The crackdown by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad against his own citizens counts as one of the most blood-soaked acts of political repression in the Middle East since his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, waged his own onslaught against anti-regime activists three decades ago.
Almost 10,000 people have died in the current Syrian uprising, and each passing day brings the killing and torture of more civilians, including many children.
Some critics say the U.S. has shamed itself by not intervening aggressively on behalf of Syria’s rebels and dissidents.
They’re wrong. The Obama administration hasn’t helped to arm the rebels, nor has it created safe havens for persecuted dissidents. But it has done something far more important: It has provided the Syrian opposition with very strong language to describe Assad’s various atrocities.
The administration’s unprecedented verbal and written sorties against the Assad regime have included some of the most powerful adjectives, adjectival intensifiers and adverbs ever aimed at an American foe. This campaign has helped Syrians understand, among other things, that the English language contains many synonyms for “repulsive.”
Shock and Awe
But a crisis is fast approaching: America’s stockpile of vivid adjectives is being depleted rapidly. Some linguists of the realist camp are now arguing for restraint in the use of condemnatory word combinations. They note that the administration, in its effort to shock and awe the Assad regime with the power of its official statements and the stridency of its State Department briefings, has prematurely stripped bare its thesaurus, leaving the U.S. powerless to come to the symbolic aid of the Syrian people.
When the uprising began last year, the Obama administration clearly hoped that softer language would persuade Assad to cease murdering Syrians. It relied on traditional formulations of diplomatic distaste, calling on Syria to “exercise restraint” and “respect the rights of its citizens.”
When it became clear that mild criticism wouldn’t stay Assad’s hand, the administration began carpet-bombing Damascus with powerful sentences and, at times, whole paragraphs.
In April 2011, shortly after Syrian security forces killed more than 80 unarmed demonstrators, President Barack Obama said, “This outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now.” He accused the Syrian government of using “brutal” tactics against civilians.
Somehow, such combative words still didn’t persuade Assad to change course. Soon, the president’s press secretary, Jay Carney, was forced to remind Assad, and the world, of the president’s rhetorical militancy.
“I’m sure you did see the president’s very strong statement of Friday where he condemned in the strongest possible terms the use of force by the Syrian government against demonstrators, referred to an outrageous use of violence to quell protests,” Carney said. He also mentioned that the White House didn’t merely “oppose” the Syrian government’s treatment of its citizens, but “strongly” opposed it.
Assad insolently ignored Carney’s amplification of the president’s muscular language.
A few months later, shortly after the Syrian government killed more than 30 people in the city of Latakia, Obama reached into the arsenal again and said the people of Syria had “braved ferocious brutality at the hands of their government.” This onslaught, Obama said, was “disgraceful.”
The White House appeared surprised when Assad nevertheless chose not to flee Damascus.
So the administration upped the ante. In the months that followed, Carney said the war waged on the Syrian people was both “heinous” and “unforgivable.”
He wasn’t alone. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, became a point person in deploying the full might of the American thesaurus. On Nov. 28, Rice accused Assad of perpetrating “outrageous and now well-documented atrocities,” and noted that the “patience” of the international community had “evaporated.” On Feb. 7, she reported Assad was now “off the reservation.”
On Feb. 9, Rice said the world was “horrified to watch the violence” in Syria. On Feb. 23, she said the Syrian government “has accelerated the killing of its people,” and the violence “has continued unabated for nearly a year at a breathtaking scale.” On April 2, she spoke of Assad’s “massive intensification of violence.” She also said she expected the Syrian government would implement a UN-negotiated cease-fire “without any conditions or codicils.” (The word “codicil” is known to strike fear in the hearts of dictators.)
Rice later said “a moment of truth” was coming up “very soon.” It is hard to imagine the Assad regime can take such punishment much longer.
The U.S. has also used other tools to press its case. For instance, it has supported sanctions that prevent Assad’s wife, Asma al-Assad, from shopping in Europe. And it has supported a UN plan to station dozens of unarmed observers in Syria to watch Assad’s forces kill civilians and then write reports about it.
Still more action may be needed. At the risk of deepening U.S. involvement in this very complicated conflict, my suggestion is that Obama and his team conduct a “surge” of new adjectives and adverbs in their campaign, including such words as “callous,” “merciless,” “pitiless” -- and even, perhaps, “barbarous.”
The optimist in me believes that the White House wouldn’t have to maintain this surge for too long. Why? Because several months after saying that the patience of the international community had “evaporated,” Rice wrote on Twitter that our patience had been “exhausted.” Now that patience has been both evaporated and exhausted, even Assad must understand that his time is nearly up.
Of course, Rice reported that patience had been exhausted on April 24. My suspicion is that, in three or four more weeks, we will learn that U.S. patience is “completely exhausted.”
Then Assad should really be careful.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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