Foreign Policy Blogs

Obama's False Choice For Syria

“President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.”

This is the key phrase of President Barack Obama’s speech regarding Syria. Yawn. I can’t say it came as a big surprise, but this speech was largely a waste of time, and a missed opportunity, especially when looked at from the Syrian perspective. Nothing new was put forward. Nothing game changing was suggested. There were no surprises.

Obama is still talking about Syria as if the US can do anything to directly influence the situation there; mentioning sanctions as if they mattered. There seems to be absolutely zero recognition of the fact that the US has already been sanctioning Syria for the past 7 years. What did that accomplish? Oh really, nothing? Nothing.

When reading over the short section on Syria it also appears that President Obama still seems to see the Syrian uprising in terms of Good (protestors) vs Evil (regime). While all sorts of easy moral judgements can be made, the fact that Assad isn’t going anywhere (for the near term/foreseeable future at least) seems to have escaped the United States government. Doesn’t anybody in the government read TIME?

It also appears that in spite of all the lofty rhetoric about Syrian democracy, and the bravery of Syrian protestors, the REAL issue for the US is Iran. Apparently all Syria has been doing these past two months is “following its Iranian ally.” Ugh.

If President Obama was really serious about honoring the sacrifices of Syrian protestors, or supporting their democratic aspirations, he would have been talking about Turkey vis a vis Syria, not Iran. You see Turkey, a country that, at least at some point in its history, was a close US ally, is the only country that A) has any kind of sway in Syria and B) might actually be willing to use it.

Turkey and Syria have been growing closer for years; politically, economically, militarily, socially. And there are a multitude of ongoing cooperative agreements between Turkey and Syria that the Syrian government depends on…we couldn’t convince Turkey to put the brakes on until Assad behaves? What about the disapproving whispers coming out of Ankara aimed at Damascus? That isn’t an opening? Sheesh.

If Obama were really serious about forcing Assad to choose between leading a democratic transition, and leaving office, he would be on the phone with Turkish PM Erdogan trying to build a coalition capable of taking on the Assad regime with more than empty sanctions and hollow words, which is precisely what Obama and the majority of Europe have chosen to do.

The fact is that outside of full on military intervention (a near impossibility) the US alone can not have much effect on Assad’s Syria. The same goes for the majority of Europe, although France might be an exception. More ineffective sanctions, and threats of isolation, are not going to change a thing.

If Obama had really wanted to put Assad to a tough choice he would have tried to force his hand via Turkey. Using Syria as an excuse to chide Iran was disingenuous, and somewhat insulting. It is unfortunate that President Obama got the message so wrong on such an important issue.

Below you will find all the specific mentions of Syria in the speech.

…While Libya has faced violence on the greatest scale, it is not the only place where leaders have turned to repression to remain in power. Most recently, the Syrian regime has chosen the path of murder and the mass arrests of its citizens. The United States has condemned these actions, and working with the international community we have stepped up our sanctions on the Syrian regime — including sanctions announced yesterday on President Assad and those around him.

The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way. The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests; release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests; allow human rights monitors to have access to cities like Dara’a; and start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition. Otherwise, President Assad and his regime will continue to be challenged from within and isolated abroad

Thus far, Syria has followed its Iranian ally, seeking assistance from Tehran in the tactics of suppression. This speaks to the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime, which says it stand for the rights of protesters abroad, yet suppresses its people at home…

…In Syria, we see it in the courage of those who brave bullets while chanting, ‘peaceful,’ ‘peaceful.’…



Walter Raubeson

Walter spent the last two years living and working in Damascus, reporting on the Syrian social, political, and cultural scene. Recently returned to the US, Walter continues to monitor Middle Eastern events with verve, and also gusto.

Having graduated from New York University's Masters Program in Political Science- International Relations-in September 2008, Walter's MA thesis analyzed the Lebanese political system; focusing on the impact of foreign intervention within Lebanon, particularly the roles of Iran, Israel, Syria, and the US.