The international community is responsible for a myriad of failures in Syria, with 2012 marking a banner year of incompetence. Bad policy, no follow through, and the feckless leadership of President Obama have contributed greatly to the Syrian crisis, and there is little hope of course correction in 2013.
In January 2012, there was hope — no evidence, but hope — that Bashar al-Assad, the tyrannical president of Syria, might book a one-way flight to Dubai. The White House even began laying the groundwork for a victory lap by President Obama. Jay Carney, the president's spokesman, dismissively said at a press conference that "Assad's fall is inevitable," and punctuated his remarks with a grinning "He will go." (The tens of thousands of Syrians soon to be slaughtered perhaps misread the White House timeline. Carney was possibly referring to basic human mortality. After all, it is a fact that Assad will die eventually.)
Only days after Jay Carney announced Assad's January death warrant, the State Department closed the U.S. embassy in Syria. Some thought it was a precursor to intervention, and that the president was finally ready to put an end to the conflict, then in its eleventh month. Assad must have been terrified, too, because the United Nations condemned his regime with a non-binding resolution with no power of enforcement. "Today, the U.N. General Assembly sent a clear message to the people of Syria," said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "The world is with you." She neglected to add: "...in spirit only."
The humanitarian crisis only got worse. The International Committee of the Red Cross begged for entry — cities like Homs were desperate for essentials such as food, water, and baby formula — and Assad shut them down.
In March, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling for a ceasefire. In April, the secretary general of the U.N. called it "unacceptable" that in spite of the finest resolution passing this side of 46th Street, fire had not, in fact, ceased. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for the Security Council to move "very vigorously" to pass a "Chapter 7 sanctions resolution, including travel, financial sanctions, an arms embargo, and the pressure that that will give us on the regime to push for compliance with Kofi Annan's six-point plan."
Who hasn't lost sleep over Chapter 7 resolutions and six-point plans? Who hasn't lost sleep over the prospect of more Kofi Annan? And about those economic sanctions: They have a stupendous record of failure matched only by the Obama administration's zeal for imposing them. As a rule, the more heinous the regime, the less likely sanctions are to work. Just the opposite, in fact, because sanctions come with a new excuse for authoritarian failure. "Why is my dictatorship failing? Because the West is punishing our great nation!" U.S. sanctions on Syria have been in place for 33 years. President Obama already ratcheted them up in the wake of the Arab Spring. Assad still lives on al-Rashid Street in Damascus.
In April, Carney counted on everyone having forgotten the White House swagger in January. "We do not believe that militarization, further militarization of the situation in Syria at this point is the right course of action. We believe that it would lead to greater chaos, greater carnage." At any rate, President Obama still had faith in Kofi Annan's six-point plan, and everyone began urgently making excuses for the president's inaction in the face of ten thousand dead Syrians. (Some even called for Russia — Syria's speed-dial arms dealer — to broker a peace.)
When Syria warned that it would use chemical weapons on any foreign invasion, you have to wonder who they really expected to invade. Syria's threat prompted perhaps the most catastrophic statement by any world leader in recent memory. President Obama declared that his "red line" — the thing that would "change his calculus" — would be "seeing a whole bunch of [biological] weapons moving around or being utilized."
Bashar al-Assad took heed of the message, and unleashed the full force of his military. He's even gone so far as to direct tactical ballistic missiles and incendiary bombs against civilian areas — something even Saddam Hussein wouldn't do. Assad is using everything but chemical weapons. Because that's the red line.
There is no better sign of just how badly things have gone than remarks in November by David Cameron, the British prime minister. Asked on Saudi Arabian television what might happen if Assad asked for safe passage out of Syria, Cameron replied, "Done. Anything, anything to get that man out of the country and to have a safe transition in Syria." Dress Circle seats for a West End musical? Done. Family passes to the Royal Botanical Gardens? No problem.
In fairness, Cameron said his preference was "justice," but couldn't sustain even that single thought without capitulating and reassuring Assad that "if wants to leave, he could leave, that could be arranged."
Today, 45,000 Syrians are dead. Russia and China are blocking any action at the United Nations Security Council. Rebels are destroying Syrian infrastructure, which plays into Assad's hands. The U.N. envoy to Syria is warning that 100,000 people could be killed in 2013. Nobody can see an end to the nearly 22-month bloodbath, and nobody can find President Obama. Considering his record on the matter, perhaps we can be thankful for that.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 8 secrets to steal from power networkers
- Why Mitt Romney is perfectly poised for a comeback in 2016
- Why is the West so afraid of Islam?
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- The Nazi smart bomb that inspired China's most dangerous weapon
- How to make classic pulled pork
- The best places to find love — and lust — according to science
- The crusade against Iraq War supporters has forgotten someone: Hillary Clinton
Subscribe to the Week