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.
President Obama made a similar error when he decided to engage Iran in early 2009. Although Iran continued to spread terrorism and violence across the Middle East, Obama reached out in friendship to President Ahmadinejad. This only emboldened the Iranian dictator. And when Ahmadinejad stole the 2009 presidential election, President Obama initially refused to support the Iranian opposition and call for Ahmadinejad to resign.
Would calling on Ahmadinejad to step down have made a practical difference? Maybe not. But maybe it would have, by encouraging dissidents and protestors in Iran — just as it might encourage the dissidents and protestors in Syria today. And no matter what, it would have sent a clear message that the U.S. would firmly oppose any nation that suppressed and murdered its own people.
President Obama later did voice his support for the Iranian dissidents, apparently recognizing that symbolism and rhetoric do matter. But by then it was too late. The Iranian opposition had been crushed and Ahmadinejad had solidified his grip on power.
Today, the United States is repeating that mistake. But countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are not. They realize that perceptions and rhetoric matter, and they know that acts of symbolism might pressure President Assad to step down or embolden his opponents. Critics might argue that the Arab states have just taken this position to maintain support for their own regimes. That might be true. But what matters is what they are doing, not why they are doing it.
It’s also true that Saudi Arabia hasn’t called for Assad to step down. But the Saudis implied it, and they stopped just short of saying so. For a country like Saudi Arabia to make that kind of statement is just as significant as it would be for the United States to call on President Assad to step down.
The United States is rightly concerned about what would happen if Assad left. But Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Arab states also share this concern, and it hasn’t stopped them from doing what is right. The U.S. also wants to keep a diplomatic presence on the ground in Syria to monitor the situation. But this can be done without keeping an ambassador there, or by using information from other governments and aid groups.
The United States must follow Saudi Arabia’s lead, or risk losing its legitimacy on human rights.
David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.