WASHINGTON: “There is a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.” Thus spoke Hillary Clinton, then U.S. secretary of state, on March 27, 2011, four days after President Bashar Assad’s security forces began firing live ammunition into crowds of unarmed demonstrators. Two and a half years and more than 100,000 dead Syrians later, Clinton’s successor, John Kerry termed the Syrian leader a “thug and murderer,” likened him to Adolf Hitler and made a forceful case for military action to punish Assad for having used nerve gas to kill more than 1,400 people in an attack on a Damascus suburb. The labels “reformer” and “murderer” bracket a string of statements from President Barack Obama and members of his administration that point to consistent American misjudgments of the Syrian leader.
They predate the Obama administration and began in 2000, when Bashar Assad’s iron-fisted father, Hafez, died and his son succeeded him. “There was a naive expectation in the West that because he did his postdoctoral studies in the U.K. and knew how to use a computer he would move to westernize Syria,” Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Syria at the time, wrote recently in the online magazine of Yale University. “I knew him and I knew he would not. He was more rigid and doctrinaire than his father.”
That’s saying something. Hafez Assad’s 30-year-rule over Syria was marked by ruthless suppression of opponents, culminating in a tank and artillery bombardment of Hama, a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, that flattened the center of the city and killed at least 10,000 people. (Some estimates are as high as 40,000). He was never held to account for the Hama massacre. There were no cries of outrage from Washington. Instead, President Bill Clinton sent his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Hafez Assad’s funeral.
To what extent America’s muted reaction to his father’s brutal crackdown on dissent influenced Bashar’s thinking is a matter of speculation. What seems clear is that he has interpreted mixed signals from Obama and his team as evidence that the superpower’s bark is worse than its bite. It is an impression shared by Obama critics at home who complain about flip-flops, vacillation, empty rhetoric, and foreign policy based on wishful thinking.
There is no shortage of examples to back up such views. As the bloodshed in Syria worsened, Clinton’s “reformer” designation was replaced by Obama’s assertion that Assad had “lost legitimacy,” followed two years ago by a statement that the Syrian leader must “step aside.” Then came two warnings, spaced seven months apart, by Obama that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government would “change my calculus” on what to do about Syria and be a “game changer.” Despite intelligence reports from Britain, France and Israel that nerve gas had been deployed in limited quantities on several occasions, the red-line rhetoric was not followed by U.S. action.
Looking the other way disappeared as an option for Obama after the Aug. 21 attack that killed, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment, 1,429 people, including 426 children. A week later, he used a television interview to make the case for “tailored, limited” strikes on Syria meant as “a shot across the bow” – a warning to Assad to refrain from using chemical weapons.
Cruise missile attacks from U.S. destroyers in the Mediterranean appeared imminent. Until Obama changed his mind, saying that although he had decided on taking military action, he would seek the approval of Congress. Its members are on summer vacation, scheduled to return to work next week.
In the absence of broad international backing for an attack – Britain’s Parliament voted against it, only France has said it would go along – Washington pundits saw Obama’s request for a congressional green light as risky domestic politics. A vote in favor is not certain in a deeply divided Congress, but it would help rally public support which so far is missing in a country weary of war and mindful of the fact that Obama came to office promising to end wars, not start new ones.
When he campaigned for the presidency, Obama leveled harsh criticism at George W. Bush for having gone to war against Iraq without a United Nations mandate. Ironically, he is now pushing for war with less international and domestic support than Bush had. The latest polls show that 60 percent of Americans are opposed to attacks on Syria.
Military officers, speaking off the record, expressed doubts over the effectiveness of missile strikes, partly because Obama’s decision to delay action is giving the Syrian military time to prepare, move equipment thought to be targets to other locations, and deploy key units to densely populated areas where American attacks would kill civilians, the inevitable “collateral damage” of air attacks.
White House officials have gone to considerable lengths to stress that the planned “shot across the bow” is not meant to bring about regime change – an assertion that contrasts with the president’s past statements that Assad must go. To hear administration officials tell it, neither are “limited strikes” meant as a humanitarian intervention, the rationale that underpinned the U.S. and allied airstrikes that ended Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya in 2011.
Gut-wrenching video of dead and dying victims of the Aug. 21 nerve gas attack caused universal revulsion, but some experts doubt the wisdom of having made it the rationale for action. After all, the average monthly death toll from conventional weapons has been running at around 3,600.
“The U.S. is faced with having chosen the wrong red line,” commented Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “The key challenge in Syria is scarcely to end the use of chemical weapons. The real challenge is some 120,000 dead, another 200,000 wounded and as many as 20 percent of its 22.5 million people ... displaced inside the country or living outside it as refugees.”
Cordesman, a widely respected scholar, added: “Even if the U.S. can somehow stop all future use of chemical weapons, the military impact would be marginal at best.”