Why Have Democrats Abandoned Syria?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

As their humanitarian plight grows more acute, the Syrian people deserve better from the Democratic Party and its elected leadership.

If Senator Edward M. Kennedy -- the conscience of the Democratic Party -- were alive today, he would be bellowing to the rafters on the floor of the U.S. Senate that America is acting embarrassingly indifferent to the humanitarian plight of the Syrian people.

I have experience enough to predict how Ted Kennedy would have reacted to the growing Syrian civilian humanitarian crisis.  I served on his Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Refugees staff for 7 years and know Ted Kennedy cared about the Democratic Party and its foreign policy principles.

The Syrian people wouldn't know of these Democratic principles.  Nor, for that matter, would the millions of young Arabs that President Obama addressed in Cairo in June, 2009, since they are not reflected in his Syrian policy. That is one reason why his support among Arabs has cratered.

Something has happened to us Democrats insofar as Syria is concerned.

Instead of leadership, the Obama Administration has served up a platter of empty promises and alibis.  Instead of actively and expeditiously organizing a coalition of relief organizations to find the best ways to redress the terrible conditions confronting a Syrian population fleeing for their lives from the homes, White House policy on Syria is plain and simple:  don't rock the boat, don't go near any policy that would draw the U.S. into any remote chance that a shot would be fired in our direction.  Use the turmoil inside Syria as a justification not to act.  Time does not seem to be the essence as the death toll and suffering mounts.

Evidently, providing much needed American leadership to alleviate the plight of Syrians could cost the president one vote, or so Chicago Obama campaign headquarters fears.

It is so ironic that nary an expression of serious angst emanates from Washington's Democratic think tanks on Syria calling on the Obama Administration to live up to the Party's best humanitarian principles.

When Libya's Gadaffi was merely threatening, I repeat, threatening, to bring harm to Benghazi's civilians, the outcry from the Obama Administration and its allies was deafening.  Washington then couldn't do enough to avert the danger to Benghazi's civilians.  The lack of any comparable drumbeat out of Democratic Congressional offices or our allies in the think tank world on Syria would suggest they were quietly "advised" by the White House to avoid placing the Administration in a politically difficult position.  Syria, after all is not Libya, or so the White House has convinced itself of.  

And if there has been a recent Senate hearing on Syria highlighting the humanitarian crisis and recommending a coherent, principled policy, it is a deep, dark secret.

Even when we offered to send "non-lethal" communications equipment it remained in storage for months, and the leadership of the Syrian opposition went public last week to the Washington Post on August 21, rebuking the Obama Administration for promising, but not delivering the offered assistance.  Meanwhile, Administration spokesmen serve up assurances that the supply chain of non-lethal assistance is timely arriving at its intended destinations.  This is inaccurate if the Syrian opposition and the U.S. media is to be believed.

The White House has also assured the media it is discreetly planning for a post-Assad Syria.  The New York Times reported on August 5 that the State Department "... is considering positioning additional food and medical supplies in the region..." to cope with a POST ASSAD situation.

What if Assad doesn't abandon Damascus anytime soon and the fighting and dying go on and on?  Are we going to continue to sit conveniently on the sidelines waiting by the ticker to send a "breaking news" alert that Assad has been overthrown before we decisively act?  That's what it sounds like, and that was the inference conveyed to me by colleagues at the State Department last week.

That is patently unacceptable!

Today, the humanitarian and refugee crisis in Syria is growing more and more acute by the hour.  Yet, Assad may be in power for one month, even five months, or, if the Russians and Iranians have their way, for a whole lot longer.  Surely it cannot be that this White House will wait and wait and wait until Assad's eventual fall triggers a muscular American humanitarian relief policy that should be in place and operational whether or not Assad stays or leaves.    

By consensus accounts emerging every day from international observers, close to 25,000 Syrians have died, over 150,000 are missing or have been made refugees, and untold tens of thousands are homeless, without food or medicine at the mercy of Assad's artillery or criminal elements. Turkey, no longer able to cope with the Syrian refugee exodus, shut down its border crossings, stranding thousands of fleeing Syrians inside Syria under barrage from Assad's helicopter gunships.  Jordan faces a similar challenge.  What is to become of these Syrians holed up inside Syria without food, medicine or shelter?  Are they to die from starvation or lack of water, or be gunned down by Assad's forces?

This is the cruel Syrian reality today... not an over-exaggerated, na├»ve, idealistic plea.  The Obama Administration can do so much more without resorting to yet another convenient excuse for inaction.              

I do not and never have advocated boots on the ground.  I know the stakes and the consequences.  Rather, I am advocating for angels from the air.

Why cannot the Obama Administration get off its dime and show some valor by doing what is right and lead the international community into organizing a credible humanitarian land and air lift under the flag of the neutral United Nations or Muslim Red Crescent Society today before it is too late?  What are the Russians or Syrians going to do in the face of a determined coalition expediting humanitarian relief supplies?  Shoot down a Red Crescent or U.N.-sponsored airlift?  If this relief operation requires armed escorts, well, then, show leadership and provide the logistical and communications support to the Saudis and Qataris to enable them to provide the necessary military support like they did in Libya.  How many Americans died protecting the citizens of Benghazi when we provided the leadership and support without placing ourselves on the front firing lines?

Where there is a will there is a way!            

History will not kindly judge the Democratic Party foreign policy establishment for turning its back on the plight of the Syrian people.  Ever since the revolt against the Assad regime commenced in March, 2011, the abdication of Democratic Party humanitarian DNA toward Syria is Exhibit A for a foreign policy dictated by political expediency rather than determination and resolve.

This is an appropriate occasion to remind my colleagues in this good Administration that President Obama has a duty and responsibility to stand by and actively honor the foreign policy principles of our Democratic Party.  We who served in previous Democratic campaigns and Democratic administrations were inspired by these humanitarian principles and they moved us to act in the Middle East, in South Asia, in Vietnam and in Bosnia.  The upcoming Democratic Party Convention provides the President a platform to send a strong message to the Syrian people that the U.S. will not abandon them.    

I know what Ted Kennedy would be doing today to help the Syrian people.  He would be holding hearings in the U.S. Senate to highlight the growing humanitarian catastrophe confronting every Syrian civilian -- Sunni, Shiite, Christian and any sect in between.  His hearings would shine a spotlight on the need for greater humanitarian aid to Syrians and the extreme violations of human rights Syrian civilians face every hour of every day.  He would have representatives of international organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees testify so the world would hear the terrible refugee crisis that has emerged on Syria's borders and come up with credible steps to avert a further crisis.  He would have reporters and representatives of humanitarian relief organizations provide first-hand accounts of the Syrian humanitarian crisis to make sure the American people and the international community understood the true picture of what was occurring inside Syria.

Most of all, Ted Kennedy would be orchestrating an appropriate U.S. response to the Syrian crisis from the American people consistent with our limitations, but mindful of who we are and what we stand for.

Certainly, for all Edward Kennedy and his brothers stood for, this White House should and can do no less.
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