This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 11/05/2011
Since Syria's uprising began two months ago, the best estimate is that the Assad regime has slaughtered close to a thousand of its own citizens -- though the actual toll may well be much higher. Entire towns have been subjected to full-blown siege by Assad's crack military units. Mass arrests and torture of innocents, including children, is in full swing. The savagery on display certainly exceeds anything witnessed in Egypt during the 18-day revolt that brought down Hosni Mubarak. Not even Qaddafi was able to inflict this level of human suffering before NATO warplanes felt compelled to stay his bloody hand.
But whereas Obama moved with relative dispatch to condemn Egypt's Pharaoh and Libya's Mad Hatter to history's dustbin (at least rhetorically), in the case of Assad -- as with Iran in 2009 -- the president and his team have gone mostly silent, timid, and reactive. When the brutality spikes sufficiently every Friday, and the administration is embarrassed into issuing a statement of disapproval, it invariably has been coupled with some pathetic blather that Assad still has time to implement reforms -- which the good ophthalmologist's thugs, quite predictably, have interpreted as a sign of profound U.S. unseriousness and a green light to continue their killing spree a bit longer.
This seeming ambivalence on the part of the administration is all the more puzzling when -- on top of the compelling moral calculus -- one also considers the potential strategic benefits to be had by the removal of the Assad family's 4-decade long criminal enterprise in anti-U.S. tyranny. The bill of indictment is too lengthy to review in its entirety. It includes a long alliance with the Soviet Union; master-minding the destruction of Lebanon; being a charter-member of the State Department's rogues gallery of terror-sponsoring states; an ever-deepening strategic relationship with Iran's Islamic Republic and its proxies in Hezbollah; playing host to the full panoply of Palestinian terror groups; perpetrating one of history's most egregious violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty through the covert construction, with North Korean assistance, of the plutonium-producing nuclear reactor at Al Kibar; and actively supporting the multi-year effort by Sunni insurgents, Saddamists, and al Qaeda jihadists to torpedo the U.S. effort to mid-wife representative democracy in Iraq.
Again, the contrast with Egypt's Mubarak and Libya's Qaddafi is striking. The former was a longstanding ally, a linchpin for 30 years of the Middle East's pax-Americana whose disappearance, at least in the short term, could arguably turn out to be a net detriment to U.S. policy. The latter, though a historic foe responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American innocents, had in recent years bowed to U.S. demands to dismantle his nuclear weapons program and get out of the terrorism business, thereby relegating Libya to the margins of U.S. strategic concerns. The Assad family, by contrast, pere and fils alike, have for the better part of two generations (and seven U.S. presidencies) posed a clear and present danger to Middle East peace and security, and the advancement of U.S. interests. Next to regime change in Iran itself, it's hard to think of a more devastating blow that could be struck against the Islamic Republic than the collapse of its primary partner in crime, the dictatorship in Damascus, at the hands of a popular uprising. Yet it is here, with respect to Syria, that Obama balks.
At least initially, the president's wooly-headedness could be chalked up to his faux-realist determination to "engage" Assad. The goal, articulated from the start of his presidency, was to enlist Syria in a revitalized peace process with Israel and/or to crack the Iranian-Syrian axis by persuading Assad that his true interests lay not in playing wing-man to the expansionist theocrats in Tehran, but prospering under the patronage of a U.S. superpower willing to ply Syria with economic assistance, mediate an end to its conflict with Israel, and help recover the Golan Heights,
This was, of course, a huge conceit-- Obama playing Kissinger, but even better -- one that more or less blindly disregarded the entire sorry history of the United States' unsatisfying dealings with Baathist Syria under the tutelage of the Assad clan and their minority, Alawite regime. To be fair to Obama, it was a conceit that more than one -- indeed, most -- of his predecessors had similarly indulged, and with similarly disappointing results. Forever condemned to rule with a nagging legitimacy deficit, the Assads, lo and behold, simply refused to reprise the role played by Sadat when he switched strategic allegiances from the "resistance" camp to the peace camp. Despite U.S. protestations to the contrary, Bashar, like his father before him, was of the stubborn conviction that he actually understood better than Washington the formula for ensuring the survival of the family business -- and it most assuredly did not include permanently ending the conflict with Israel and addressing the real political, economic, and social needs of Syria's beleaguered citizenry. Not even Barack Obama's arrival on the world stage, which his most delusional acolytes promised would transform the very nature of international politics, proved capable of changing the cruel and sordid reality that was the Assad dictatorship and the type of Middle East it stood for.
