Clinton: al-Asad has lost Legitimacy after Mobs Storm US, French Embassies

The mob attacks on the US and French embassies by ‘pro-regime elements’ in Damascus on Monday provoked a heated response from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said that President Bashar al-Asad had now “lost legitimacy” by neglecting to live up to his obligations in international law to protect foreign diplomats. She warned him that Washington does not consider al-Asad “indispensable.”

The US has ratcheted up financial sanctions on the Syrian elite, some members of which have seen bank accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere frozen, and has repeatedly called for al-Asad to meet his people’s demand to democratize.

Any background analysis must begin with the plain fact that the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein failed to produce an Iraq more favorable to Israel (indeed, the Shiite minions of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are substantially more anti-Israel than had been Saddam). The general view in the Middle East had been that this failure convinced the Israeli security establishment that the al-Asad regime is preferable to a Sunni fundamentalist one. The latter is widely thought likely to come to power if al-Asad falls, though of course that prediction is speculative. Al-Hayat even ran a story to this effect in 2004 as I remember.

Al-Asad may have therefore concluded that while the US is making noises critical of his authoritarianism, ultimately Washington actually wants him around and will therefore take a lot of guff from him with no real practical consequences.

Clinton seemed to be warning al-Asad not to rely too much on US fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, and she signalled that Washington is increasingly complaisant about the possibility that the Baath will fall from power. Her remarks on Monday are the strongest ones yet directed at Damascus since the Obama administration came into power determined to improve relations with Syria (that is why there is a US ambassador in Damascus to attack– the Bush administration used to like to pretend that Syria did not actually exist).

The attacks themselves raised many questions. First, it seems likely that the regime itself put the crowds up to the attacks, since very little happens in Damascus that the Baath Party does not want to happen. This thesis is supported by the poor police response (to say the least) and the consequent need of US and French embassy troops to defend their buildings. The French fought off the attackers, but mobs got through for a while into the US embassy and ransacked it before being driven off by the Marines. They also made an attempt to reach the residency of the US ambassador, according to al-Hayat writing in Arabic.

The attacks protested the visits on Saturday to Hama by US Ambassador Robert S. Ford and his French counterpart Eric Chevallier, which may well have given the inhabitants a reprieve from a harsh Syrian crackdown in response to the estimated 300,000 who demonstrated there on Friday. Syrian President Bashar al- Asad fired the governor of Hama for having urged the regime to approach the city with a light touch, given the regime’s massacre there of some 10,000 residents in 1982, accusing them of fomenting a Muslim fundamentalist uprising.

Even before the embassy attacks, according to an earlier report in al-Hayat, crowds had been pelting the embassy with tomatoes and eggs over the weekend. The regime had spread a rumor that Ambassador Ford had been recalled by Washington because of his Hama visit, which Syria decried as an infringement against Syrian sovereignty and interference in local affairs. The US State Department denied the rumor.

AP has raw video of the attack

and

Euronews has a report

25 Responses

  1. The absurdity starts with the notion of a US influenced regime change and ends with all sorts of worry about whether it would be good for Israel.

    I think the situation has spun out of control, and whatever political force takes over will likely influence everybody from Beirut to Baghdad. I have no idea what that might be, but it won’t be good for Israel.

    • Prof Cole stated “… the Obama administration came into power determined to improve relations with Syria …”.

      Who’s idea was it then for the US to fund anti-Government broadcasts that may have precipitated the current crisis? How do these “improved relations” relate to the the expansion of the Russian naval base in Tartus?

      There were many questions to be raised about US involvement in the troubles before the embassy attacks. These must be answered before any sense can be made of Syrian response.

      • Moi, if you have anything other than extraordinarily far-fetched thoughts that the US
        ” … may have precipitated the current crisis.”

        please share the information. Otherwise, your may questions appear to be simply ludicrous. people don’t rise and challenge the guns of a police state in a sustained campaign of protest without some pretty strong and deep motivation.

        • Fluster, I would call “strengthening freedom of expression” a euphasim for stirring up trouble in a country like Syria.

          U.S. admits funding Syrian opposition
          CBC News Posted: Apr 18, 2011 3:14 AM ET

          The U.S. State Department acknowledged Monday it has been funding opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad, following the release of secret diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks that document the funding.

