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EDITORIAL: Obama’s Syrian conflict

‘Leading from behind’ exposes White House weakness

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 8, 2011

NATO warplanes subjected Tripoli to hours of heavy bombing on Tuesday, apparently hunting Libyan leader and international outcast Moammar Gadhafi. But as NATO's mission to protect Libyan civilians continued, so did Bashar Assad's mission to gun down demonstrators against his regime in Syria. Over a thousand have been killed and reports emerging from the country indicate worse things are coming.

The high-minded rhetoric the Obama administration used to justify military intervention in the conflict in Libya, which the White House inexplicably refuses to call a war, has been more muted when it comes to the situation in Syria. Yet as conditions in Syria worsen, the administration's credibility gap grows. On Tuesday, human-rights groups appearing at the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands charged the Assad regime with committing crimes against humanity. They accused Syrian authorities of having killed more than 1,168 innocent people since March 15, which is more than the number estimated killed by the Gadhafi regime that prompted United Nations intervention. At this point, the logical conclusion is either that jumping into the Libyan civil war was a mistake, or failing to intervene decisively in Syria is a crime against the shocked conscience.

In May, President Obama signed an executive order that imposed economic sanctions on the Assad government and identified Syria as "an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States." In his May 19 policy address on the Middle East, Mr. Obama delivered an ultimatum that, "President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition [to democracy] or get out of the way." But in the three weeks since the speech, Mr. Assad has chosen a third path, clinging to power and ruthlessly suppressing any who challenge his authoritarian rule. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama didn't establish any certain consequences should Mr. Assad ignore his ultimatum. Last month, in the New Yorker magazine, an unnamed presidential adviser proudly described Mr. Obama's foreign policy style as "leading from behind," but as Mr. Assad is brutally demonstrating, those who lead from the front have a distinct advantage.

While Mr. Obama lingers in the rear, Britain and France have taken the lead in formulating a U.N. response to the Syrian crisis. The two countries are seeking passage of a Security Council resolution that will contain tough language but fall short of authorizing the use of force. The balancing act is dictated by politics; Russia and China are likely to use their Security Council vetoes on any bill with language similar to that of UNSCR 1973, which authorized intervention in Libya.

While diplomatic efforts continue, the next big Syrian tragedy is rapidly developing in the western town of Jisr al-Shughour. The state-run media reports that over the weekend, "violent clashes erupted between the police and [armed] groups" in the city, "which used medium-size firearms, machine-guns, grenades and RPGs." Damascus claims the bandits killed 120 pro-regime security forces. However, accounts pieced together from Internet posts and statements from opposition groups indicate that Syrian troops sent to occupy the town mutinied and turned their guns on loyalist soldiers. Damascus has locked out all foreign press so it's hard to confirm any of the reports, though Syrian state television reported that people in the city "are urging the army to intervene speedily." Such a report is obviously Damascus laying the groundwork for a crushing intervention. Exposing the lie is a YouTube video posted by a resident showing the words "Jisr al-Shughour doesn't want the army to come in" painted on a main road.

Mr. Obama described Syria as "an unusual and extraordinary threat" to the United States, but he seems to lack the will to do much about it. The primary objective of his "leadership from behind" is to make sure Mr. Obama can claim credit if things work out and dodge responsibility as the death toll rises. There are several ways to describe this approach, but "leadership" is not one of them.

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