Rime Allaf

Rime Allaf is a Syrian writer. She is on Twitter.

December 5, 2012

In August, when President Obama first stated that Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons would be a “red line,” the message to Assad was loud and clear: Everything else was permissible.

More than three months and many more thousands of Syrian victims later, Obama has inexplicably reiterated this objection. But by warning against the use of chemical weapons, he has once again merely reassured Assad that barrel bombs, missiles, cluster bombs and bullets are acceptable tools to slaughter his people.

Whether by design or by mistake, the Obama administration’s hedging has diminished U.S. influence over Syrians.

What could have been interpreted as political caution in a pre-election climate must be considered in a different context now that Obama has settled comfortably into his second term. In fact, his latest statement sounds rather like a promise: If Assad doesn’t change the current parameters, the U.S. won’t either.

Semantics aside, it is clear that his refusal to increase pressure on the Assad regime, which many had expected would happen in November, means that Obama is encouraging the status quo. Indeed, the only pressure the U.S. seems to have been exerting recently has been on its allies.

The U.S. has done everything it could to impede actions that could have tipped the balance against Assad. From urging its Gulf allies to refrain from arming the resistance, to holding back a fellow NATO member, Turkey, from responding even when the Assad regime shot one of its fighter jets, to refusing to immediately recognize the coalition that the Syrian opposition finally managed to put together, every overt or covert U.S. action has been a protraction of its first response to the uprising, in March 2011. This is when the secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, said members of Congress had described Assad as a reformer, just days after the massacre of dozens of peaceful demonstrators.

Far from being indecisive on Syria, the U.S. has demonstrated that it is consistent, albeit with a questionable rationale, when it comes to letting Syrians fight it out among themselves before deciding to swoop in, perhaps, when the country is at a breaking point. With most cities destroyed beyond recognition, with some five million refugees and displaced Syrians, with hundreds of thousands disappeared in Assad’s jails and well over 40,000 killed by the regime, and with extremist factions fighting their own battles to boot, it seems that we are now close to such a breaking point.

Could this explain the sudden buzz about chemical weapons? It is peculiar that the U.S. would still rely on the “weapons of mass destruction” line, à la Iraq, to justify intervention of some kind after having lost the moral high ground and allowed the bloodshed to continue unhindered. If the U.S. were counting on eventually playing a leading role at this late stage, it should have factored in Syrians’ current reactions. Whether by design or by mistake, the Obama administration has diminished any influence over Syrians it once had.

Syrians fighting the regime were at first perplexed by Obama’s attitude. With time, they have become more indignant and more determined. Oddly, it was the realization that no help would come without U.S. approval that gave revolutionaries their impetus, bringing the battle to the regime’s ultimate stronghold, Damascus. After the brutality he unleashed all over the country, the horror Assad will try to impose on the capital is certain to reach unimaginable levels. Had the U.S. allowed others to help restrain Assad, the outcome could have been different.

Russia and Iran have actively supported the Assad regime, but the U.S. allowed the massacre to go on. On Monday, Obama said: “Today I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching.” Indeed, as Syrians fight for survival, the world is watching — and forming its own opinions.