It’s the least we can do, Barry. Literally.
Clearly, we should be on the side of the Syrian people longing for freedom and challenging the regime’s corrupt and repressive rule. Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s hesitancy to weigh in has been mistaken for indecision at best and indifference at worst. The president needs to speak directly to the Syrian people to communicate American support for their legitimate demands, condemn Assad’s murderous campaign against innocent civilians, and sternly warn Assad and his cohorts that they cannot continue grossly violating human rights, supporting terrorism, and sowing instability among Syria’s neighbors.
But his words must be backed by clear, firm actions. As ill-advised as it was to restore diplomatic relations with Syria by sending an American ambassador to Damascus last year, we should now sever ties and recall the ambassador at once. While Syria is already under heavy U.S. sanctions as a designated state sponsor of terror, we should expand sanctions to include persons identified as authorizing, planning, or participating in deplorable human rights violations against unarmed civilians. Our partners in Europe, Turkey, and the Arab Gulf share many of our interests in Syria and play a large role in that country, and the president must put the full diplomatic weight of the United States behind an effort to convince them to adopt meaningful economic and diplomatic sanctions targeting Assad and his enablers in the regime.
Sanctions won’t do anything to stop Assad, but since we have no other options — and since regime change would be a total crapshoot, capable in theory of destabilizing the entire region (the Muslim Brotherhood’s already pretty excited) — they’re the obvious way of expressing moral disapproval. Analyst Marc Lynch argues that recalling the ambassador is actually a grievous mistake since it would close off a channel of communication not only to Assad but to Syrian protesters. Is that channel doing us any good, though, as our rhetoric against Syria turns harsher (as Lynch recommends) and/or new sanctions are imposed? To Obama’s credit, the U.S. is already actively working to deny Syria a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, even though it’s had to water down the language of its draft resolution to make it more palatable to Assad’s cronies. Is the regime going to overlook all that and keep taking our calls but then turn around and refuse to engage if we take the additional step of yanking our ambassador from Damascus? Seems hard to believe.
Keeping the ambassador in place to communicate with dissidents makes more sense, but the way things are going, we might have to start pulling him and the rest of the American team out sooner rather than later anyway. Syrian army units have reportedly started fighting each other in Deraa, the city at the heart of the protests, which portends a Libya-like escalation of defections and ultimately civil war. One way or another, we’re inching towards the lifeboats. Exit question: Anyone know if Rand Paul has weighed in yet on Syria? I can’t find anything after some quickie googling and I’m curious to see where he lands on the spectrum between Rubio and, say, his dad in terms of pressuring monstrous regimes. A Rubio/Paul tea-party rivalry, at least on foreign policy, isn’t as unlikely as it may initially seem.