As the violent crackdown in Syria continues, President Assad has shown that he is more interested in his own power than his people.
The world has joined Syrians in mourning the deaths of many innocent people, including a 13-year old boy who was brutally tortured and mutilated. Approximately thirteen hundred Syrians have been killed since protests began. Many thousands more have been jailed and abused. Syrian security forces have surrounded communities and cut off electricity, communications and the Internet. Economic activity has slowed, the country is increasingly isolated and its citizens are growing more frustrated every day.
In his May 19 speech, President Obama echoed demonstrators’ basic and legitimate demands: the Assad government must stop shooting demonstrators, allow peaceful protest, release political prisoners, stop unjust arrests, give access to human rights monitors, and start an inclusive dialogue to advance a democratic transition. President Assad, he said, could either lead that transition or get out of the way.
It is increasingly clear that President Assad has made his choice. But while continued brutality may allow him to delay the change that is underway in Syria, it will not reverse it.
As Syria’s neighbors and the international community respond to this crisis, we should be guided by the answers to several key questions: Why has it erupted? What does the crackdown reveal about President Assad and his regime? And where does Syria go from here?
First, there should be no doubt about the nature of the protests in Syria.
Like Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans and others across the Middle East and North Africa, the Syrian people are demanding their long-denied universal rights and rejecting a government that rules through fear, squanders their talents through corruption, and denies them the dignity of having a voice in their own future. They are organizing themselves, including the local coordinating committees, and they are refusing to back down even in the face of revolting violence.
If President Assad believes that the protests are the work of foreign instigators – as his government has claimed – he is wrong. It is true that some Syrian soldiers have been killed, and we regret the loss of those lives too. But the vast majority of casualties have been unarmed civilians. By continuing to ban foreign journalists and observers, the regime seeks to hide these facts.
Second, President Assad is showing his true colors by embracing the repressive tactics of his ally Iran and putting Syria onto the path of a pariah state.
By following Iran’s lead, President Assad is placing himself and his regime on the wrong side of history. He will learn that legitimacy flows from the consent of the people and cannot be forged through bullets and billyclubs.
President Assad’s violent crackdown has shattered his claims to be a reformer. For years, he has offered pledges and promises, but all that matters are his actions. A speech, no matter how dutifully applauded by regime apologists, will not change the reality that the Syrian people, despite being told they live in a republic, have never had the opportunity to freely elect their leaders. These citizens want to see a real transition to democracy and a government that honors their universal rights and aspirations.
If President Assad believes he can act with impunity because the international community hopes for his cooperation on other issues, he is wrong about this as well. He and his regime are certainly not indispensable.
A Syria that is unified, pluralistic, and democratic could play a positive and leading role in the region, but under President Assad the country is increasingly becoming a source of instability. The refugees streaming into Turkey and Lebanon, and the tensions being stoked on the Golan, should dispel the notion that the regime is a bulwark of regional stability that must be protected.
Finally, the answer to the most important question of all – what does this mean for Syria’s future? – is increasingly clear: There is no going back.
Syrians have recognized the violence as a sign of weakness from a regime that rules by coercion, not consent. They have overcome their fears and have shaken the foundations of this authoritarian system.
Syria is headed toward a new political order -- and the Syrian people should be the ones to shape it. They should insist on accountability, but resist any temptation to exact revenge or reprisals that might split the country, and instead join together to build a democratic, peaceful and tolerant Syria.
Considering the answers to all these questions, the United States chooses to stand with the Syrian people and their universal rights. We condemn the Assad regime’s disregard for the will of its citizens and Iran’s insidious interference.
The United States has already imposed sanctions on senior Syrian officials, including President Assad. We are carefully targeting leaders of the crackdown, not the Syrian people. We welcomed the decisions by the European Union to impose its own sanctions and by the UN Human Rights Council to launch an investigation into abuses. The United States will continue coordinating closely with our partners in the region and around world to increase pressure on and further isolate the Assad regime.
The Syrian people will not cease their demands for dignity and a future free from intimidation and fear. They deserve a government that respects its people, works to build a more stable and prosperous country, and doesn’t have to rely on repression at home and antagonism abroad to maintain its grip on power. They deserve a nation that is unified, democratic and a force for stability and progress. That would be good for Syria, good for the region and good for the world.