As the violence in Syria grinds on with no resolution in sight, a chorus of voices is predictably rising demanding that the Obama administration do more to hasten the exit of Bashar al-Assad. Their impatience is understandable, as is the outrage which I share about the indiscriminate use of violence by an ugly regime. But ...
As the violence in Syria grinds on with no resolution in sight, a chorus of voices is predictably rising demanding that the Obama administration do more to hasten the exit of Bashar al-Assad. Their impatience is understandable, as is the outrage which I share about the indiscriminate use of violence by an ugly regime. But Syria will not be solved by Obama deciding to finally use the magic democracy words that he has inexplicably refused to deploy: "Expellus Assadum!"
The administration is right about the limits of Washington’s influence over events in Syria and correct to resist pressure to indulge in symbolic gestures such as withdrawing the Ambassador or calling on Assad to leave. Prudence is not weakness. It is the only rational response to the turbulence and uncertainty surrounding Syria today. That does not mean doing nothing. The Obama administration should continue to ratchet up its rhetorical condemnation of Syrian violence. It might use the threat of International Criminal Court referral and targeted sanctions to encourage regime defections. But increasing pressure is not enough. Instead, it should continue to focus on a regional and international approach, in cooperation with regional partners such as Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab League, designed to create a real alternative to the seemingly unstoppable descent into brutality and rebellion.
Most arguments for more forceful U.S. action begin with the demand the withdrawal of Ambassador Robert Ford. This, they argue, will signal to Assad, to Syrians, and to the world that there will be no future relationship with the U.S. In fact, it would be a symbolic gesture which wouldn’t make much of a difference on the ground and would blind the U.S. inside of Syria at a critical time. The signal to Damascus would be a drop in the ocean, and would quickly fade by the next day’s news cycle. The cost would be losing the hard won presence of an able diplomat on the ground at a time of turmoil, which could prove extremely valuable should conditions continue to deteriorate. There is virtually no international media on the ground in Syria, which puts a premium on even the limited ability of the Embassy to collect information and to engage. At this point, this is still just a bad idea.
And then, there’s "Expellus Assadum": the magic words by which Obama might declare that Asad must go and somehow make it so. While there’s every reason for the U.S. to ratchet up its rhetorical criticism of an increasingly violent and brutal regime, tougher rhetoric isn’t going to change the game. The entire course of the Arab upheavals this year demonstrates the limits of American influence and control over events or other regional actors. It most certainly proves that firm Presidential rhetoric is not enough to tip either the internal or the international diplomatic balance.
Libya should be enough to demonstrate this hard reality. I’m actually optimistic about Libya — the diplomatic and military trends all clearly favor the rebels, the NTC has come together into an impressive government-in-waiting, and international consensus has remained reasonably strong. But even if Libya ends well, the reality is that it has taken months under nearly the best possible conditions. It isn’t just that the President used his magic words. The Libya operation had widespread regional and international support, UN authorization, direct military involvement in a favorable environment for airpower, and an organized and effective opposition on the ground with a viable political leadership. And it has ground on for months.
The idea that invoking "Expellus Assadum" would quickly lead to an endgame in Syria just doesn’t make sense. Demanding that Obama say "Assad must go" seems less about Assad and more about either moral posturing or about creating a rhetorical lever for pressuring Washington — not Damascus — to do more to deliver on that new commitment. By putting the President’s — and America’s — credibility on the line, however, it might force unwanted escalation into more concrete actions in order to deliver on the demand. So tougher and sharper rhetoric, with constant condemnations of violence, is not just appropriate but essential… but escalating to "Assad must go" at this point is not.
Some have suggested ratcheting up the Special Tribunal’s investigation of the Hariri assassination in order to increase pressure on Assad. It’s almost enough for me to be nostalgic for my days of being thoroughly lambasted for suggesting that the STL had lost credibility in Lebanon through its perceived politicization. I’m sure that ratcheting up the STL’s pressure on Syria for overtly strategic reasons would do wonders for its reputation. At any rate, there is little reason to think that this would have any more impact on Assad’s calculations than it has over the last six years. The same applies, by the way, to the sudden enthusiasm for an IAEA referral to the Security Council over Syria’s nuclear programs… it’s just never a good thing when putatively independent international institutions are seen to be serving an overt political agenda. The ICC, which would directly focus on the human rights abuses and killings in question, is a far better vehicle for international institutional pressure.
The case for prudence is strengthened by recalling how little we actually know. It may not be fashionable to admit the limits to our knowledge but it’s important. I am troubled by the incomplete and often unreliable information available to us about what’s happening inside of Syria, with very limited international media and an aggressive activist campaign shaping the narrative. I am not confident about any assessments of Syrian public opinion, which may be tipping against Assad in response to the rolling violence but may not be. I am skeptical of the Syrian opposition coalition which has been slowly emerging. I am highly sensitive to the ratcheting effect of rhetorical commitments, which might please activists for a day but then simply create new and more extreme demands. And despite the horrible bloodshed and brutality, the conditions which made intervention appropriate in Libya simply do not exist in Syria — and any hint of even the possibility of an American intervention should be avoided scrupulously.
The most thorough and careful list of policy options which I’ve seen for increasing pressure on Assad comes from Andrew Tabler and David Schenker: energy sanctions, targeted sanctions designed to split the regime, coordinated unilateral sanctions, an ICC referral for Assad, enhanced relations with the Syrian opposition, and so forth. This is a thoughtful and useful policy menu for increased U.S. pressure on Damascus, but the reality is that there are limitations to all of these policy instruments. What is more, pressure alone is not enough. Too often, U.S. policy in the region, whether towards Iran or Syria or other adversaries, has been reduced to the mechanisms of escalating pressure for its own sake. This is not the time to fall back into such old habits.
The administration should continue working carefully with regional partners to shape a broad regional response to the crisis — an approach which is paying off with Turkey, much of the Gulf, and now even the Arab League. Attempting to lure Assad away from Tehran made sense even a few months ago, but by this point his brutality has rendered it virtually inconceivable that he would find an open door even if he wished to switch sides. The policies it adopts should be consistently designed to shape an environment in which parts of the Syrian ruling coalition see the benefit in abandoning the regime, and to shape an environment in which a post-Assad regime would find an interest in finding a pathway into the emerging regional arena.
The administration should also continue to escalate its rhetorical condemnation of the violence and human rights violations of the Assad regime, and use its public diplomacy to highlight those depredations for regional and international audiences. The threat of an International Criminal Court referral for Assad and those in his regime complicit in the violence would be consistent with emerging regional norms, and could push regime fence-sitters to abandon the regime. Tabler and Schenker’s suggestion of targeted sanctions could also encourage the fragmentation of the regime coalition, at least on the margins. But unilateral sanctions should not come at the expense of a UN resolution, no matter how difficult the process of achieving one.
Such impact at the margins, through careful international diplomatic work, may not be satisfying, but it may be the best which the U.S. can hope to accomplish right now. I would much rather be able to wave a magic wand and run off for a good Quidditch match, but that’s just not in the cards.