From 1559 to Regime Change in Washington Think
A number of readers took exception with my 1559 is Finished - The Game is Up post of two days ago.
The struggle between Syria and the US is far from finished. Syria's role in 1559 is largely finished. The word from many western embassies here, the day Syria confirmed to Larsen that it was moving out its security forces completely and quickly from Lebanon, was that 1559 was over as far as Syria was concerned.
The only real leverage 1559 offered the US was European sanctions. When Bush went to Bruxelles, he got the European powers to agree to support 1559 to the extent that it required the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon - that meant sanctions, a big club.
With Syria's withdrawal, the club is gone. Europe does not support forcing Hizbullah to disarm in the immediate future or naming it a terrorist organization, which would require Europe to move with the US to shut it down. Europe has always been reluctant to join the US in the use of sanctions against Syria. Chirac's about face following the Lahoud extension shifted the balance of the EU against Syria. Now that Syria is withdrawing, Europe is returning to its former anti-sanctions position.
From the point of view of the embassies in Damascus, their leading role in Lebanon is over. The foreign reporters will eventually pack their bags and leave the Meridian and Sheraton hotels in down town Damascus and return to their main postings. Some will go to Beirut and follow the ins and outs of Lebanese politics. But the Syrian action is largely over. The spotlight moves from Damascus to Beirut. Many in Washington, however, will struggle to keep the focus on Damascus.
Washington must find another club. It will not forget Damascus and the Syrian regime, far from it. But 1559 and Lebanon will not be the principal weapons to use against Syria.
Everyone in Washington is now cooking up next-steps and other instruments to finish off president Bashar al-Asad. Those who want to continue the campaign against dictatorship, Baathism, the enemies of Israel, Arabism, or the "unfree" will now have to begin to address the question of regime-change and internal Syrian politics directly, something Washington has not done up to this point. They will have to convince President Bush and his policy people that it is in US interests to attack Bashar, not for his foreign policy, for occupying Lebanon, or for troublemaking in the region, but because he treats his people "egregiously" in the words of some Washington wonks.
To see how this shift is already taking place look at the recent publications of the WASHINGTON INSTITUTE for Near East Policy. It is perhaps the most influential Middle East think tank in Washington. Presidents Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton, largely farmed out Middle East policy making - in particular the peace-process - to the Washington Institute. Dennis Ross is its head.
Read the article: "ASSESSING THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION'S POLICY OF
'CONSTRUCTIVE INSTABILITY' (PART I): Lebanon and Syria"
By Robert Satloff, the executive director of The Washington Institute.
March 15, 2005
One of its main policy recommendations is for Washington to "Start talking about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law inside Syria. Once the Syrians depart Lebanon, Washington should turn the spotlight on Syria's egregious behavior toward its own citizens."
The Syria section of the report begins:
As the administration works through the daily diplomacy on Lebanon, it needs to keep one eye on events in Damascus. The Asad regime is probably the most brittle in the Middle East; while the Egyptian and Saudi regimes, for example, may bristle at U.S. pro-democracy efforts, there are built-in brakes on U.S. pressure as well as deep reservoirs of institutional support in both countries. Syria, however, is different. The United States has no interest in the survival of the Asad regime, which itself is a minoritarian regime built on the fragile edifice of fear and intimidation. Cracks in the Syrian regime may quickly become fissures and then earthquakes, in a way that the same cracks in other countries could be contained.
Given how remarkably puerile Syrian foreign policy has been under Bashar al-Asad, it would be useful for U.S. planners to dust off old studies of possible sources of domestic instability and their likely implications.
Its main policy recommendations and subtitles are:
1. Invest in intelligence about the dynamics of political, social, economic and ethnic life inside Syria.
2. Start talking about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law inside Syria.
3. Offer no lifelines to this regime.
Another interesting article recently published by WINEP is one on the Muslim Brothers by Michael Jacobson. It is interesting more for what it tells us about the debate in Washington over the question of regime change in Syria than for its content about the Muslim Brotherhood, which is minimal.
The major reason that regime-change for Syria has failed to catch on in the Bush administration is that everyone fears that the Muslim Brotherhood will come to power. Washington’s fear of the M.B. is Bashar al-Asad’s principal protector.
Farid Ghadry, the leader of the small Syrian opposition in Washington, understands this. Consequently he has been arguing for some time that the White House should not fear the MB. He insists that Syrian Muslims are more Sufi than severe and more liberal than extremist. The MB threat, he proposes, has been made up and marketed by the Asad regime in order to secure the friendship of the West.
Hence the concern at WINEP over whether the MB would come to power if there is regime change. It should be remembered that a number of fellows at WINEP, such as Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer, have argued that Washington should not open a dialog with “moderate” Muslim organizations in the hope of isolating more extreme groups. They argue that most, if not all, Muslim associations drink from the same cup of intolerance and illiberalism. “There is nothing to discuss,” they suggest.