As proved tragically the case with Iran in 2009, Obama's insistence on sticking to his engagement strategy with Syria long past its sell-by date was also driven by an unfortunate brew of ideology and egotism. Obama seemed determined to show himself, evidence to the contrary be damned, the un-Bush -- sophisticated, nuanced, worldly-wise to the gray areas of world affairs inhabited by true statesmen like the one he fancied himself to be, in contrast to the boorish, black-and-white cowboy-ism of his dim-witted predecessor. Never mind that, truth be told, Bush himself spent the first few years of his administration on the fool's errand of reaching out to Assad the Younger in hopes of testing his alleged reformist instincts. And never mind that the West's most important breakthroughs with the Assad dynasty-- from Kissinger's disengagement agreement to Syria's participation in the Madrid peace process; from the eviction of PKK terrorist Abdullah Ocalan to the 2005 withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon -- all could be sourced to moments when the regime felt itself most profoundly weakened and under threat, its very survival possibly in play.
With all the carnage of the past two months, one hopes that the president and his advisors prove capable of realizing that the chance of converting Assad into a viable strategic partner, if it ever existed, has long since passed. Reportedly, that moment of illumination did eventually come in the case of Iran, though only belatedly -- long after the Green Movement had been effectively crushed and an historic opportunity to advance U.S. interests had passed, perhaps indefinitely. It would be tragic, indeed, if a similar mistake was made in the case of Syria.
Instead, the administration needs quickly to move off the sidelines, declare its full-fledged support for the aspirations of the Syrian people, and develop a serious strategy to expedite the collapse of Assad's rule and a peaceful transition to a new, more democratic order. Barring such an effort, we seem likely on a course that will lead to one of two highly undesirable outcomes: either the total suppression of the uprising (most likely), or a sectarian-based civil war that pits the largely Sunni forces of the regular army against the much smaller, but heavily-armed Alawite shock troops and security services whose very raison d'etre is ensuring the regime's survival.
The key to a soft landing will be fracturing the regime's elite, particularly by convincing prominent figures in the Alawite community, especially within the security services, that their interests lie not in continuing to support Assad and his family in the commission of their crimes against the Syrian people, but in abandoning them and throwing their weight behind the popular movement for peaceful change. Such an effort would require assembling a diplomatic coalition of states most capable of influencing Syrian events, including the United States, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and perhaps Egypt. The office of the United Nations' Secretary General might come in handy as well, particularly in the form of its shrewd and energetic envoy, Terje Larsen, the Norwegian diplomat who proved such a useful ally in helping coerce Syrian troops out of Lebanon in 2005.
The network of contacts, political, military, and intelligence, that these states possess across the Syrian elite would need to be discretely tapped. Inducements-- financial, political, and otherwise -- would need to be offered. Assurances-- both in terms of a future role in the post-Assad order and security protections for the broader Alawite community as well as other minorities --would need to be provided. Punishments in the form of economic sanctions, travel bans, and international prosecutions would need to be threatened and, as necessary, imposed.
Such commitments at the international level would ideally be matched by pledges from some representative group of Syrians that could credibly claim to speak in the name of the protest movement. That likely means supporting an opposition conference somewhere in Europe or the Middle East. While such an event would unavoidably be dominated by Syrians in exile, provision could be made to solicit through every means possible the views and preferences of those still inside. A visionary, inclusive platform for Syria's democratic future could be developed, one that reaches out to all Syria's communities as well as members of the current regime in a spirit of national reconciliation. A transitional leadership council might be elected -- with half its seats reserved for insiders who will be appointed once Assad is gone, if not before -- whose primary task would be working with the United Nations to draft a provisional constitution and organize free and fair elections. To underscore their selfless commitment to the nation, members of the transitional council might pledge not to stand in the first post-Assad elections.
Implementing such a strategy would no doubt be enormously challenging, requiring a major commitment of diplomatic resources, including the sustained involvement of the president himself. But the fact that it is hard and offers no guarantee of success cannot become an excuse for policymakers to abdicate their moral and strategic responsibilities to act on behalf of U.S. vital interests and core values. The bitter fact is that the administration's current non-policy almost certainly has us on a path that ends in national shame for the United States, national disaster for Syria, and a festering sore of instability and violence in the heart of a region vital to U.S. interests. We can, we must, try to do better.