          The files show that up to $6.3 million US was funnelled to the Movement for Justice and Development, a London-based dissident organization that operates the Barada TV satellite channel, which broadcasts anti-government news into Syria. Another $6 million went to support a variety of initiatives, including training for journalists and activists, between 2006 and 2010.

          Asked point-blank by reporters whether the United States is funding Syrian opposition groups, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a news conference Monday, “We are — we’re working with a variety of civil society actors in Syria with the goal here of strengthening freedom of expression.”

          “Some programs may be perceived, were they made public, as an attempt to undermine the Assad regime.… The Syrian Arab Republic government would undoubtedly view any U.S. funds going to illegal political groups as tantamount to supporting regime change.”

          link to cbc.ca

          and from Israel:

          Russia building naval base in Syria – report
          Vera Yadidya Latest Update: 06.02.06, 23:42

          Russian magazine Kommersant reported Friday that the Russian army is laying the groundwork for building the Syrian port of Tartus, in the north of the country.

          link to juancole.com

      • Moi, thank you for the figures and total of “up to 12.3 million” bucks spent over a period of some 4 years. If, to you, that is evidence that the US might have “precipitated the current crisis” by funding a tv station in London and giving money to journalists, then I guess you might think just about anything, including that Radio Free Europe precipitated the destruction of the Soviet Empire.

        Perhaps PRESS-TV’s English broadcasts will be responsible for the end of NATO.

  2. Dear Dr. Cole,

    I am surprised your above article makes_no mention_ of Russia’s continued strong support of the Assad Government. (See: Monsters&critics #Russia: All #arms shipments 2 #Syria legal-will continue link to tinyurl.com ). As you are very aware, Russia has KEY strategic interests in Syria (military Sea port & oil fields, etc). The failure of Syrian Troops, most likely at the behest of the Assad Gov’t, to adequately protect US & French embassies could also be interpreted as a sign of “confidence and arrogance” on the part of Assad, i.e. he knows he still has Russia’s backing and they will veto any resolution that comes before the UN Security Council.

    So much of the Proxy Power Struggles of the Cold War still have yet to be unraveled, knot by painful knot, as indicated by the Robust Arms sales to various countries in MENA. And of course, this is all linked to NATO’s proposed Missile Shield and the current wrangling between Russia and NATO on the details of any deployment of a Missile Shield in Europe.

    It was IMHO truly impressive that, after VP Biden’s visit to Moscow, Medvedev & Putin agreed not to veto UN Res 1973 re: NFZ in Libya AND to give up Billions of arms contracts.

    I would appreciate reading your anaylsis of Russia’s role in MENA.

    Kind regards

  3. The French guards dispersed unarmed protesters with LIVE FIRE! These are war crimes and whoever ordered such an action should be brought to justice. How can they claim to be any better than al-Assad?

    • It is not a war crime to disperse a mob attempting to enter and ransack one’s Embassy, whether with live firej or not, Daoud. There were no deaths, injuries, or other consequences that any reasonable person would call a war crime.

    • –“Guards at the French embassy were forced to fire three warning shots as protesters stormed into the compound using a battering ram, according to officials. Three members of the embassy staff, believed to be local employees, were injured.”

      link to telegraph.co.uk

      Daoud,

      Calling the shots a war crime is about half past absurd.
      You would have to have no inkling of law, war, logic or human interaction to advance such nonsense.

      What are you trying to say and how the heck can you possibly think that this is at all akin to the Syrian government shooting citizens peaceably assembled to call for an end to the denial of their rights?

  4. which Syria decried as an infringement against Syrian sovereignty and interference in local affairs.

    So you don’t really think the visit to Hama was interference in internal politics? It certainly was, and quite gross.

    If the Syrian ambassador to the US had done the same thing in reverse, he would have been thrown out of the US.

    Of course, many commentators are saying that the visit to Hama was mainly intended for domestic consumption in the US, after the Republican criticism of Ford.

    It is a good laugh that here the US is supporting the same Sunni fundamentalists that they are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    • It is a good laugh that here the US is supporting the same Sunni fundamentalists that they are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

      Do you have some evidence of such a coalition?

    • “If the Syrian ambassador to the US had done the same thing in reverse, he would have been thrown out of the US.”

