The Middle East Channel

Time for a rethink of U.S. policy towards Syria

It’s easy to hate Bashar al-Assad, the crypto-modernizer-turned bloody tyrant. What is there to commend about a regime that kills thousands of its own? How could it not be fair to demonize a president who, in his first interview after coming to power after his father’s death in 2000, questioned the very notion of a ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

It’s easy to hate Bashar al-Assad, the crypto-modernizer-turned bloody tyrant. What is there to commend about a regime that kills thousands of its own? How could it not be fair to demonize a president who, in his first interview after coming to power after his father’s death in 2000, questioned the very notion of a civil society in Syria? Yet however good righteous indignation may feel, it makes for bad policy.

When U.S. President Barack Obama called for Egypt’s octogenarian president Hosni Mubarak to step aside last year, he could be confident that by doing so he was breathing new life into the "deep state" — ruled by the generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). U.S. policy was not abetting revolution in Egypt so much as short-circuiting it, even if we tried to convince ourselves otherwise. And our policy was consistent with the often inchoate sensibilities of Egypt’s majority. Remember the popular refrain: "The Army and the People are One!" In that case, U.S. policy was both right and smart.

Syria presents another challenge entirely, one that is far more complex and dangerous for U.S. policymakers. As with Iraq, the Syrian state — the security forces and governing institutions — may well not survive a collapse of the regime. Assad’s father may have killed two and perhaps four times as many fellow Syrians as has the son, but it was only the latter whose rule Washington deemed illegitimate. Despite the blood on his hands, Hafez al-Assad was courted by a generation of U.S. officials seeking an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty. This effort too was both right and smart.

Bashar Assad, unlike Egypt’s generals, has precious little capital to draw upon in the Obama White House. Ambassador Robert Ford, our man in Damascus, ceased acting as an envoy to the government. His brave support for the popular revolt against the regime warmed our hearts. Showing solidarity with the struggle against the regime, re-branded as a democratic uprising, was inspiring. It was the right thing to do, but doing the right thing is not the same as doing the smart thing. 

Simply opposing Assad is not a policy, but that is what the current U.S. policy risks. By demonizing the regime, Washington has walked away from the table. This decision left the U.S. ill-placed to tease out disaffected members of the regime in the hopes of mounting an insider’s coup, the best hope for a less violent transition. That power now rests in the hands of Moscow and Teheran, who may yet decide that a change in the regime is the best means of preserving their interests. Efforts by Syria’s Arab antagonists to undermine the ruling family have come to naught. This vacuum has left the diplomatic field to Kofi Annan, Tehran, Beijing, and Moscow, who appear united in an effort to craft a diplomatic solution with the regime — repudiating Washington’s preferences both tactically and strategically.

Washington’s ambivalence about the Annan mission is a product of the squeeze Moscow, Beijing, Baghdad, and Teheran are putting on U.S. policy. "Walking back" American support for regime change and the concomitant opposition to everything short of this goal, is not easy, but some former U.S. diplomats and even others currently wearing pinstripes believe it can be done. Our lukewarm support for Annan reflects the first, tentative baby steps in this direction.

The Obama administration, however, cannot bring itself to support a solution with the regime and its allies. It is has proven easier to embrace a number of more vague and often incompatible policy options: to snipe at the Annan mission from the sidelines, to debate tactical questions relating to humanitarian relief, or to engage in internal debates about the ease with which, for example, Syrian air defenses might be taken out.

Lacking a strategic compass, Washington finds itself not leading from behind but being dragged from behind in support of the policies and agendas of others — including in the Gulf and among the Syrian National Council — that promise at best to continue bleeding the regime, its opponents, and the long-suffering Syrian people, and that threaten the institutional and even the territorial integrity of the Syrian state.

These are the stakes of the game now being played by diplomats in drawing rooms and rebels in the alleys of Daraa and Homs. The Assad regime and the ruling state institutions are heinous, but there is still room for Washington to champion an engagement that aims at moving the Syrian government and the Syrian public to a wary, uneasy accommodation. The Obama administration must end its role in the slide towards civil, sectarian war. Annan’s effort needs more American support than is currently the case for his effort to be credible. His effort to craft a diplomatic solution through the regime is the best attainable outcome. Adoption of such a policy will help to dispel the polarization between the U.S. and Russia and China that harms the prospects of a diplomatic outcome. But the best course would be to reestablish an effective, direct channel to the regime and its various power centers. This course charts a future in shades of grey rather than black and white — less satisfying to those lusting for Assad’s head perhaps, but far more effective.

Geoffrey Aronson is director of research and publications at the Foundation for Middle East Peace and organized the "Swiss Track" negotiations between Israelis and Syrians in 2007. 

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