"We do not want further militarization of the situation in Syria." So sheepishly declared an Obama Administration spokesman today when pressed why isn't the U.S. prepared to help defend defenseless Syrian protestors by providing humanitarian and perhaps financial and logistical support to the Free Syrian Army.
My how the tides have changed in the hallways of the Eisenhower Executive Office building.
When Col. Gaddafi's forces were on the outskirts of Benghazi, White House staffers were falling all over themselves in a mad dash to declare to any and all that a humanitarian catastrophe demanded urgent international action to prevent an assault on innocent civilians. Nightmares of Rwanda and Bosnia compelled the burning of midnight oil at the State Department.
Abetted by a cavalry of outraged academics in Washington think tanks demanding action from the Administration, President Obama publicly signaled events demanded action and marshaled his top officials to explore every conceivable avenue to thwart Gaddafi's forces. Secret arms deliveries were smuggled in to Libya courtesy of Qatar and Egypt. CIA operatives were parachuted in to help the nascent Libyan opposition forces. A NATO led no-fly zone was declared and enforced. No stone was left unturned to keep Gaddafi's forces from killing civilians. Everyone was on red alert.
Fortunately, because of that example of presidential leadership a humanitarian catastrophe in Benghazi was averted and the Administration has been patting itself on the back ever since... never mind that Libya today is suffering a destabilizing outbreak of post-revolutionary violence threatening the very victory Administration officials crowed about. But, hey that's no longer necessarily our business... right?
While the appalling massacre of innocent civilians escalates daily across Syria, and images from Homs and other Syrian cities are far worse than anything witnessed in Libya, the cacophony of outrage from Washington's hallowed think tanks is strangely subdued. True, the U.S. led an effort to pass a Security Council resolution urging a political solution to the Syrian crisis. And yesterday, the U.S. decided to close our embassy in Damascus and is "exploring additional new economic sanctions" against Assad.
Meanwhile, while Administration officials "explore" those sanctions options, Russian ships and cargo aircraft pour tanks, artillery, aircraft and ammunition into Syria to replenish Assad's killing machine. Russia defends its conduct by charging that the West is acting like a "bull in a china shop." The Kremlin's propagandists are masters of the "big lie" in Syria...it is Moscow which is thwarting international will by militarily intervening under cover of their own Security Council veto -- testament to the newly branded thuggish "Putinization" of Moscow's diplomacy.
Although time is of the essence, the White House seems too satisfied with itself talking the talk of outrage and frustration. True, senior officials have used uncharacteristically harsh rhetoric as daily toll throughout Syria escalates. But sadly, President Obama has so far not evidenced much in the way of Libya-style resolve to challenge Russia's ploy reserving to itself the sole right to militarily intervene in Syria.
If the Administration continues on its present, relatively passive course and shirks America's duty and responsibility to confront the Russian Syrian arms transfers with tougher resolve, it won't be merely "leading from behind;" it will be turning its back on the growing humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.
So what can the U.S. realistically do without landing marines on the beaches of Syria:
1. Call Russia's bluff. Force a UN Security Council resolution vote demanding an arms embargo on Syria and dare the Russians veto it.
2. Expel Russia from the G-8 until it ceases arms transfer to Syria. Freeze Russia out of some other international gatherings and forums for good measure.
3. Straightjacket the Central Bank of Syria by completely cutting off its access to U.S. and European banking facilities.
4. Develop support for an international indictment in the International Criminal Court against the Assad regime's leadership for crimes against humanity.
5. Encourage Arab League efforts to organize a military supply airlift through southern Turkey to provide additional support to the Free Syrian Army.
6. Officially delegitimize the Assad regime by recognizing the Syrian National Council as the new, legitimate government of Syria, and galvanize European Union and Arab League nations to follow suit.
7. Provide additional financial and diplomatic support to the Syrian National Council to form a Syrian government in exile and have its leadership publicly embraced in western and Arab capitals.
8. Work with Turkey to declare and enforce a humanitarian zone in northern Syria to provide shelter for Syrians fleeing the fighting.
The Syrian people have paid heavily for defying their regime, and the outcry for international help from Syria's beleaguered cities compels more imaginative action by this White House. Declaring that the U.S. wishes to avoid further "militarization" of the situation in Syria ignores the reality that the country is already in a civil war. It is one of those nice diplomatic phrases that, in reality, is an inadequate alibi for inexcusable inaction. The world is watching to see if the Obama Administration can free itself from its own self-imposed rhetorical straight jacket on Syria. The Syrian people have earned the right to more midnight oil out of this Administration.
Follow Amb. Marc Ginsberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@ambmcg