Fred Hiatt: Obama's tragic timeline of indecision

The president has allowed the Syrian people to be slaughtered

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March 2011: Syrians demonstrate in favor of democracy. Syria’s dictator, Bashar Assad, responds with ferocity. By May, 920 Syrians have been killed.

Aug. 4, 2011: President Barack Obama issues a “presidential study directive” that says preventing mass atrocities is “a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility. …”

“Governmental engagement on atrocities and genocide too often arrives too late, when opportunities for prevention or low-cost, low-risk action have been missed. … In the face of a potential mass atrocity, our options are never limited to either sending in the military or standing by and doing nothing.”

Aug. 18, 2011: Mr. Obama says, “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

A White House fact sheet explains: “Our goal is to put an immediate stop to the Syrian government’s use of violence against civilians and its policies of mass arrests and torture.”

January 2012: The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has registered 9,500 Syrians who have fled their country. By February, 7,500 Syrians have been killed.

April 23, 2012: Mr. Obama speaks at the Holocaust Museum. “We have to remember that despite all the tanks and all the snipers, all the torture and brutality unleashed against them, the Syrian people still brave the streets. They still demand to be heard. They still seek their dignity. The Syrian people have not given up, which is why we cannot give up.

“And so with allies and partners, we will keep increasing the pressure, with a diplomatic effort to further isolate Assad and his regime, so that those who stick with Assad know that they are making a losing bet.”

April 26, 2012: Registered refugees number 50,015. Several times that many are internally displaced — inside Syria but no longer in their homes.

Aug. 20, 2012: President Obama holds a White House news conference. “On Syria, obviously this is a very tough issue,” he says. “I have indicated repeatedly that President al-Assad has lost legitimacy, that he needs to step down. So far, he hasn’t gotten the message.”

Aug. 30, 2012: There are 186,933 refugees.

Jan. 2, 2013: A report commissioned by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights documents 59,648 Syrians killed.

Jan. 10: The number of refugees reaches 501,872.

April 5: The number of refugees has doubled, to 1,034,654.

April 30: Mr. Obama speaks about Syria again during a news conference. “I think it’s important to understand that for several years now what we’ve been seeing is a slowly unfolding disaster for the Syrian people. And this is not a situation in which we’ve been simply bystanders to what’s been happening. My policy from the beginning has been that … the only way to bring stability and peace to Syria is going to be for Assad to step down. … Obviously, there are options that are available to me that are on the shelf right now that we have not deployed. And that’s a spectrum of options.”

May 7: In a White House statement, Mr. Obama declares: “The Syrian regime’s actions and policies … continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States.”

July 25: U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says more than 100,000 Syrians have been killed.

Aug. 16: The U.N. human rights office issues a report: “The Syrian Arab Republic is a battlefield. Its cities and towns suffer relentless shelling and sieges. Massacres are perpetrated with impunity. An untold number of Syrians have disappeared. … The perpetrators of these violations and crimes, on all sides, act in defiance of international law. They do not fear accountability.”

Aug. 21: Assad’s forces fire artillery shells containing sarin gas into civilian neighborhoods near Damascus, killing 1,400, according to U.S. officials.

Aug. 31: Mr. Obama announces, “Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets.”

Sept. 13: Mr. Obama is interviewed by George Stephanopoulos on ABC News’ “This Week.” Assad has agreed to give up his chemical weapons, and Mr. Obama has withdrawn his threat of military action.

Mr. Obama: “I believe that because of Assad’s actions, his response to peaceful protests — we’ve created a civil war in Syria that has led to 100,000 people being killed and 6 million people being displaced. But what I’ve also said is that the United States can’t get in the middle of somebody else’s civil war. …

Mr. Stephanopoulos: “If, one year from now, Assad is in the process of surrendering his chemical weapons, but he’s strengthened his hold on power, is that a victory?”

Mr. Obama: "Well, the chemical weapons issue is the issue I’m concerned about first and foremost, simply because that speaks directly to U.S. interests. … And if that goal is achieved, then it sounds to me like we did something right."

Last Friday: The number of refugees has more than doubled again, to 2,272,722. This would be the equivalent of 32 million Americans having fled to Mexico and Canada.

About half of the refugees are children. Antonio Guterres, U.N. high commissioner for refugees, says, “If we do not act quickly, a generation of innocents will become lasting casualties of an appalling war.”

Fred Hiatt is editorial page editor of The Washington Post.


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