The Middle East Channel

Eyes on the prize

The regime of Bashar al-Asad faces unprecedented and unexpected challenges from peaceful protestors demanding political change. Across Syria, citizens have taken to the streets, initially calling for little more than political and economic reforms. The regime responded with force, killing dozens of unarmed demonstrators. As in other cases across the region, regime violence has hardened ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The regime of Bashar al-Asad faces unprecedented and unexpected challenges from peaceful protestors demanding political change. Across Syria, citizens have taken to the streets, initially calling for little more than political and economic reforms. The regime responded with force, killing dozens of unarmed demonstrators. As in other cases across the region, regime violence has hardened the determination of the opposition, and mobilized growing numbers of Syrians to participate in mass protests. Regime collapse in Syria remains a distant prospect, but contrary to the expectations of most observers, Damascus is now in play. 

The mass protests and regime violence have left officials in Washington uncertain about how to respond. Faced with the opportunity of actively supporting an uprising against one of America’s most determined and brutal opponents in the Middle East, the Obama administration has demurred. Subsequent regime violence has not yet produced a noticeable shift in the administration’s seeming ambivalence about what to do with Damascus. Given the stakes involved in the Syrian case, caution and prudence are not inappropriate. Sooner rather than later, however, the administration will need to figure out both how much support it is prepared to offer the Syrian uprising, and what it is prepared to do, both now and in the longer-term, should this wave of protests be snuffed out.

This was not supposed to happen. For more than two months, Syria seemed insulated from the wave of popular uprisings sweeping the region. From the regime’s perspective, quiescence reflected the legitimacy it derived from its nationalist credentials and its leadership of the "resistance front." On Jan. 31st, President al-Asad told the Wall Street Journal that despite its "more difficult circumstances than most Arab countries," Syria was stable because its government was "very closely linked to the beliefs of the people."

Many analysts accepted the claim that Syria was stable, if not for the reasons Asad claimed. Stability was the result not of the regime’s legitimacy or its purported nationalist credentials, but its long history of brutally repressing dissent. Elsewhere in the region, mass uprisings shattered the "wall of fear" that had been carefully cultivated by authoritarian regimes over the course of decades. Not in Syria, where the mukhabarat state continued to cast a long, dark shadow. Moreover, many Syrians had internalized the regime’s rhetoric about the risks of disorder if the regime were not present to defend social peace at home, and the cause of resistance abroad, or the ease with which sinister forces might drag Syria into the conflicts and instability that surrounded it in Lebanon and Iraq. These, we believed, were the real reasons that Syria remained "stable." 

No longer. The courage and defiance of Syrian protestors has given the lie to regime claims of legitimacy. Its nationalist identity and anti-Westernism could not indefinitely insulate it from demands for accountability — the radical and destabilizing notion that the regime might be held to account. Beginning with a tiny gathering of human rights activists in Damascus on March 16, moving south to the dusty border town of Deraa and its surrounding region on March 18, small gatherings of peaceful protestors signaled that the Syrian regime was not immune after all to the discontent and alienation that is fueling uprisings across the Arab world. 

Nor it seems, did the Syrian regime demonstrate any greater creativity or insight in how it has responded to protests than did its counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain. In his long-awaited speech on March 30, President Asad talked about learning.  "We tell them," he said, "that you have only one choice, which is to learn from your failure, while the Syrian people have only the choice of continuing to learn from their successes." Precisely what the Asad regime has learned from recent events, however, is unclear. Despite the President’s rhetoric, the Asad regime has adopted the same combination of repression and concession, real bullets and false promises of reform, that have failed to appease protesters in every other case in which it has been used. 

Yet the end of "Syrian exceptionalism" does not mean that the regime’s fate is inevitable.  Protests have spread well beyond Deraa, yet they remain small and scattered. Opposition groups are poorly organized, fragmented, and face formidable obstacles to coordination.  In some areas, such as Lattakia, repression seems to have forced the opposition into near silence. Protests in Syria have not yet congealed into a mass uprising. The regime could yet regain its footing, reassert its authority, even with its claims to legitimacy severely frayed. 

