President Assad’s Crackdown
Published: April 28, 2011
When Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, Hafez, as Syria’s president in 2000, the United States and many others hoped that Syria might finally stop persecuting its people and become a more responsible regional power.
That didn’t happen. Now Mr. Assad appears determined to join his father in the ranks of history’s blood-stained dictators, sending his troops and thugs to murder anyone who has the courage to demand political freedom.
More than 400 people have died since demonstrations began two months ago. On Monday, the Syrian Army stormed the city of Dara’a, the center of the popular opposition. Phone, water and electricity lines have been cut and journalists barred from reporting firsthand what is really happening there.
Mr. Assad finally outlined a reform agenda last week, abolishing emergency laws that for nearly 50 years gave the government a free hand to arrest people without cause. But his bloody crackdown belied the concession, and he is fast losing all legitimacy.
President Obama came into office determined to engage Syria and nudge it away from Iran and toward political reform. Even after the violence began, Mr. Obama and his aides kept quietly nudging in hopes that Mr. Assad would make the right choice.
In retrospect, that looks naïve. Still, we have sympathy for Mr. Obama’s attempts. Years of threats from the George W. Bush administration only pushed Syria further into the arms of Iran — and did nothing to halt the repression or Syria’s support for Hezbollah.
The president’s patience has apparently run out. Last Friday — the bloodiest day of the uprising — he issued a statement condemning the violence and accusing Mr. Assad of seeking Iranian assistance in brutalizing his people. That is a start, but it is not nearly enough.
Let’s be clear: Another war would be a disaster. Syria has one of the more capable armies in the region. And while there is no love for Mr. Assad, he is no Qaddafi, and the backlash in the Arab world would be enormous.
What the United States and its allies can do (British, French and Italian leaders have also been critical) is rally international condemnation and tough sanctions. They can start with their own unilateral punishments — asset freezes and travel bans for Mr. Assad and his top supporters and a complete arms embargo.
Washington and its allies need to press the Arab League and the United Nations Security Council to take strong stands. Muammar el-Qaddafi had no friends, so the league had little trouble supporting action against Libya. Syria is far more powerful, and Mr. Assad’s autocracy uncomfortably familiar to many Arab leaders.
So far, all the Arab League has been willing to do is issue a statement declaring that pro-democracy protesters “deserve support, not bullets” — conspicuously without mentioning Syria. If the Arab League and its leaders want to be taken seriously, including in their own countries, they are going to have to do better.
The Security Council hasn’t even been able to muster a press statement. Russia and China, as ever, are determined to protect autocrats. That cannot be the last word.
The International Criminal Court should investigate the government’s abuses. And we welcome the Obama administration’s push to have the United Nations Human Rights Council spotlight Syria’s abuses in a session on Friday. Ultimately, Syrians will determine their country’s fate. Mr. Assad commands a powerful security establishment, but he cannot stifle the longing for freedom forever.
A version of this editorial appeared in print on April 29, 2011, on page A26 of the New York edition with the headline: President Assad’s Crackdown: Too much of the world is mute as Syria’s president slaughters those who dare protest.