July 12th, 2011
04:43 PM ET

A sea change in Washington's policy toward Syria

Editor's Note: Andrew J. Tabler is the Next Generation Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the forthcoming book In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.

By Andrew J. Tabler – Special to CNN

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement yesterday that Syria’s Bashar al President Assad is “not indispensable, and we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power” is the latest public signal of a quiet sea change in U.S.-Syria policy over the past few weeks.

For months, Washington took a careful, cautious approach to the protests in Syria. Bashar al-Assad leads a minority Alawite-dominated regime, whose members command the country’s security agencies and armed forces. This strengthened Assad's hand and mitigated the risk of the armed forces splitting off and turning against the regime as in Egypt and Tunisia. Assad was also helped by the fact that the protests largely took place in rural areas, far away from Syria’s urban centers.

But as the regime doubled down on violence as a strategy for maintaining control, killing an estimated 1,500 civilians to date and arresting more than 12,000 people throughout the country, Washington took note.  Protests spread in number and intensity.

The Syrian regime’s battle with protestors in Tel Khallak along the Syrian-Lebanese frontier, as well as in Jisr as-Shaghour along Syria’s border with Turkey caused thousands of people to flee their homes and turned the Syrian uprising into an international humanitarian crisis.

Most recently, Washington watched as the Assad regime threatened more violence to quell peaceful protestors in the Syrian city of Hama– where the regime massacred 30,000 people in 1982.

U.S. ambassador Robert Ford’s visit to Hama last week showed very clearly that unlike in 1982, the regime’s actions at Hama will not go unnoticed.

Taking a page out of its standard playbook, the Assad regime attempted to cast the protests as the work of “foreign interference”. It sent pro-Assad supporters to attack and scale the walls of the U.S embassy in Damascus, including spray painting graffiti on the embassy’s walls describing Ford as a “dog” and hoisting the Syrian flag over the embassy’s chancery (albeit for a short time).

No embassy personnel were hurt, but the attack marked a turning point in U.S.-Syrian relations. Even before Clinton’s strong statements on Assad, who she added “has lost (his) legitimacy”, Robert Ford’s posting on Facebook pointed out the irony of the attack.

“I have not seen the police assault a “mnhebak” demonstration yet,” Ford wrote, in reference to “You (Bashar) are Our Beloved” slogan used by pro-Assad protesters throughout the country. “On July 9 a “mnhebak” group threw rocks at our embassy, causing some damage. They resorted to violence, unlike the people in Hama, who have stayed peaceful. Go look at the Ba’ath or police headquarters in Hama– no damage that I saw.”

U.S.-Syria policy is changing for the better. While we can’t yet discern exactly what measures the Obama Administration will ultimately use against the Assad regime, we can expect more designations of individuals responsible for the regime’s brutal crackdown. Behind the scenes, U.S policymakers are focusing moves against Syrian energy as well. In the meantime, we all can expect stronger public statements and possibly more visits by U.S. ambassador Robert Ford to besieged Syrian cities.

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Topics: Diplomacy • Strategy • Syria • United States

soundoff (41 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    Robert Ford should persuade his peers from the western countries to follow suit. If he can gather a couple more ambassadors in Damascus to join him, he would have more strength. Just he and the French Ambassador alone made the whole mission look weak.

    July 12, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
    • Chuck

      The simple fact that Syria does not have a free press and does not allow journalists from outside of their country to enter and report should be enough to untie the hands of leaders around the world to openly and without reservation unleash their disdain for this tyrant.

      July 14, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  2. sjdsh

    The Assad regime cast the protests as the work of “foreign interference”.
    *He's exactly right. Just as we did in Libya.
    HISTORY:Syria adamantly opposed the US invasion of Iraq and made no secret about it. In 2005, president Bush authorized funds for the political opposition to Assad’s regime. Obama has continued the same policy toward Syria while pursuing a diplomacy of rapprochement at more official levels. Wikileaks has provided information showing that US intelligence became aware in 2009 that Syrian intelligence knew of the two-tiered US foreign policy toward Damascus – one intended to improve relations and the other to undercut the regime through covert channels by working with opposition groups.
    June14/2011
    NorAm Intelligence European and Middle Eastern intelligence sources report that U.S. military helicopters launched an extremely rare attack Sunday on Syrian territory close to Damascus. According to intelligence sources on the ground, some of the helicopters landed and troops exited the aircraft and fired on buildings.
    Concentrations of such large marine and air forces next to Syria’s borders shows that the United States is preparing for the possibility of the invasion of Syria and Lebanon.

    July 12, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
    • Mike

      The only army I see around here is your 50-cent army.

      July 14, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • mobrule

      do foil hats come with straps, or do you count on your pointy head to keep them on?

      July 14, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
      • John Nemesh

        Everyone laughs at the conspiracy theorist....until they are proven right!

        July 14, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  3. Onesmallvoice

    That Hilary Clinton turns my stomach upside down with her unlimited arrogance and self righteousness. Who is that broad anyway to say whether or not Bashir al Assad must go? And who is she to decide Syria's future???

    July 13, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • albert

      She is the secretary of state for the worlds only superpower in the world. So basically she can say whatever she wants to.

      July 14, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • Steve

      If she turns your stomach upside down, who knows what you may have coming out of your mouth. Hillary is one of the most respected Secretaries of State there ever has been. She is intelligent and tough and when she speaks other nations listen. She would have made a great President....hopefully there's still time to make that happen.

      July 14, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
      • Sabot

        You are on crack

        July 15, 2011 at 4:03 am |
  4. socalgal

    This administration wouldn't know a policy if it came up and emblazoned itself across their foreheads.

    July 14, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • Alex Gessong

      @socalgal: no doubt you preferred the policies if the previous administration. You know, stuff like torture, use of secret prisons, and warrantless wretaps. You conservatives are so mindless in your hatred of the President that you totally ignore reality. Try to get a grip. Stop being a Republican and start trying to be an American again.

      July 14, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
      • Sharp

        You tell em. These trailer park degenerate Fascists wouldn't know good government if it bit them on the butt.

        July 15, 2011 at 2:07 am |
      • Asterisk

        i agree

        July 15, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  5. The Donald Rumsfeld

    nuke'em

    July 14, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  6. ART

    Send in seal team 6

    July 14, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
  7. Aka

    Cant wait for a new invasion to take place, cmon the US go and join in, take Britain and France as well.

    July 14, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Onesmallvoice

      Such is to be expected from people like you, The Donald Rumsfeld, ART and Aka with your obvious limitations. No wonder the Tea Party Movement is growing fast with ignorance such as yours running rampant across the country!!!

      July 14, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
      • US born & bread

        Onesmallvoice , What country are you talking about? If we let peoiple like you have what they wan't we won't last a year before we become a third wold country. We need to start letting the world destroy it's self and worry about our own.

        July 15, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  8. Aka

    Onesmallvoice, the peaceful way of solving problems is gone and has not worked, its time we tried war and ended it all, it has to be a fight to the finish.

    for the world to have peace we need to start the war and also end it, otherwise if we keep on moving the way we have we shall just postpone war.

    July 14, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • Alex Gessong

      @Aka: so, how many countries do we need to invade? And how do we pay for all of these wars? Maybe hold a bake sale? The Iraq war was supposed to pay for itself through oil revenues. Instead, it has cost us nearly two trillion dollars and thousands of American lives. Let's finish the three "wars" we're currently in before we talk about starting others. Besides, it's time for the Arab states themselves to step in and restore peace to Syria (and Libya). They have more at stake in this than we do.

      July 14, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  9. john

    too little too late woman. just say it. you dont care about syria. there is no oil or gold in the place. why lose american aircraft and lives for a poor country. libya has oil , gold and a fat bank accoun. go get it girl

    July 14, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
  10. Lee Oates

    We are slowly drifting into a full-scale world war III, and like Rome, we will collapse under the financial and human costs. But on the other hand, the enormous loss of life in a short period may save the planet from species extinction due to pollution, environmental degradation, and over population.

