Cliff May

Assad himself is a curious figure: a 45-year-old British educated ophthalmologist who inherited his father’s power after his older, smarter brother died in a car accident. His wife, Asma al-Assad, is more likely to wear Prada than a burqa. Indeed, in March she was the subject of a Vogue profile which gushingly called her “A Rose in the Desert,” “glamorous,” “very chic – the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.”

Vogue neglected to ask her to comment on her husband’s oppression at home, his support for terrorism abroad, his request that the Pope apologize for the Crusades, or his charge that the Jews tried to murder the Prophet Muhammad.

But then, how many Western diplomats and politicians have pressed these issues? For years, Arlen Spector, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi and other leading lights of Congress were convinced that Assad was a moderate -- or at least could be induced to moderate. Assad also has been viewed as the key to a settlement of the Arab/Israeli conflict. The basis for such visions was never apparent.

They persisted even after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, when Assad welcomed terrorists from all over the Muslim world and then sent them over the border to spill American and Iraqi blood.

Nevertheless, only a month ago, President Obama was calling on Assad to lead “a transition” to democracy. More recently, and especially after Assad’s thugs, on July 11, attacked the U.S. embassy in Damascus while Assad’s security forces averted their eyes, American rhetoric has hardened a bit. Now Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are saying Assad “is losing legitimacy” and is “not indispensible.”

Stronger medicine is needed if the U.S. is to assist the astonishingly brave Syrians who are fighting and dying to oust Assad – an outcome that is unambiguously in the U.S. and Western interest. To that end, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), whose board of directors includes William Kristol, Robert Kagan and Dan Senor, last week issued a “fact sheet” of “five steps to hasten Assad’s exit.”

The first would be for President Obama to “unequivocally” call for Assad to step down – as he did when Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak – whose misdeeds never approached those of Assad – became the object of widespread protests.

The second would be for the U.S. to impose much tougher unilateral sanctions and work for serious multilateral sanctions on Assad, his family and cronies, and to push for U.N. Security Council condemnation of the regime. As Tony Badran, a Levant expert at FDD wrote:

“The United States, along with Britain and France, is halfheartedly seeking to overcome Chinese and Russian objections to a Security Council resolution condemning Assad. … The position of the superpower, after all, matters.”

A third step would be to withdraw the U.S. ambassador and expel Syria’s envoy. Ambassador Robert Ford has done a commendable job – his visit to Hama, where protests were mounting, precipitated the assault on the U.S. embassy. But as the Council on Foreign Relations’ Elliott Abrams noted, unless Ford is now willing and able to ratchet up his “public displays of disgust with the regime and its behavior …there is no point in his remaining in Syria.”

Fourth: The U.S. should energetically support Syria’s referral to the U.N. Security Council for stonewalling the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which has been attempting to investigate Assad’s nuclear program – revealed only when the Israelis, in 2007, destroyed a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor secretly built with North Korean assistance.

Fifth, the U.S. could be encouraging Turkey to apply pressure on Assad. As FDD’s Gerecht also has pointed out, Turkish public opinion has turned against Assad making this the moment to challenge the strength and wisdom of Ankara’s “nonsectarian, pro-Muslim, ‘neo-Ottoman’ policy.”

I would add this: The U.S. should directly (though perhaps covertly) assist the liberal opposition movements in Syria. In recent days, Syrian dissidents have received secure communications technology – but from private sources, not the U.S. government.

It also would be helpful to increase both economic and diplomatic pressures on Iran and to support the Green Movement by providing its members as well with secure communications technology. The more Iran’s rulers are concerned about dissidents at home, the less they will be able to assist Assad who has been their Great Alawite Hope too: the living, breathing, murdering proof that it is possible for Arabs to accept Persians as leaders of the Muslim world and of the Grand Jihad against the West.

Assad’s ouster would be consequential. So, too, would be Assad’s survival. If there are any strategic thinkers inside Obama’s White House, Clinton’s State Department and what is about to become David Petraeus’ CIA, they will grasp that -- and act upon it.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.