime has a stake in heightening sectarian tension, to keep Alawites united and warn foreign countries that regime change would engender communal chaos. But the Syrian opposition isn’t playing ball. One has to ask: for how long? The Assads’ lunacy could push their foes to become sectarian, and many to take up arms. This would risk engulfing mixed sectarian and ethnic societies around Syria—in Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey. That is why the international community, the United States above all, must demand that Assad go, and prepare for the aftermath.
The administration has claimed that its leverage over Syria is limited. However, the U.S. alone can build a consensus at the United Nations and persuade Turkey and vacillating Arab countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, to endorse negotiations for a peaceful transition in Damascus. Syria’s regime is sensitive to power realities. Once Assad sees the world aligned against him, he may reconsider his options. Alternatively, he will have interpreted Obama’s vague vow to isolate him as more risk avoidance—a green light to continue murdering.
Pity the Syrians. Last Friday, they labeled their day of protest “Your Silence is Killing Us,” directing the reprimand at what they called the “silent majority” inside Syria that has yet to take to the streets. They could just as well been addressing the far larger community of nations.