Violence being deployed against the opposition is stiffening resistance, but it is also taking a toll. So are the regime’s counter-measures, including not only its carefully orchestrated pro-Asad demonstrations, but its willingness to deploy the oldest moves in the Ba`thist playbook: demonizing protestors as traitors, agents of foreign powers, and enemies of the Syrian people. However ham-fisted the President’s speech appeared to outside observers, and to many Syrians, it was virtually pitch perfect in its evocation of classic Ba`thist themes: foreign plots, Syrian steadfastness, the virtues of order, and the determination of the regime to crush its adversaries and prevail against formidable odds.  Unfortunately, the courage of Syrian protesters may not be enough to prove Asad wrong.

In channeling his father’s generation of ruthless autocrats, Bashar al-Asad has dismantled the last residual hopes that somehow, despite all the evidence to the contrary, he might seize this moment of crisis to resurrect his self-claimed identity as a reformer. He has also thrown a large wrench into initial U.S. responses to the Syrian uprising. After the March 30 speech, the willingness of some U.S. politicians to characterize Asad as a reformer — an improbable gamble, perhaps, that by ensnaring Bashar in his own reformist claims he might be compelled to act like one — is not a viable position. It is time for the administration to re-boot its Syria policy, address the dilemma of just how much risk it is willing to take, what it will do if uprisings succeed, and how it will respond if they are successfully put down.

For the U.S., the temptation to assist in ushering in the end of the Asad regime is no doubt enormous. The possibility of tipping Syria, of supporting a transition that would not only eliminate a determined and vicious adversary of the U.S. in the Middle East, but fundamentally transform the balance of power in the region, is a prize of such vast consequence that it is hardly surprising to hear calls mounting for the Obama administration to seize the moment and actively back regime change in Damascus.

We are encouraged to imagine the possibilities such a change might bring: Iran hemmed in, its regional project in tatters; Hizballah and Hamas weakened by the loss of a leading regional sponsor and supplier of weapons; a possible democratic government in Damascus, a possible negotiating partner for Israel, perhaps even an ally of the West?  Heady stuff, to be sure. Even if such gains do not materialize, is it not in our interest to assist in removing a brutal adversary from power? Do the potential gains not outweigh the possible loses, as one prominent former U.S. diplomat to the region suggested. 

Perhaps. Yet this grand vision of a truly new Middle East rest on exceptionally wobbly foundations. This is certainly the moment for the U.S. to lend support to Syrians struggling against the Asad regime. Yet the administration should not be lulled by the sirens of regime change into acting on the presumption that things could not be worse.  Even if we acknowledge that fears of instability play into the regime’s hands, regime collapse might well be followed by a period of violent social conflict, the Lebanization of Syria, and the emergence of a regional order that is much darker and less compliant than the one held out by advocates of regime change. The growing sectarianism evident across the Gulf reminds us how quickly identity conflicts could arise in the Levant, with potentially devastating consequences. 

Moreover, regime change is not the only outcome of Syrian protests that works to the advantage of both Syrian reformers and the U.S. A wounded Asad regime could become even more dangerous, seek out even closer ties to Iran, and exploit Hizballah more fully – and the U.S. should be prepared for this possibility. Yet previous episodes of vulnerability, especially the 2003-2006 period, compelled the regime to be more responsive to internal demands for change, not less so. It was only when the regime regained its confidence, from 2006 onward, that it reverted to form and launched a sharp crackdown on dissidents. This time, moreover, the regime has offered up reforms — even if with little intent to honor its commitments — that create possibilities for sustained pressure from the West. Efforts to hold the regime accountable for its behavior during the uprising offer additional leverage. Collectively, these prospects suggest the need for the U.S. to plan beyond the present and put in place the elements of a long-term strategy of regime transformation in Syria, even while making more explicit its support for the legitimate aspirations of all Syrians to live in freedom. 

One critical element of such an approach must include expanded efforts to develop a coherent, capable Syrian opposition. Ultimately, the one way to respond to concerns about the instability that might accompany regime change, or the fear that what replaces the Asad regime might be worse, is to contribute to the development of a viable, democratic, alternative Syrian leadership. Rather than holding out for the vain possibility that Bashar al-Asad might bring reform to Syria, the U.S. should immediately begin to back Syria’s true democratic reformers, and strengthen the prospects for long-term regime transformation in Damascus.

Steven Heydemann is a senior vice president at the United States Institute of Peace.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola