Jacob Heilbrunn

Obama's Failed Syria Policy

For years President Obama tried to play kissy-face with the opthamologist. But the not-so-wily ruler of Syria refused. Bashar al-Assad, once seen as a potential reformer, an ally of the West, a potential peace partner, is sending his tanks into the streets of Deraa to crush the opposition. In response America and its European allies are threatening sanctions. Britain, Italy, and France have suddenly begun to stake out activist foreign policy positions, but with little to back them up. Whatever happened to the Gallic shrug? It's being replaced by delusions of Napoleonic grandeur.

In any case, sanctions are usually no more than temporary. Obama himself said on Friday that the crackdown "must come to an end now." Why? The Syrian kleptocracy has cast its lot, not with America, but with the forces of repression. Anyway, Obama often likes to confuse verbal demands, as Yale professor David Bromwich has observed, with action. Soon enough the illusions will return should the Syrian dictator succeed in routing, at least for now, his opponents. The real loss for Assad isn't the prospect of sanctions but the fact that he is, increasingly, being drawn into Iran's orbit. He is becoming the puppet ruler of the Iranian mullahs, playing Hungary to their Soviet Union.

But this presumes that Assad will be able to cling to power. Iran is not the Soviet Union, a mighty empire that can dispose of its satellites as it wishes. Instead, Syria may well topple into anarchy. The army, for example, is displaying some cracks:

There are rumors of divisions emerging within the Army, with more soldiers refusing to fire on protesters and a spate of assassinations of military officials said to be sympathetic to the protesters, The Christian Science Monitor reported. In Deraa yesterday, military units clashed after some soldiers refused to fire on protesters. If the Army breaks ranks with Assad, it would severely undermine his regime's ability to survive.

For those who warn that instability may be more dangerous than the stability represented by the Assad regime, it's already too late. Like not a few dictators, Assad has reacted too slowly. He may, in fact, be a hostage of his own security forces, unable to undertake even the tepid reforms that he allegedly wanted to pursue. But for the Obama administration, the entire episode should be a chastening one. It wanted to follow a policy of engagement with Assad. Assad refused. Now Obama is paralyzed by the prospect of a genuine Syrian revolt.

Image from the Official White House Photostream