The White House is ever so reluctantly realizing that subcontracting out its Syria policy to Mr. Annan or to other takers when the looming crisis demands mature, steady, imaginative, and alibi-avoiding strategies is undermining U.S. standing throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world.
Yet, Obama administration officials keep gravitating to the simplistic notion that when it comes to Syria, there is no Plan B, since Plan B may compel direct U.S. military intervention. Yes, there can be no Plan B when the administration resists having to come up with one.
But I can drive a ten-wheeler between existing U.S. policy and putting boots on Syrian ground. I call that Plan C.
How did the U.S. get to the point where the White House has taken most options off the table, even those that correspondingly mitigate the risk of overt military involvement against Syria?
Certainly, there are risks associated with further involvement, even if strictly humanitarian. The Syrian opposition is fragmented. The UN Security Council is deeply divided as well as our European allies who are understandably preoccupied with the Eurozone crisis. Assad is backed by Russia, China, Iran, and Hezbollah. And it is awfully difficult to figure out how to tip the waning support Assad has from Syrian minorities, who rightfully fear the resurrection of a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syria. Although Mrs. Clinton yet again called on Assad to go, I simply can’t help myself but believe the Obama administration just cannot convince itself that it would be better for U.S. strategic interests and the Syrian people to help jettison the “devil they know.”
Nevertheless, we have reached a point in Syria where failure to exert imaginative and bold leadership is becoming a stain on our flag. I never thought I would see the day in a Democratic administration where alibi and ever-shifting objectives are the norm, when the U.S. committed itself to the side of justice and freedom in the Middle East when Obama visited Cairo in June, 2009. The very White House NSC officials and their Washington think tank allies who championed the loudest for humanitarian intervention in Libya are strangely silent. That silence in this capital is deafening! Sadly, with each passing day of death in Syria, the Obama Administration’s national security staff is running out of places in which to hide their heads in the sand.
The American people deserve from their government a Syria policy that does not emotionally rocket the U.S. into an unpopular military intervention there, but befits our nation's global aspirations and its long-term strategic goals in the Middle East; not election-year "making it up as events dictate" ad hoc-itis.
Even before the oxymoronic April 10th U.N. Kofi Annan "cease fire," the U.S. first punted to the Arab League in the hope that the real League powers, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar, would find ways to reign in Assad's "kill 'em all" instincts in the name of fraternal Arab relations. No dice. Assad kept up the massacres.
When that failed, the U.S. then turned to Turkey, urging Ankara to take the lead on Syria. After all, Turkey had invested mightily in building a relationship with Assad, and when Assad breached that trust, Ankara started turning the screws. Turkey began shielding the nascent Free Syrian Army and provided safe haven to the thousands of Syrian civilians seeking refuge inside Turkey. Ankara also provided a base for the nascent Syrian National Council. It looked like Turkey was beginning to exert real leadership that would accord the U.S. a safe haven for its Syria "punt” policy.
But when the Turks, and their Arab League allies decided that it was time to get really tough on Syria by implementing a plan to create humanitarian corridors, provide financial support and covert lethal assistance from Libya that Qatar would retransfer back via Turkey, the White House developed a bad case of diplomatic cold feet, afraid that unleashing the Turks and the Arab League against Syria would compel the U.S. to be dragged into the conflict if anything went wrong.
Meanwhile, the death toll had exceeded 10,000 (let alone the tens of thousands of innocent Syrians injured or tortured by this thuggish dictatorship of a deplorable regime).
After the White House pulled the rug out from Turkey and Saudi Arabia it threw its lot in with Kofi Annan's utterly naïve six point peace plan. The U.S. was not naïve about Assad's intentions (certain he would use the cover of UN peacekeepers to continue the massacres). But even the White House was caught off guard by Assad's brazen suffocation of Annan's peace baby in the crib.
Then, the White House came up with another gambit. It would toss the Syrian hot potato to the Russians. The very Russians who on one hand were feigning support for a UN peace plan, while pouring in guns and ammunition into Assad's hands to keep him fully loaded. Always harkening backwards to gravitate to what either succeeded or failed, the Obama team began leaking to the media that it would seek to convince the Russians to join in a "Yemen-style solution" whereby Assad (like his Yemeni counterpart) would excruciatingly slowly yield power.
Let's be real. If Assad were looking for a graceful exit he wouldn't be wantonly massacring women and children. So much for having the Russians pulling the plug on their Alouite protégé.
So what is a better Plan C if the White House has run out of any Plan B's?
First, Moscow simply cannot have it both ways. It has to be called out internationally for continuing to resupply Assad's armed forces under the cover of a peace plan it claims to be supporting. Even if the Russians veto it, the U.S. should be pushing for a UN Security Council resolution demanding that all countries cease providing arms to the combatants and dare Moscow (or China) to veto it. Russia has avoided the real wrath it deserves from the court of world public opinion and from Arab nations for fueling the violence in Syria. It is engaged in the diplomatic equivalent of felony murder by enabling Assad to violate the U.N. Security Council's unanimously approved plan.
Second, the Houla massacre was not the first straw, nor it will be the last straw—as we just heard from reports, there are even more atrocities being committed outside the prying eyes of UN observers. These incidents of atrocities should compel the European Union to file appropriate indictments before the International Criminal Court accusing Assad and his immediate siblings of crimes against humanity. Delegitimizing this regime is a crucial step to halt the crimes and it is simply lame for the administration to assert that by doing so it undercuts a "Yemen-type solution," which is not in the cards.
