In reaction to the tanks now overrunning Deraa in Syria, the White House has begun to talk about “targeted sanctions” against the Assad regime.
The White House, deploring “brutal violence used by the government of Syria against its people,” said President Barack Obama’s administration was considering targeted sanctions to make clear that “this behavior is unacceptable.”
A U.S. official said that measures under consideration included a freeze on assets and a ban on U.S. business dealings.
This is consistent with what we’ve seen as initial steps elsewhere. Unlike in Egypt and much like in Libya, the US has few diplomatic ties with Syria and therefore few concrete actions it can take to isolate the regime any further. But an international effort to freeze assets and stop business relations could at least be an expression of condemnation beyond a sternly worded press release.
Let’s make no mistake, this incursion into Deraa is a preface to a massacre, along the lines of the massacre of Benghazi that was halted by coalition airstrikes. Press Secretary Jay Carney tried a pass at describing Libya as a unique situation to prevent mass carnage, but you have tanks rolling into the streets of Deraa. That just doesn’t logically follow.
But Carney also said something else, letting his slip show. He said that Libya was unique because of the support of the Arab League. And that’s the real point here. Syria is a member of the Arab League, as was Libya until Moammar Gadhafi was expelled. But several repressive regimes sit among the member states of the Arab League, many of which are engaging in attacks on their own people. Libya was the bone thrown to the international community to take the pressure off the other regimes. And given how little we’ve heard about Syria in US media, it worked. But the Arab League should not really be the arbiter of which countries get favorable treatment from the West and which do not. The potential for abuse is far too great.
And more broadly, the US has taken the cues of Saudi Arabia in the region, something I pointed out several weeks ago. When the Saudis march into Bahrain, suddenly there’s pretty much no response from the US about Bahrain. When the Saudis give up on Ali Abdullah Saleh and try to facilitate his exit, the US joins that enterprise. The Saudis have said little about Syria, but if they made their intentions known, I’m sure US policy would follow.
This uprising represented a remarkable opportunity to “align interests with values,” as President Obama put it, and pave the way to a new, inclusionary Arab world less susceptible to alienation and extremism. But US policy has not nearly caught up to all that.
Indeed, despite his growing – if reluctant – military investment in “regime change” in Libya, Obama’s avowed efforts to put Washington “on the right side of history” in the Arab world appear increasingly lame and hypocritical.
Not only is the U.S. – not to say the rest of the West – effectively deferring to Saudi policy, particularly in the Gulf, but it also appears to be hedging its bets against truly democratic change elsewhere in the region by, for example, bolstering its support for Egypt’s military – while withholding substantial economic aid – in the apparent hope that the army will retain control over the country’s defence and foreign policies, especially toward Israel.
Meanwhile, the more idealistic youth-led movements that initiated the early “pro-democracy” demonstrations that succeeded in ousting Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt have in some cases, as in Yemen and Libya, been displaced or marginalised by less altruistic forces acting on behalf of narrower sectarian, tribal, or clan interests.
That’s not to say that guns ought to be blazing in Syria or anywhere else in the region per se; there are plenty of other ways to support democratic movements. But it does mean that the effort to maintain the status quo, with dictatorial rulers that satisfy certain US interests, is not just untenable but completely counter-productive. And following the lead of one such oppressive regime, Saudi Arabia, is a perfect example. Desire for oil has again overruled any sane national interest.