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Amb. Marc Ginsberg

Amb. Marc Ginsberg

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Syria-Sly Mr. President, Turn the Heat Up on Assad

Posted: 04/11/11 02:24 AM ET

According to pre-historic Aloui belief (a minority Shiite sect) people at first were stars in the world of light, but fell from celestial orbit through disobedience. Faithful Alouis believe they must be transformed seven times before returning to take their place among the stars.

By my count, Syria's minority Alouite President Bashar Al Assad should rapidly confront his seventh and final transformation en route to joining a growing list of Middle Eastern deposed despots.

Since coming to accidental power in 2000 after his older brother was killed in a car crash, Bashar al Assad, like his father, Hafez al Assad before him, already has too much blood on his hands. Any lingering hope that the British-educated eye doctor would see the light and reform his creaky inheritance has long evaporated.

Under his rule scores of suicide bombers were given the red carpet treatment en route to joining Al Qaeda in Iraq. Assad has facilitated Iran's grand designs to transform Lebanon into a puppet Hezbollah state from which Iran could trigger yet another and far more bloody conflict against Israel. Terrorists regularly use Damascus as rest and refuel stop. The regime's prisons overflow with citizens who dare contest his regime. Syria's economy remains mired in quick sand.

Unconfirmed reports indicate that Syria's secret police have killed over 50 democracy protestors this weekend alone. That brings the unofficial total killed by Al Assad's secret police since protests began to over 300. The violence has now escalated to a point where the regime faces its greatest internal threat while the regime prepares for even bloodier actions against its opponents.

Taking a cue from his Tehran masters, Assad is following Iran's script... dismissing democracy protesters with barely disguised contempt while using every ounce of police brutality to suppress the dissent.

Clumsily, Assad appeared last week before his rubber-stamp parliament in a much anticipated address only to denounce alleged foreign agents beholden to Israel for orchestrating the unrest.

Rather than offer a tangible olive branch to redress grievances, he offered little in the way of meaningful reforms. Assad's prior pledge to end the despised state of emergency that has served as the regime's carte blanche to repress since 1963 has remained an empty promise.

Syria matters because it is Iran's strategic partner in its efforts to tilt the balance of power in the Middle East to a new Shiite crescent of terror linking Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon through Syria to Iran.

Syria has benefited greatly as Iran's pawn -- reaping enormous amounts of Iranian economic largess for its services as doorman to Hezbollah's growing domination of Lebanon -- a domination that serves Syria's barely disguised claims to Lebanon, as well.

The Obama administration tried mightily to entice Assad into "engaging" Washington in a vain attempt to untie Assad from his patron Ahmadinejad. The White House reestablished ambassadorial ties with Damascus, dispatched senior emissaries to explore Assad's intentions, offered economic incentives, and tried to convince Assad that his dependency on Iran was counter to Syria's long term interests.

Even Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Damascus at the height of the courtship, and after meeting with Assad inappropriately declared that all roads to peace in the Middle East go through Damascus. Even that bravado failed to appeal to Assad's vanity.

The president's engagement effort was a reasonable, but ultimately futile exercise because Washington had not developed any meaningful leverage against Assad if he continued his old ways. Indeed, the policy began increasingly to resemble a one way courtship rewarding Assad's continuing bad behavior. Engagement yielded nothing in return from Assad except meaningless platitudes to visiting Americans and a continuation of his old ways.

Indeed, the day after Washington announced it was elevating ties back to ambassadorial level, Assad rolled out the red carpet for Iran's President Ahmadinejad. The timing of the state visit was not coincidental. It was intended to send a signal to Washington that Syria would not let Washington dictate the terms of its Iranian embrace.

Moreover, Syria continued to thwart the UN's investigation into the assassination of Lebanese PM Hariri, accelerated a covert nuclear program (conveniently taken out by Israel) and refused to shut down terrorist operations against Israel emanating from terrorist storefronts operating in plain view in downtown Damascus. Our intelligence community has an even longer list of accusations against Assad.

Regrettably, Washington has been too preoccupied with Libya's ongoing civil war when Syria's fate has far greater bearing on the future of the Middle East. Libya is a strategic distraction to American core interests in the Middle East. The outcome of that conflict will, at best, marginally influence the course of revolutions in the Arab world.

However, Syria's potential revolution will irrevocably affect the course of events in the region and along with it, America's core interests in the Middle East including Arab-Israeli peace, the future of Lebanon, the strategic designs of Iran and democracy's future in the region.

What can the Obama administration do, if anything, to offer help to the beleaguered Syrian people?

First of all, it's time for the Obama to scuttle the two-track approach to Assad. Too often, Washington looked the other way at Assad's domestic repression and his overt support for terrorism in the name of safeguarding a future possibility of neutralizing Syria's potential troublemaking role to thwart a U.S.-brokered peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Assad has no more credit left in that bank account and he has blackmailed us enough into believing Syria is the yellow brick road to peace in the Middle East. It is not.

And given our failed Syrian engagement policy there is little reason to hold onto the weak reed that it is better to deal with Assad as the devil we know than the devil we don't. It constitutes a flimsy pretext when rapidly evolving events demand imaginative policies rather than the status quo. Given Assad's record and what his continuation in office would mean to weakened U.S. policy prospects in the Middle East, I would rather wager that the U.S. from almost every conceivable vantage point is better off with the Assad family gone. At the very least, we have a chance at a new beginning with a Syria that may also be searching for a new beginning.

Second, aside from deploring Assad's use of deadly violence against his own people, President Obama needs to ratchet up the rhetoric against Assad and his regime to provide far more moral support to the protestors. If Obama could declare it was time for Gaddafi and Mubarak to go, this weekend's violence throughout Syria compels the White House to issue the same demand on Assad, with policy prescriptions to back that demand up.

Third, after safeguarding the evacuation of Americans from Syria, Washington should begin seizing the assets of prominent Syrian government officials directly responsible for the violence, including members of the Assad family.

Fourth, the White House should marshal global cooperation to impose the same set of economic sanctions imposed on Libya. Congress has led the way in the past when it forced on a reluctant Bush Administration the imposition of economic sanctions against Syria. Whether or not a United Nations Security Council would be willing to authorize sanctions should not deter the White House from doing everything possible to galvanize our European allies to make Assad's life as difficult as possible. Our Arab allies, but for Qatar (which continues to play footsie with Assad to appease Iran) would be happy to see Assad go, as well.

Fifth, the U.S. should immediately begin providing Syria's activists the same forms of social networking and internet technology assistance that it is providing Egypt's activists. Assad's regime has used every weapon at its disposal to shut down social media networking. And the violence has been self-censored by Al Jazeera, a tool of Qatar's government, which has intentionally reduced its coverage of Syria's bloody clashes provoking great anger among Syria's protestors according to The Economist. U.S. government and Arab media outlets need to fill that void.

Sixth, the administration should place Assad on notice that the U.S. will lead efforts to present international criminal charges against him and anyone else in his government directly or indirectly responsible for killing innocent Syrians unless he yields power in a negotiated exit.

I have no illusions that Assad will be cowered by a more muscular White House policy. He intends to hunker down. No one is proposing military action against the regime. But we have yet to act with greater certitude against Assad. Syria's people, like their Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan fraternal Arab democrats, deserve to know that America will stand by them as best as we can against a regime that has no further legitimacy.