Syria: Administration’s no-doctrine doctrine
President Obama’s penchant to frame his actions in lofty terms places him in a position of having to explain why his moral compass is so selective. The contrasting U.S. policies toward Libya and Syria expose Mr. Obama’s moral conundrum.
Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s regime is every bit as reprehensible as Moammar Gadhafi’s. The Syrian people are doing their best to make a bid for freedom, just as the Libyan people did. Mr. Assad has fought back with guns and tanks, killing hundreds, just like Col. Gadhafi. The Syrian people took hope from NATO’s intervention in Libya that maybe their cause would also merit foreign support. However, the United States refuses to offer the Syrian people anything more than a few nattering statements.
Mr. Obama has said there is no “Obama doctrine” at play in Libya. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said that conditions in each country must be judged on a case-by-case basis. It’s important to recall that Mr. Obama did not immediately seek United Nations authorization to intervene in Libya but only moved after the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council took the lead. These organizations are unlikely to call for intervention in Syria, so if Mr. Obama is waiting for their permission to take action, he — and the Syrian dissidents — will have a long wait.
The United States has more strategic interest in regime change in Syria than in Libya. Syria under Mr. Assad is an Iranian client state, a chief enabler of the terrorist organization Hezbollah, and the main transit route for foreign insurgents heading for Iraq. The Assad regime is a charter member of the “Shiite Crescent” anchored by Iran, even though the majority of the population is Sunni.
Democracy in Syria would be a major step toward reshaping the Middle East and frustrating Iran’s plans for regional hegemony.
Thus, the case for regime change in Damascus has a solid foundation in both strategic realism and human-rights idealism.
It’s a fair question how many Syrians have to die before intervention becomes legitimate, if not mandatory. So far, around 400 Syrian civilians have been killed by Assad’s security forces. One estimate was that 1,000 Libyans had died in fighting before the United Nations acted.
The U.N.’s rationale was to stop the future killings that world leaders feared would come by way of Col. Gadhafi’s reprisals once he put down the rebellion, estimated in the low thousands. The precedent in Syria is far worse. In February 1982, Hafez al-Assad, father of the current strongman, ruthlessly put down a popular uprising in what became known as the Hama Massacre. Between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians were killed by Syrian troops, arguably the largest Mideast massacre in modern times. Since Assad the elder got away with it, Assad junior may assume he can too.
Mr. Obama may not want to be hemmed in by a consistent application of principle that leads to predictable policies and actions. If this is the case, the White House should ramp back its human-rights rhetoric and admit that its policies are ad-hoc, reactive and unpredictable. Call it a “no-doctrine doctrine,” or perhaps the Damascus Blindspot.