Within a space of six weeks, the position of the United States on Syria has hardened to the point where Washington’s support for military intervention cannot be discounted. In a television interview on March 27, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was “unlikely” that the U.S. would attempt to assemble support for an intervention, and contrasted Syria with Libya. What she called the indiscriminate use of the military by the Libyan regime against its own citizens was not the same as the excessive force used by the Syrian police. In contrast, on May 12, during a visit to Greenland, Ms Clinton accused Damascus of “gross human rights abuses” such as killings, torture, arbitrary detention, and the refusal of medical care for the wounded. She added that the U.S. and “other colleagues” would try to put greater pressure on Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad so as to render his government “accountable.” Other Obama officials talked of sanctions on more Syrian officials besides the three already targeted, who include Mr. Assad’s brother Maher, a military officer with a reputation for brutal crackdowns.
There is no doubting the violence being inflicted on Syrians and this must be condemned. Washington’s entire position, however, is riddled with contradictions. To start with, the U.S. has arrogated to itself the right to hold the regime to account; nothing is said about the Syrian government’s accountability to Syrians. Secondly, high Syrian officials keep overseas accounts in European and West Asian banks, and U.S. sanctions against them will have little impact. Thirdly, threatening Mr. Assad on account of the violence against protesters ignores major questions of Syrian politics. The Syrian President has struggled to assert himself over powerful factions within his own family, and over the military and internal security agencies. Furthermore, Ms Clinton revealed another agenda by attacking Syria for its good relations with Iran — while Washington and influential sections of the international media avoid the matter of violent repression elsewhere in the region. For example, little is said about Bahrain, where the regime has reacted to protest as viciously as the Syrian authorities have done. Washington’s Fifth Fleet is still Bahrain-based. Another topic avoided is the effect of Saudi Arabia’s nervousness about Shia Islam and democracy on U.S. West Asia policy. Noam Chomsky has called attention to the truth that Washington and its allies strive to prevent the emergence of democracy in the region. On the evidence, the U.S. support for democracy in West Asia is nothing if not disingenuous.