Michael Jacobson points out that since the murder of Hariri, there is an emerging alliance between some Syrian opposition liberals and the Muslim Brothers. For the time being it seems to be only a tacit alliance, but the question for Washington is whether to encourage and back such an alliance, much as it did with Chalabi and the Shiite religious groups in Iraq, or whether to stick with the Alawites and the present order in Syria. Perhaps the Muslim Brothers are weak and would not come to power if there is instability in Syria?
WHAT ROLE FOR THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD IN SYRIA'S FUTURE
By Michael Jacobson
In calling for a demonstration in Damascus on March 10, Haitham Maleh, an opposition figure with close connections to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, proclaimed, "We are 85 percent of the country" -- an apparent gesture of solidarity against Syria's ruling Alawite minority. The group of about 100 demonstrators who answered his call was reportedly dispersed by several hundred progovernment demonstrators. Along with President George W. Bush's rejection of Syrian president Bashar al-Asad's ambiguous proposal for a phased or partial withdrawal from Lebanon, the incident fed speculation on whether Asad's regime will survive the current tumult. Although few would mourn the regime's collapse, many are concerned that such a development would allow an Islamist group such as the Muslim Brotherhood to take control, which might be even less appealing to the United States than the current regime.
Will the Brotherhood Take Over?
Several factors have sparked concern about the prospect of Islamist groups such as the Brotherhood taking power in Syria following a regime collapse. Many jihadists are traveling from and through Syria on their way to Iraq, raising the question of how active Islamist extremists are inside Syria and how much Damascus tolerates or encourages their activities.
Syria's basic demographics are a key factor as well. As mentioned previously, much of the Syrian leadership, including Asad, hails from the Shiite Alawite sect. Alawites represent only 15 percent of the Syrian population, however, while Sunnis comprise more than 70 percent. Many Sunnis do not regard the Alawites as true Muslims and would prefer not to live under Alawite control.
Muslim clerics are demanding an increased role in the political process. In fact, Syrian vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam, a Sunni, recently issued a statement urging citizens to act more in accordance with Muslim laws and traditions. Given these factors, some have speculated that a religious Sunni organization such as the Muslim Brotherhood may be well positioned to take power if the regime falls.
Moreover, the Brotherhood recently released a statement that may indicate a reversal of the group's engagement strategy, though it is far too early to tell whether the move demonstrates an increased willingness to confront the regime. Following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, the Brotherhood faxed a statement to the London-based al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper calling for an investigation into the murder and lamenting the sharp deterioration of relations between Syria and the "Lebanese people," who could be heard "shouting in unison 'Syria, get out.'" The statement noted that "Hariri's death might be the straw that will break the camel's back as far as Syrian-Lebanese relations are concerned," and that "no one can absolve the Syrian leadership from guilt."
The idea of the group taking power in Syria has generated considerable unease among Western observers, with some citing recent reports that Syrian Muslim Brotherhood members in Europe have been linked to al-Qaeda and the global jihad. Although it is certainly plausible that individual group members have joined the global jihad, this is not necessarily reflective of the views of the organization as a whole. By and large, members in Europe do not maintain close ties to the main organization in Syria. Moreover, the Brotherhood may realize that Western pressure on Asad will be helpful to their cause, making the organization unlikely to embrace the anti-Western jihad.
Not Well Positioned to Take Over
Despite all of the above factors, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood or any other Sunni Islamist group would have great difficulty filling the vacuum if Asad's regime collapsed.... In comparison to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian Brotherhood has a far less educated membership, boasts a far less wealthy constituency (which is drawn primarily from the lower middle class), and poses a much less potent political threat. Other Sunni Islamist groups in Syria are even less well equipped to assume control.
Some Syrian liberals remain wary of a potential Brotherhood takeover. Yet, Kamal Labwani, an opposition leader released from prison five months ago, emphasized that the opposition is fighting on two fronts, and that "the fight against the government has . . . priority" over the fight "against the fundamentalists."
How Little We Know
Any speculation on succession in Syria must include the caveat that it is largely guesswork. In reality, little reliable information about such developments is available to researchers and analysts. Gauging the strength of Islamists in Syria is a particularly difficult challenge. The regime forbids any research on the topic, and Muslim Brotherhood members are reluctant to speak with outsiders. Increased understanding of such groups in Syria is vital for U.S. policy in the region.
Michael Jacobson, a Soref fellow at The Washington Institute, served as counsel on both the congressional and independent commissions investigating the September 11 attacks.
Copyright 2005 THE WASHINGTON INSTITUTE for Near East Policy