The Obama administration ought to resist calls from neoconservatives and hawks, including the ever-hawkish Washington Post, and opt for dialogue with Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria.
It’s a difficult problem, but the fact remains that there’s little or nothing that President Obama can do to force regime change in Syria. (In other countries, too, it’s not so easy. In Libya, three months of a US- and NATO-led war have failed to topple Muammar Qaddafi. In Bahrain, where the United States has lots more leverage and contacts, the royal family there is resisting change.)
But on June 20, Assad provided an important opening for a dialogue. Speaking at Damascus University, Assad announced his intent to create a 100-member “national dialogue authority” that could lead to the amendment of Syria’s constitution and elections. Yesterday, there were two important developments in the bloody conflict that has spread to cities across Syria. First, Assad said that the dialogue would begin on July 10. Second, an unprecedented meeting of 200 Syrian opposition figures convened at the Semiramis Hotel in Damascus, in which activists declared their support for the “popular uprising seeking a peaceful transition to a democratic, civil and pluralistic state.”
Some activists, including several of those who organized the opposition meeting, refused to attend, citing the harsh crackdown by Syrian security forces. But many others did attend. Those who went to the meeting didn’t try to represent the street protesters, but they seemed to have the same goal, calling for an end to the crackdown, the release of political prisoners, the withdrawal of the army from Syria’s cities and an investigation of the killings.
Doing what Obama’s team ought to be doing, Representative Dennis Kucinich is in Syria to explore the possibility of dialogue, and he said that he’d meet with all sides, including “democracy activists, non-governmental organizations, small business owners, civilians as well as government officials.”
Over the weekend, the Post slammed what they call Obama’s inaction on Syria, noting that Obama seems to believe that the crisis “could still be ended through reforms by the dictator.” In a huff, the Post added that Obama “has declined to say that Mr. Assad is an illegitimate ruler or that he should leave office.” Of course, by saying those things, Obama can’t force Assad to quit, yet such statements grease the slippery slope toward another Libya, which would be opposed strongly by Russia and China. (In fact, the attack on Libya may have reinforced the bloodshed in Syria. In the northwest corner of the country, the Syrian armed forces have engaged in an especially bloody assault on a handful of towns near the Turkish border, perhaps because Assad is concerned about the emergence of a Benghazi-style, rebel-held enclave. In that case, the United States and NATO might decide to replay its Libyan humanitarian intervention by force to prevent the government from retaking the towns.) Even the New York Times, far less hawkish than the Post, said in an editorial: “Obama has done too little to rally international support” against Assad. Meanwhile, organizations such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy are beating the drum for tougher action against Syria by the United States.
Protests are spreading across the country, although reporting is spotty and too many media accounts simply replay opposition reports of the demonstrations, casualties and actions. Still, hundreds of Syrians have been killed by the army and the police, and hundreds of thousands took to the streets again last Friday, with as many as 200,000 reported in Hama alone. Yet so far it appears that the Syrian middle class, business people and some minorities who fear the opposition’s Sunni-dominated makeup have refused to support the anti-government uprising and, despite scattered reports to the contrary, the Syrian armed forces is holding together. The question for Obama is: Why not back the opposition groups who met in Damascus, support the July 10 dialogue and push for reform not just in theory but concretely? Is Obama counting on a complete and total revolution in Syria, as unlikely as that may be, or is he willing to accept a slow and halting process that leads to the opening of the political process?