Why are there so few options in Syria? After all, it is not every day that the Arab League favors the overthrow of a fellow Arab ruler. Or that the U.N. General Assembly — hardly a big critic of oppression in the Middle East — overwhelmingly approves a resolution condemning the violence and backing the Arab League plan urging Syria’s president to step aside. At the very least, the vote (137 for, 12 against and 17 abstentions) shows plenty of the coveted “international consensus” for removing Bashar Assad from power.
There are so few options because Syria is a unique case. Its regime has a huge military and a ruthless leader willing to use force against his people. And uncertainty about who the rebels really are, much less how to help them, makes aiding them problematic. International opposition to Mr. Assad exists, but there is little or no support for military intervention.
These are all legitimate reasons for caution. But is the situation worse than it should be? Has the Obama administration done things that unnecessarily constrain the options and make resolution of the crisis more difficult?
The answer is “yes,” in four parts.
First, there are the administration’s early statements of support for the Assad regime. Almost a year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Mr. Assad a reformer, indicating that the U.S. would not consider a military response to what it saw as a “police” response to violence in the streets. The administration now comes down harder on Mr. Assad, but its wavering lost valuable time in reaching out to and helping organize what is now a fragmented opposition movement. It also broadcast with a megaphone what should have been muted or left ambiguous — namely, that the U.S. was reluctant to back military intervention. All of this has emboldened Mr. Assad.
The second is the administration’s failure to stop Russia and China from vetoing a Security Council resolution threatening Syria with sanctions. The resolution underwent three revisions to get Moscow and Beijing on board. In the end, it didn’t even include the word “sanctions.” Only nine Security Council members voted for it; India, South Africa, Brazil and Lebanon abstained. Its failure sent another clear signal to Damascus that outside powers wouldn’t take action to stop the killings. In response, the regime escalated violence against its people.
It was not supposed to be this way. Mr. Obama’s famous “reset” policy to convince Moscow we meant it no harm was supposed to make Russia more supportive of U.S. initiatives. Instead, Russia has become more intractable. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has taken Mr. Obama’s measure and concluded that he need not give the Americans anything on Syria (or Iran, for that matter) and will pay no price for defying the U.S.
Yet another reason we have so few options is because increased instability in Iraq is spilling over into Syria. Sunni al Qaeda groups from Iraq reportedly have infiltrated rebel groups in Syria. Not only that, Nouri al-Maliki’s largely Shiite government has given lukewarm support, at best, for our efforts to oust Mr. Assad. Both of these problems complicate assisting the Syrian opposition movement. The U.S. could have exercised more influence over these events had Mr. Obama not rushed U.S. troops out of Iraq.
Finally, there is the aftermath of the confused way in which Mr. Obama handled the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, interpreted in the Middle East as abandonment of a longtime ally. Combined with Mr. Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq and his early bungled attempts to “engage” Iran, his actions toward Egypt left the unmistakable impression in the Middle East that the U.S. is no longer a trusted player in resolving the region’s conflicts.
A sad legacy, indeed, and one of the many reasons Syria is an even harder nut to crack.
• Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org). Follow him on Twitter @kimsmithholmes.