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Editorial

Getting tough with Syria

The U.S. call for Bashar Assad to step down and the imposition of sanctions are responsible moves that increase pressure on Syria's regime.

August 19, 2011

For the last month, Syrian security forces under the command of President Bashar Assad have pummeled the suburbs of Damascus and Homs and, most recently, shelled the port city of Latakia, rounding up thousands of its residents as they fled naval bombardment. Meanwhile, to the west and south, Libyan forces loyal to Moammar Kadafi battled rebels in Zawiya, where an earlier uprising had been brutally put down by the regime. In Libya, the United States is part of a NATO coalition aiding the rebels as they attempt to overthrow Kadafi; in Syria, the United States had, until Thursday, refrained even from saying that Assad should go.

The juxtaposition of the two conflicts in the Mediterranean frames the reach of American power in the region and serves as a useful reminder that force, though it has its place, also has its limits. On Thursday, the Obama administration faced up to that tension in Syria by launching a pair of diplomatic actions, one late and the other timely. Both are responsible moves that increase the pressure on Assad while refraining from the commitment of U.S. military force.

The first of the administration's initiatives was to call for Assad to step down, a decision that had been urged for weeks by human rights organizations and others. The administration had moved cautiously on that front, saying it was drumming up support, especially from Turkey, so that any withdrawal of support for Assad would not be unilateral. Then, at last, it acted. Citing the "flagrant disrespect for the Syrian people" in recent weeks, President Obama announced, "The time has come for President Assad to step aside." His call was joined by similar statements from leading U.S. allies.

Without something behind it, that would not amount to much. But Obama went further. The administration's executive order also imposed sanctions, banning the import of Syrian oil and barring Americans from operating or investing in Syria. The combined effect is, as the administration hoped, to condemn and isolate the Assad regime and to nudge it toward the denouement it deserves.

There are those who will ask, appropriately: Why now? The Assad regime has been a deplorable human rights abuser for decades — and an ally of Iran to boot. The answer lies in the same subtlety that distinguishes Libya and Syria today: America acts, or should, when human rights, American interests or American principles are violated; when it can do so in conjunction with its allies; and when that action can make a difference. All of those elements are in place now in Syria. The Obama administration was right to act as it did.

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