FPI Bulletin: Does the President Have the Will to End Assad’s Atrocities in Syria?
From FPI Policy Director Robert Zarate
In a high-profile speech today at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, President Obama highlighted new efforts to “prevent and respond to mass atrocities,” including a new Executive Order imposing sanctions against Syrian and Iranian officials for their use of information technologies to track and violently suppress political dissidents. But while the President’s announcement of new human rights sanctions against Syria is a welcome development, it falls far short of the decisive action that is needed to bring an end not only to the Assad regime’s escalating use of indiscriminate violence against Syrian civilians—but to the Assad regime itself.
Since the anti-regime protests in Syria began in March 2011, Syrian security forces have killed well over 10,000 civilians, and wounded and imprisoned many tens of thousands more. News outlets report that the Assad regime killed at least 18 people today in the city of Hama, in addition to the many dozens more slain since a United Nations-backed ceasefire in Syria began on April 12, 2012. Indeed, Nobel Prize-winner Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, pointedly asked during his introduction of President Obama: “So in this place we may ask: Have we learned anything from [the West's failure to stop the Holocaust]? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power?”
The United States has both a strategic and moral interest in halting the mass atrocities against the Syrian people, and in facilitating the emergence of a post-Assad Syria. U.S. national security interests would be advanced by an end to the Assad regime—a government that is Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world, secretly pursued a nuclear program with weapons-making potential, and provided safe haven and transit to foreign fighters that killed U.S. troops in Iraq.
American values would also be advanced by working with like-minded countries in the region to intervene and end the destabilizing threat of further mass atrocities in Syria—just as it did in Libya last year. Indeed, in defending the U.S. intervention in Libya, President Obama said in March 2011:
“To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and-–more profoundly-–our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
What the President said in March 2011 of the Qaddafi regime’s imminent mass atrocities in Libya applies equally today to the Assad regime’s continuing mass atrocities in Syria.
As Bashar al-Assad continues to defy the United States and other responsible members of the international community, it is clear that President Obama’s strategy of “diplomatic isolation” by itself will not halt the Syrian regime’s relentless mass murder. But as the Foreign Policy Initiative and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies recently argued in a joint bulletin, America has alternatives. The President—in consultation and coordination with Congress—should immediately take the following actions:
- Initiate and intensify direct contact with the Free Syrian Army and associated forces, and provide them with a full range of assistance, including self-defense aid;
- Establish safe zones for civilians within Syrian territory; and
- Use limited retaliatory airstrikes against select Syrian military targets in order to protect the safe zones.
It’s high time for the United States to lead and act decisively to end the mass atrocities in Syria. President Obama has before him the means to accomplish that goal—but does he have the will?
The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.