    July 14, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • RealistRalph

      Actually... if we look at the country and its place in the world rationally and without Rose or Indigo tinted glasses, the United States may have a better chance than its predecessors. I don't think the President will lose on these debt talks, but if he takes us to that place where we don't pay back our money then the country will be in a strange spot. A military alliance is flexing its muscles. Big fat reminder that there is one massive war elephant in the room when you are a developing country.

      July 15, 2011 at 12:32 am |
  11. Peikovian

    A religious minority rules Syria through the support of the military, financing from Iran, one unopposed political party and the dicatorship of the Assad family. They have interfered with the internal affairs of Lebanon and have funded the terrorist group Hezbollah. A nonviolent Syrian secular republic representing the majority sunnis should be the goal of all interested nations.

    July 14, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
    • canadiansyrian

      peikovian ,its a racist minority alawis or the original name Nousairi.

      July 14, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
  12. sick and tired

    I think it's time the U.S. reviews its policy of not assisinating heads of state. Some people in this world so clearly deserve to be terminated.

    July 14, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
  13. canadiansyrian

    the true change would happened when the dead count reach`s 100 thousand.then the west would feel BAD!.
    till when the 11% alawi minority will keep slaughtering the 65% majority,it`s been 40 years of a dark chapter in syria`s history.
    what realy scares me is that the us would keep looking the other way to keep the alawi in power.Bush himself looked the other way when Assad and the rest of his alawi minority kept sending suicid bombers to iraq and killed americans soldiers,
    doing exactly what assads father Hafez did to kill american marines in Bayrut in 82.
    if they did`nt care about their soldiers,why would they care about stupid syrian,please , can somebody tell me.

    July 14, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  14. AJkoolbrat

    It's funny listening Hillary talk about a loss of legitimacy. Shortly she will not have her job, so her words are ringing a little hollow....

    July 14, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
  15. Mike Stein

    she's looking good looks like she's 10 years younger...she looks hot

    July 14, 2011 at 10:51 pm |
  16. Mike

    Do any of you remember what happened when we ignored the genocides in uganda, kosovo, sierra leone, and Sudan? For all we know this could turn into government sanctioned genocide! Western nations need to be proactive for once and head this kind of thing off before it gets out of hand. In case you people forgot we are all humans and if they are suffering we need to offer them our aid since they are fellow humans. good day to you.

    July 14, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
  17. Sabot

    We started on Libya because it was like a senior beating up a fourth grader, not very successful so far. The rest of the Middle east we will say that what is happening is bad, but won't do anything about it. Democrats just don't have a clue on how to deal with Nations that hate us.

    July 15, 2011 at 4:06 am |
    • bruce

      Yes, Democrats should do it like the REPUBS.... 17 MILLION dollars an hour in Afghanistan and Iraq... Right....

      July 17, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  18. SarahPalin

    Why can't Hilary just keep her mouth shut. Like me. Oh wait. Never mind.

    July 15, 2011 at 9:06 am |
  19. rightospeak

    Sounds like a new war to me. We do not like someone -regime change. What the media does not tell you -it is about a Russian navy base. We want to rule there . Syrian people ?-what do they know ? We care about wars more than our people-spend more on wars ,cut Medicare, SS -that is the direction of our regime. Hard to have faith in a government that does not work for the best interests of its people. Is that what Syrian government is being accused off ?

    July 16, 2011 at 7:56 am |
  20. emunadate

    3 things you should know about Islam...
    http://emunadate.blogspot.com/2011/03/three-things-about-islam-mirror.html

    July 16, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
  21. bruce

    Great, we can open up a FOURTH war, borrow more money from Aisa and turn our nation into Somalia.

    July 17, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Ben

      Then we can all be pirates! Yo ho ho ho, a pirate's life for me....

      July 17, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  22. Ben

    Didn't the US contract with Syria to interrogate "terrorists"? Sure, now that they've become a liability, dump them! They don't have oil.

    July 17, 2011 at 7:40 pm |

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