Sunday, August 7, 2011

For Some Arab Autocrats, The Goodbyes Are Longer

By Warren Strobel

At a press conference on Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at length about the Syrian government's brutal crackdown on protesters. But she was suddenly reticent when a reporter asked directly whether Syria's leader should leave power. "I think I've said all I can say," Clinton said. "I come from the school that actions speak louder than words." There have been words aplenty on Syria from the podia at the White House and State Department in recent weeks, as the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has intensified efforts to snuff out a dogged anti-government movement.

But a demand that Assad immediately leave power in Damascus has not been among them-in stark contrast to the position Washington adopted with other embattled Arab autocrats, namely Egypt's Hosni Mubarak (toppled in February) and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi (still there). The Obama administration's cautious use of language is more than a rhetorical curiosity. It has left some observers questioning where Washington really stands on Assad, dashed for now the hopes of Syria's still-nascent opposition, and highlighted how all Arab revolutions are not equal-at least in US policymakers' calculations.

At bottom, the White House hasn't demanded Assad's ouster because it has no means to enforce such an edict, analysts and former US officials say. Gripped by financial crisis, Washington has neither the spare firepower to topple the Assad government by force; the leverage years of military-to-military ties gave it in Egypt; or the international alliance that supported airstrikes on Gaddafi's pillars of power. Demanding that a leader go "is said when the regime is about ready to collapse," said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank, and author of a forthcoming book on Syria. "This is going to be a slow-motion train wreck.

Officials within the Obama administration who favor a cautious stance argue "if we say that (Assad must go), and the death toll goes up, don't we look really weak?" said a former US official with close administration ties. "At the end of the day what can we do? We're not going to bomb him," said the former official, who requested anonymity.


Not that the administration hasn't hardened its policy toward Assad, especially since Sunday, as Syrian tanks and security forces have besieged the city of Hama, killing an estimated 300 people. But it's done so over the last three months in carefully- painfully, some might say-calibrated rachetings up of rhetoric and economic sanctions. In a major Middle East speech May 19, President Barack Obama suggested he still saw some hope for the Syrian leader he once tried to court, saying Assad must "lead that transition (to democracy), or get out of the way.

But a month later, as the crisis deepened, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Assad's legitimacy was "open to question." Just two days later, on June 12, the White House declared that his legitimacy as a leader had, indeed, evaporated. On Tuesday, the White House crept even closer to the point of no return, without quite getting there: "Syria would be a better place without President Assad," spokesman Jay Carney said. The administration is also preparing sanctions on Syria's oil and gas sectors, which Tabler said account for between a quarter and a third of the government's revenue.

Such sanctions, experts say, are unlikely to have a major impact unless Europe, which purchases most of Syria's energy exports, participates muscularly. At a deeper level, the administration's hesitance to say a final goodbye to Assad appears rooted in fears about what comes next in a geographically vital nation with ethnic and confessional fault lines. Those fears likely have been reinforced by the scene in Libya, where the opposition, embraced first by some European governments and then by the United States, has failed to dislodge Gaddafi and is now divided into squabbling factions.

All of which leaves the impression that Obama and Clinton are not averse to Assad staying longer, if only just a little, while a smoother transition can be arranged. Others say the lesson of Libya is different, showing the danger that if the international community waits too long to act, it invites chaos. Libya proves "that if you procrastinate long enough, things start unraveling and the naysayers' arguments become reality," the former official said.- Reuters

This analysis was published in The Kuwait Times on 07/08/2011

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