Third, it's time for a "Kofi Break" and send the former Secretary General back to his rocking chair. The fact that the seemingly clueless Annan was found in Damascus when news of the Houla massacre seeped out smiling warmly and shaking hands with Assad reminds me of what former Secretary of State Baker was quoted as saying when told he was up against Warren Christopher in the Florida 2000 voting challenge: “It’s like going into a knife fight with Howdy Doody.”
The vainglorious Annan will never concede Assad outsmarted him. Annan, like many another meek, milquetoast diplomats before him, is out-gunned and out of his league. Most importantly, he is out of credibility. There are plenty of other diplomats around with real backbone to deal with Assad. How about James Baker himself, Madeleine Albright, or Henry Kissinger? Each have more guts than Annan ever will hope to have.
Fourth, the longer the U.S. wrings its hands about providing lethal arms to the Free Syrian Forces, the more likely that a radicalized anti-American regime will emerge from the ruins of the Assad dynasty. If the U.S. can't get itself to do the right thing by covertly supporting Assad's opponents, then get out of the way and stop throwing every manner of cold diplomatic water on the Turks and the Arab League, if they intend to step up to the plate.
It is getting dangerously late for the Obama administration to get on the right side of history in Syria. It erroneously asserts that further militarization of the conflict will only fuel a spillover into neighboring countries. How wrong it is. As the administration resists giving the green light to Turkey and the Arab League to provide covert military assistance to the Syrian opposition, the conflict has already spilled over into Lebanon and Iraq. There have been outbreaks of Shiite-Sunni confrontations in and around Beirut while Assad is radicalizing his own people by the minute. Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists are pouring across the border from neighboring Iraq and Lebanon to fill the vacuum created by the thirst for vengeance among Assad's victims. The horrific bombings in Damascus in recent weeks could very well be the evil work of al Qaeda and its Sunni fellow travelers.
Fifth, the air space in and out of Syria should be scrutinized for any international carrier hauling military equipment into Syria. If the U.N. refuses to act in unison against the Russian and Iranian arms resupplies, then the U.S. and its European Union allies should sanction any air cargo or shipping company that is reasonably suspected of funneling arms to Assad.
Sixth, if we leave the feckless Syrian opposition to figure out how to coalesce, there will never be a legitimate opposition to Assad. The time has come for the U.S., the EU, Turkey, and the Arab League to adopt a joint approach toward bringing some much needed order out of the chaotic Syrian opposition. The urgency of the project is all the more acute instead of standing by the sidelines criticizing Assad's opponents for failing to agree among themselves.
Seventh, time for armchair generals to get out the way. The Syrian people from the major cities of Aleppo and Homs to the small towns such as Houla are desperately short of food and medicine. Assad has prevented every form of humanitarian relief from reaching his victims, who are perishing by the minute. To temporarily alleviate this human suffering, and notwithstanding Assad's threats to prevent the aid, the Arab Red Crescent Society should be leading a humanitarian airlift under the protection of U.N. cargo planes protected by U.S., Turkish, Arab, and EU air forces to facilitate the delivery of crucial humanitarian supplies. If Assad's forces intervene, then he should be subjected to an aviation and maritime quarantine barring flights in and out of Damascus or the Syrian port of Latakia to any country supporting the humanitarian relief operation.
Eighth, the U.S. and its European allies have not adequately pulled the economic sanctions lever on Syria's banking institutions. Syria's national bank and collateral financial institutions have not been subjected to the same sanctions the U.S. has cleverly orchestrated against Iran's financial institutions. Why not? What is the U.S. and its European allies waiting for?
I have no doubt that Assad and his mafia-like nuclear family have instructed their subordinates to hang together or they will hang separately. Dislodging the likes of Assad and his clique may take a total domestic uprising. Short of that it will not be easy removing this tyrant and this internationally-rogue regime in time to avoid the complete radicalization of Syria under a more extremist Sunni movement. But there is an urgency to try what we can short of boots on the ground because it just may succeed where inaction is doomed to fail.
The longer it takes for the Obama administration to drop the "why we can't" and embrace a "yes we can" to a new, more robust Syrian policy, the more likely there will be NO plan that can be thrown together by the U.S., the UN, or even the Russians in time before Syria descends into the darkness of an all-out, protracted civil war that will engulf neighboring states.
Assad, unlike Yemen's Saleh, but very much like Libya's Gaddafi, is bent on taking his country down with him. Even if he chooses to die in the Bashar Bunker having killed every last Syrian opposed to him, there is every U.S. interest at stake I can think of to prevent that nightmare from happening, short of slip sliding into another Middle East war.
Ambassador Marc Ginsberg began his foreign policy career as a foreign affairs advisor during his freshman year in college to Senator Edward M. Kennedy (1971-1977). In 1994, he was appointed by President Clinton as U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, making him the first American of Jewish heritage to be appointed to an Arab nation. Currently, Ambassador Ginsberg is President of Layalina Television, the first U.S. philanthropic producer of commercial Arabic language television for broadcasting in the Arab world, and a Senior Vice President of APCO Worldwide.
Photo: A Syrian girl looks out from behind the fence at Yayladagi refugee camp in Turkey's Hatay province near the Syrian border, April 10, 2012. International envoy Kofi Annan said there should be no preconditions to halting violence in Syria. REUTERS/Umit Bektas.
This article was originally published in the July/August edition of the Diplomatic Courier.