On the eve of Eid al-Adha, the Islamic “Festival of Sacrifice,” Burhan Ghalioun, the de facto leader of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the newly formed opposition group that aims to be internationally recognized as Syria’s government-in-exile, went on international television to deliver an address.
On a Tuesday morning in September, three buses full of Libyan tribesmen milled around the gilded lobby of the Ritz Carlton hotel in Doha, the shimmering glass capital of Qatar. The tribesmen were dressed in a mixture of suits and ties and sweeping white robes, and they had come to personally thank the emir for helping them to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi. Yusef Mansoori, a member of the delegation, told me earnestly, “We would like to thank him very, very much for everything he has done for us.” Certainly, the Libyans had plenty to be grateful for.
Since this summer, the United States has generally played a constructive role in support of the Syrian opposition. In contrast to Russia and China—whose flags are now routinely torched by Syrians after the two countries vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Assad regime for atrocities—Washington is popular with Syria’s anti-regime opposition.
Since the Syrian people began their uprising against the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Americans have been told repeatedly that there is little they can do about the situation. Experts in think tanks, universities, and the halls of U.S. government have been eager to remind us that the conditions in Syria—with its fractured opposition, brutal and loyal military forces, and fragile regional neighborhood—simply didn’t leave much room for Americans to make a difference. But Robert Ford, our ambassador in Damascus, never seemed to accept this simplistic line of thinking.
As the world witnesses the Syrian and Iranian regimes commit countless human rights abuses and, in Iran’s case, move ever closer to perfecting its nuclear capabilities, there’s a common belief that, short of military intervention, there’s nothing that can be done. As it turns out, however, that’s far from the truth—but the majority of the initiative must come from Europe. The European Union has thus far failed to confront the Iranian and Syrian regimes to the full extent of its ability.
It’s just about a week since Russia and China, in a rare joint action, vetoed a European-sponsored resolution that “strongly condemns the continued grave and systematic human rights violations by Syrian authorities.” The only thing strong about this defense of civilians was the use of the word “strongly.” And, as Colum Lynch reported in The Washington Post, the resolution demanded that Damascus “cease the use of force against civilians” and grant “fundamental freedoms” to prisoners.
Many Damascenes these days prefer to watch the government-run TV stations. Elsewhere, the news is bad. The local channels, with local announcers, speaking in proper Syrian Arabic, are often sweet. Often the broadcasters on these stations are beautiful young women. They smile a lot. Their channels say that in some outlying districts, vandals and religious fanatics have moved in, and have had to be removed by the army. But now all is back to normal. One cannot trade one’s Syrian pounds for dollars in Damascus anymore.
Throughout the Arab spring, analysts and policymakers have debated the proper role that the United States should be playing in the Middle East. A small number argued that the U.S. should adopt a more interventionist policy to address Arab grievances; others, that Arab grievances are themselves the result of our aggressive, interventionist policies; and still more that intervention was simply not in our national self-interest.
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While much of Washington was spending this past summer loudly conspiring to lower the country’s credit rating, one American official, in a far-off city, was offering a profoundly contrasting example of quiet professionalism. Robert Ford, America’s ambassador to Syria, has shown bravery, tact, and creativity in finding ways to bear witness to the protests and massacres occurring in that country over the course of this year.