Creative Diplomacy Puts U.S. on Side of Syria’s Protesters: View

Syrian human rights activists told Bloomberg News that on July 22 more than 1 million Syrians took to the street, defying the government’s stepped-up security measures, to demand an end to the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad.

With demonstrations growing, and no stronger options possible, the U.S. and its Western allies should use creative diplomacy to support Syrians seeking democratic change.

The uprising in Syria presents supporters of the Arab Spring with a dilemma. Protesters seeking to end the Assad family’s rule pour into the streets day after day. They are met with brutality by the government’s security forces. About 1,900 unarmed demonstrators have been killed, and 12,000 arrested according to Syrian human rights activists. Assad seems willing to destroy his country in order to save his regime. Although Western governments sympathize with the demonstrators, they have done little in response to the crackdown.

The painful truth is that the U.S. and its allies have few ways to coerce Assad into wholesale reform of Syria’s political system. Russia and China would probably block any move in the United Nations Security Council to enact economic sanctions. With NATO engaged in Afghanistan and Libya, no realistic military option exists. What remain are symbolism and creative diplomacy. Although symbolism will not force Assad to stop killing his people or force him from power, it can bolster the Syrian people’s morale and remind the regime that its crimes have been seen and will not be forgotten.

Diplomatic history suggests that symbolism should not be underestimated. In 1940, when the Soviet Union invaded and annexed the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the U.S. and its allies faced a similar dilemma. President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew he could not force Moscow to restore Baltic independence, but at the same time he did not want to acquiesce to this aggression. He adopted a policy of not recognizing Soviet control of the Baltic States. The U.S. froze Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian assets, and used them to keep open the original embassies in Washington. These modest steps had no effect on the Soviet occupation, but they did show the Baltic peoples that the U.S. was on their side. When independence was restored in 1991, the U.S. nonrecognition policy was hailed as a factor in keeping alive hope that one day the Baltics would be free.

Back to Syria today. The Obama administration has wisely resisted pressure from critics to recall Ambassador Robert Ford to Washington. Ford has doggedly reached out to the Syrian opposition. Although his recall would demonstrate U.S. disapproval of Assad’s crackdown, it would prevent using him as a symbol of U.S. support for the Syrian people. To get his message out, Ford has bypassed the government-controlled news media, using his Facebook page to condemn the government’s killing of prisoners, expose its lies and endorse what he describes as “the right of all Syrians -- and people of all countries -- to express their opinions freely and in a climate of mutual respect.”

There is no bigger symbol of the Assad family’s brutality than the city of Hama. Hama has long been an opposition stronghold. In 1982 Assad’s father killed thousands of civilians (10,000 according to the government; 40,000 according to human rights activists) in response to a previous uprising. On July 7, a few days after government security forces surrounded Hama, raising the specter of another bloody massacre, Ford and the French ambassador visited the town to show solidarity with its residents. Ford’s bearing witness must have hit a nerve. A few days later, a pro-regime mob attacked the U.S. embassy with eggs, tomatoes and rocks, demanding that Ford leave the country.

Ford understands his job is to represent the U.S. to the Syrian people, not to Assad’s government. His public criticisms of Assad and his visit to Hama have not prevented the government from continuing to shoot and arrest its opponents. But they show, as Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, said, that the U.S. “stands with those who want change in Syria.”

The U.S. Senate refused to confirm Ford, taking the position that the U.S. should not have an ambassador in Damascus. Obama had to give him a recess appointment, which will expire at the end of 2012.

The U.S. should leave no doubt that its sympathies are with Assad’s opponents. Indeed, Ford’s creative diplomacy and bravery have become symbols of U.S. opposition to Assad. To force Ford to leave Damascus now would be to do Assad a favor. Confirming him, on the other hand, would allow him to speak with the backing of the full U.S. government.

Syria’s future will be determined in the battle of wills between the demonstrators on the streets and Assad’s security forces. We recognize that Ford’s creative diplomacy won’t tip the balance, but we believe it will put the United States on the right side of Syria’s history.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at