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Altered Consciousness: Obama should reconsider Syria policy

Published: April 8, 2011
Section: Opinions

Hopefully, the recent tumult in Syria will cause the Obama administration to rethink its policy toward the country.

For the last two years, Obama has been attempting to improve ties with and engage with the Syrian regime, along with Iran, diplomatically. In fact, the administration was so desperate to do so that it overrode Congress and appointed an ambassador, Robert Ford, to the country via a recess appointment. In contrast, President Bush had withdrawn his representative to Syria in 2005.

To understand why Obama was wrong in pursuing this policy, it is important to understand why Syria, led by the Baathist leader Bashar al-Assad, is such an enemy of the United States and a violator of international norms.

Firstly, Syria, along with the Iranian regime, is the primary funder, weapons supplier and supporter of Hezbollah, which currently dominates Lebanon politically, and Hamas, which controls Gaza. Under the guise of radical Islamism, both of these terrorist groups have committed countless crimes against humanity against Israel, our most reliable ally in the region, and have used civilians as human shields in conflicts with the Jewish state. Furthermore, they are enemies of the United States as well; Hezbollah, for instance, was responsible for the 1983 bombing that killed approximately 240 U.S. marines.

Syria has also repeatedly violated the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon, which it views as being a part of “Greater Syria.” It militarily occupied the volatile country from 1990 until the Cedar Revolution and was responsible for the assassination of reformist Prime Minister Rafiq Harriri. With an emboldened Hezbollah having toppled the government of Harriri’s son, Syria’s influence in Lebanon has increased greatly once again.

Syria has additionally pursued a clandestine nuclear weapons program, despite Israel bombing one of its facilities in 2007. For instance, International Atomic Energy Agency photos recently revealed a new nuclear enrichment facility near Damascus, and Syria has consistently prevented inspectors from visiting it and similar sites.

Lastly, Syria has provided transportation, housing, training, weapons, supplies and funding to jihadists who have fought and killed U.S. troops in Iraq.

The logic of the Obama administration was that, via a combination of carrots, meaning talks and economic incentives, and sticks, namely sanctions, Bashar al-Assad’s government would cease these policies and sever its alliance with its main benefactor, Iran. Furthermore, Obama attempted to revive Israel-Syria peace talks—that is, coerce Israel into giving up the vitally strategic Golan Heights to Damascus in exchange for a piece of paper.

There are several problems with the diplomatic engagement strategy: It legitimizes the Syrian regime, rewards it for its present behavior, and sends a negative and confusing signal to our allies in the region. Furthermore, the policy ignores the fact that Assad must resist Israel and the United States to gain support and legitimacy in the eyes of his people. The need to do this is underscored by the fact that the dictator is an Alawite, a branch of Shiite Islam that is deemed heretical by Syria’s majority-Sunni population.

Regardless, the Obama regime ignored all of these facts in the vain hope that this despot, in Hillary Clinton’s words, was a “reformer.”

Now, the dramatic protests that have rocked the country have revealed two things, the first of which is that Assad is a brutal tyrant. While he has not yet surpassed his father, whose army massacred at least 20,000 Syrians at Hama in 1982, he presumably hopes to. Second, it exposes the fact that the Damascus government is fragile and clearly nervous.

Instead, Obama should firmly back the Syrian people, albeit not through military intervention, in their quest for economic, political and social opportunity, dignity, and justice while isolating the Assad government. What better way to stand for both U.S. principles and interests?

Some claim that if Assad falls, Islamists may take control of the country. I understand this argument and, because of the influence of these radicals, I am extremely skeptical and worried about a post-Mubarak Egypt, not to mention the situations in Bahrain, Yemen and Libya. In Syria, however, this is an unlikely possibility, considering that Islamists would probably have to share power with numerous other groups. Furthermore, as made abundantly clear, the regime in Damascus cannot get much worse than it currently is.

Let us hope then that Obama overcomes his predilection toward Assad and other anti-American dictators like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez, often at the expense of U.S. interests and allies, and genuinely supports the Syrian protesters.