      The American Ambassador’s visit to Hama was not interference in internal politics, Alexno. Only a dictatorial regime that ignores international protocol would call it such. And I guarantee you, other countries’ Ambassadors in the U.S. have visited with and talked to people who are very much against U.S. Government policies, and they have never been “thrown out of the U.S.” They have not even been declared “Persona non grata,” which is the correct diplomatic term.

  5. The United States does not have much of a relationship with the Syrian government, although the Obama administration had some hope for cultivating closer ties with Syria.
    However, the idea that Assad was open to moving somewhat toward the West and somewhat away from Iran and Hezbollah, which seemed worth exploring, has been overtaken by events.

    It now seems worth exploring whether there’s a possibility that the overthrow of the Baathists might lead to a Syrian regime less repressive, somewhat stable and no longer aligned with the Iranians, but instead influenced by Turkey and the other Arab nations.

    • What? Another NATO “intervention” to protect civilians?

      • I wish – because I actually care about civilians being slaughtered by dictators – but with Russia having a veto in the UNSC, that’s not going to happen.

    • A lot of parties have seen their pre-existing positions overtaken by events.

      The Arab Spring protesters from Tunisia to Benghazi to Cairo to Damascus to Sanaa are driving events now. Everyone else is scrambling to keep up.

  6. So, you’re saying Syrian regime kills over 1,000 of its own citizens, muted US response. Regime encourages vandalism of U.S. property, loses “legitimacy”? Not sure thae admin will agree with this take!

    Re “The mob attacks on the US and French embassies by ‘pro-regime elements’ in Damascus on Monday provoked a heated response from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said that President Bashar al-Asad had now “lost legitimacy” by neglecting to live up to his obligations in international law to protect foreign diplomats.”

  7. Small question that has been bugging me and I haven’t been able to find an answer to (though I admit I don’t know where to look). Are there any estimates on the number of Iraqi refugees still in Syria? I seem to recall that at the height of the cleansing of Baghdad there were estimated to be over 1 million (2 million even?).

    How many remain? If it is a significant number, is it at all relevant to the political situation (I’m drawing vague analogies with Palesinians in Lebanon)?

  8. Professor, I think your analysis here is quite solid.

    I do quibble with this, though: Any background analysis must begin with the plain fact that the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein failed to produce an Iraq more favorable to Israel (indeed, the Shiite minions of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are substantially more anti-Israel than had been Saddam).

    Given that the previous Iraqi regime actually fired rockets at Israel in 1991 and sent payments to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, I’d say that the Malaki regime is, at a minimum, less hostile towards Israel.

    And while your statement about the Sadrists is true, they’re not running the government. Malaki is from Dawa, which is a larger party than Sadr’s bloc.

    Still, I think you correctly identified the Assads’ thinking-about-American-thinking.

  9. Clinton lost “legitimacy” when she knowingly voted for the 2002 Iraq war resolution. She knew there were no WMD’s in Iraq.Why give a warmongering administration assistance?

    • Because they’re doing the right thing?

      And because, call me crazy, one’s opinion about the American response to events in Syria should be based on 1) the events in Syria and 2) the American response to those events?

      As opposed to a grudge nursed for nine years. Hillary Clinton voted the wrong way on the Iraq AUMF. And? That makes her wrong about Syria how?

    • Clinton was giving the warmongering Baathist regime any assistance and why do you conclude that she knew that there were no WMD in iraq?
      There was no evidence that there were not chemical or biological weapons.

      • The Bushies hyped Saddam’s supposed nuclear program and made up out of whole cloth a ridiculous story about biolabs in winnebagos bouncing deadly bacteria around on potholed Iraqi highways. No one would have gone to war over a few old canisters of mustard gas. The very phrase WMD, sweeping up the latter with nukes, was a propaganda move.

        It is not true that everyone thought Saddam had an advanced nuclear program. Intelligence and Research at the US State Department did not. The French did not. Others who did were simply told it by the Bushies and the Israelis. It was war propaganda for the purpose of authorizing a war, and even inside the administration the case had to be made through distortion, stove-piping, and dirty tricks by Doug Feith’s shop.

  10. I believe that Shiite clerics in general across the Middle East have been the most vehement anti-Israel bloc among Muslims and have inspired and funded Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad militants in Lebanon and Gaza in teror attacks that have dwarfed the impact Saddam Hussein’s government had on Israel.

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