This is a short excerpt from my 17,000 word Barack Obama's Courtship of Bashar al-Assad, written almost three years ago. We pick up the story on 27 March 2011, the democracy protests are in their second week, and Secretary of State Clinton is on Face the Nation and is asked about the US attitude towards Assad's crackdown:
QUESTION: Tens of thousands of people have turned out protesting in Syria, which has been under the iron grip of the Asad for so many years now, one of the most repressive regimes in the world, I suppose. And when the demonstrators turned out, the regime opened fire and killed a number of civilians. Can we expect the United States to enter the conflict in the way we have entered the conflict in Libya?The headline that went around the world the next day was that unlike Libya, there would be no military intervention in Syria. This piece in The Peninsula was typical:
No attack on Syria: ClintonJust hours before Clinton went on "Face the Nation," Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Assad, announced that one of the key demands of the protesters, the lifting of the emergency law, would be met. Three days after he had been assured that no military intervention was planned, on 30 March 2011, Assad made a speech blaming foreign conspirators for causing the uprising and reversing the promise to lift the emergency law. When people took to the streets to protest the speech in Latakia and Daraa, the police used live ammunition and killed five. Syrians had expected him to announce an end to the emergency law. The next day 25 people were killed by security forces in Latakia. The term "bloodbath" was starting to be used. After Clinton's statement, Assad started to use his army to attack the protesters and the death toll started rising dramatically.
The mask of "the reformer" was dropping fast as the bodies piled up now that Assad knew he was not going to get the "Qaddafi treatment."
The private spooks at Stratfor thought they had a pretty good idea of what was going on. In a 31 March 2011 Stratfor  memo obtained by Wikileaks:
Since Mubarak has gone and Gaddhafi is under fire, Assad has more than enough reasons to be concerned about Syrian regime's survival. Regardless of what our Syrian contacts tell us about Assad's confidence, we know and Assad knows that he is on the thin ice and needs US/Saudi support for survival. US/Saudi (and by proxy, Qatar) back Assad not because they fear things may get worse in Lebanon. Indeed, they think this is the best time to put pressure on Assad to give concessions in Lebanon due to his current weakness. Don't you really find it a bit unusual that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United States did not even hesitate throwing their support behind Assad at the very beginning? Washington could have easily sent a warning to Damascus by saying that "Libya-like treatment for Syria is one of the options". France was already willing to get engaged in Syria. But US did the contrary.
The Stratfor people had it right. Hillary Clinton was signalling a US policy of acceptance of Assad's crackdown.
How many time have we heard it from our diplomats and generals "You never take the military option off the table"? Its like a mantra with those guys: "You never take the military option off the table." Ask why they are even threatening war over this or that minor dispute and they are quick to tell you, well "You never take the military option off the table." Its like a dogma to them, you never leave the big stick at home and "You never take the military option off the table."
Except, its not true, is it? There are rare occasions when they do explicitly "take the military option off the table." Those are times when they want to signal that certain behaviour won't evoke a military response from the imperialist "big dog". It's their way of granting something like a Superpower "License of Kill."
I call them "green lights." On the day Obama made his now infamous statement that Assad's use of chemical weapons was a "red-line" that might cause him to take military action, I published Obama "green lights" Assad's slaughter in Syria saying that the real import of that statement was to take the military option off the table in response to the carnage Assad was already causing through the widespread use of long range artillery, tanks, cluster bombs, helicopter gunships and warplanes dropping bombs on civilian houses and apartment buildings. At the time, roughly 25,000 was the frightful death toll. Now we can say only 25,000, ["only 25,000"] had been slaughtered when Obama "took the military option off the table" with regards to Assad's continued carnage by conventional means. Now we can say the even Obama's threat to take military action if Assad used "a whole bunch of chemical weapons" was 100% bluff.
Here we have Hillary Clinton, speaking as the voice of United States foreign policy, and "taking the military option off the table" in the opening act of this tragedy. She is telling the Assad regime, after it has fired only the first shots of a carnage that was to reach 25,000 deaths before Obama "green-lighted" more of the same, that he don't have to worry about a no-fly zone or a NATO action in response to his crackdown.