Saudi Arabia, Gulf states give U.S. a lesson in human rights

The Syrian crisis reached a turning point today as Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from the country. These countries intimated that they would sever all ties and support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if he didn’t stop murdering his own people or resign.

The United States, by contrast, has kept its ambassador in Syria and has refused to explicitly call for President Assad to step down. Symbolism, rhetoric and perceptions matter. And while America has condemned the Assad regime and pressured it to end the violence, the U.S. has not done enough.

Most people wouldn’t view Bahrain or Saudi Arabia as champions of human rights after their behavior during the Arab Spring. But by their actions today, Saudi Arabia and its neighbors have taken a clear stand in support of human rights, and have upstaged the United States in the effort to end the suffering in Syria.

President Assad had blood-stained hands long before the current crackdown. The Assad regime has been a long-time state sponsor of terrorism, has actively undermined democratic reforms in countries such as Lebanon and Iraq, has actively pursued nuclear weapons and has been a long-time ally and supporter of Iran. And in 1982, Assad’s father (then Syria’s president) ordered a brutal crackdown to suppress an opposition movement in Hama that killed approximately 20,000 of his own people.

In 2005, Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated, and all signs pointed to Syria and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah. President Bush decided he had had enough with Syria’s intransigence and support of terrorism, and recalled the U.S. ambassador to Syria. This sent a clear signal that the United States would not tolerate Syria’s behavior anymore, that it would work to isolate and cripple the Assad regime and that it would support democratic activists inside the country.

From 2005 to 2010, Syria continued to sponsor terrorism and disrupt democratic reforms in the Middle East. And in 2007, an Israeli airstrike revealed that Syria had been working on a nuclear bomb right under the nose of the IAEA. Despite these worrying signs, President Obama attempted to extend a hand of cooperation to the Syrian regime by sending a U.S. ambassador to the country.

President Obama nominated Robert Ford for the post in February 2010. But congressional Republicans blocked the nomination, arguing that Obama’s efforts to engage hostile nations like Iran had failed. President Obama went around Congress by using a recess appointment to appoint Ford in December 2010.

Ford has done an admirable job of bringing attention to the Assad regime’s brutal murder of civilians, most notably by visiting Hama and meeting with opposition members. But Ambassador Ford, at the direction of the U.S. government, has not called for Assad to step down. And there is only so much Ford is allowed to do inside Syria since he is a guest of the Assad government. Therefore, it is high time for the White House to recall its ambassador and unequivocally call for President Assad to resign.

The White House has refused to do either of these things. Administration officials believe these actions would be purely symbolic and wouldn’t have much of a practical effect. What they don’t understand is that steps like these can lead to practical effects. And even if they don’t, sometimes symbolism and rhetoric are important by themselves, because they demonstrate the U.S.’s commitment to freedom, peace and human dignity.