THE OBAMA administration’s decision to move beyond the United Nations to build a coalition to put greater pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step aside is wise and necessary, amid growing violence that has claimed more than 5,400 lives. Russia and China seem unalterably determined to block action in the UN Security Council, and no one can accuse the administration of not having tried every diplomatic option to resolve the crisis in Syria.
Well into 2011, the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton kept inviting Assad to prove himself a reformer. They moved with deliberate caution in imposing travel and financial sanctions on Syrian officials. And as it became brutally clear that nothing but a change of regime would end Assad’s bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters, the administration diligently attempted to mobilize support in the UN Security Council for the Arab League’s plan to ease Assad from power.
But with Russia and China’s veto of the Security Council resolution last Saturday - and with the Assad regime unleashing fresh violence in the suburbs of Damascus, the opposition stronghold of Zabadani, and especially the central city of Homs - the administration has no choice but to seek new ways to stem the killing.
“Faced with a neutered Security Council, we have redoubled our efforts outside of the United Nations,’’ Clinton said on Sunday, putting out a call for “allies and partners who support the Syrian people’s right to have a better future.’’ While Assad may be able to count on support from Moscow and Beijing, Clinton pointed out that the multilateral coalition opposing him is far broader. “You have not only Europeans, but you have Arabs, Africans, Latin Americans, South Asians.’’
In many ways this echoes the Kosovo crisis in the 1990s. Then, too, Russia’s determination to stand by a murderous dictator - Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic - made coordinated action through the Security Council impossible. Eventually, then-President Bill Clinton bypassed the United Nations, and Kosovo was liberated through a NATO air war.
No one today is proposing a US- or NATO-led military expedition to topple Assad. But the administration is right to seek ways to end the regime’s grip on power. Working with Turkey, the Arab League, and European allies, the United States can provide greater support to the Syrian opposition; move to impose an arms blockade; and undertake to indict Assad and his key lieutenants at the International Criminal Court.
President Obama repeated again that Assad “has no right to lead Syria, and has lost all legitimacy with his people and the international community.’’ The words are strong and appropriate, but they will amount to little unless they are followed by action. The administration should move quickly to pull its proposed international coalition together. The sooner and more effectively help can reach Syria’s rebels, the sooner the violence can be brought to an end.