President Obama's Syria Problem

After the attack on its embassy in Damascus, the U.S. clearly wants to do something about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But what? And how?

hamid july13 p.jpg

Reuters

After regime thugs attacked the U.S. embassy in Syria, the Obama administration ramped up its language. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched the first broadside, saying that "President Assad is not indispensable and we have absolutely nothing invested in him ... remaining in power." Then, President Obama informed the Syrians that "nobody can be messing with our embassy." This is the most frustrated and angry the administration has sounded since the unrest in Syria began four months ago. What more than 1500 Syrians killed and reports of mass rape and torture couldn't do, a not entirely surprising attack on the U.S. embassy could.

As angry as Clinton and Obama seem to be, they still haven't been able to utter the magic words -- "Bashar must go." Of course, they're not magic at all and are unlikely to do anything on their own. What matters is whether or not the U.S. is willing to commit to Assad's ouster. Call it if you will a policy of "non-military regime change." On this matter, the administration seems a bit schizophrenic. They know Assad is bad, but they're not quite sure they want him to go. Others have already noted how ludicrous it is to suggest someone like Assad could ever "lead a democratic transition."

There are some, including in the administration, who say the U.S. has little to no leverage with Syria. Saying that the U.S. has no leverage and acting like it is a pretty good way to make other people think that you, in fact, have no leverage. In any case, it's simply not true. There are a few things that the U.S. can do (now). A good place to start is this article by David Schenker and Andrew Tabler, which lays out a number of policy options, including instituting more sweeping sanctions and targeting Syria's oil industry. The goal here is not to change Assad's mind but rather to encourage the country's Sunnis, particularly the business elite, to distance themselves, and possibly defect, from the regime.

This is a time to think creatively, as the Obama administration did, to its credit, on July 7, when it sent Ambassador Robert Ford to Hama in an inspiring show of solidarity with residents (I had previously called on the U.S. to recall Ford. I was wrong). Ford was welcomed with applause and olive branches, a reminder that doing the right thing is still sometimes the right thing to do. Gestures, even if they at first seem small, matter, particularly for the Syrians on the ground fighting, and dying, for their freedom.

Ford's foray into Hama, when the city was under threat of massacre, is a reminder that the United States still has a role to play - if it acts with principle and resolve. It is what we did in Benghazi, saving a city from massacre. We don't do it often, to be sure, but when we do, it makes a difference.   

The problem throughout much of this Arab spring has been the Obama administration's inability to draw clear lines. This has led to considerable confusion. No one knows exactly where Obama stands. Saudi Arabia's autocrats seem to think he's a revolutionary democrat of some sort. Arab revolutionaries, meanwhile, see him as a friend of autocrats and the region's authoritarian status quo. In the process, we manage - somehow - to alienate our allies, our enemies, our friends, and those who might still become our friends. 

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Shadi Hamid is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, and the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.

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