What Washington is Thinking about Syria
NOTE: I will be on al-Jazeera tomorrow (Saturday) night at 10:00 pm Lebanon time and 9:00 Syria time on with Riyad Muhsin Agha and Michel Kilo. The moderator will be Riyad Ben Jiddou - Hiwar Maftuh. I will be speaking in Arabic!! A first for me. I am nervous.
Here is a letter from a friend who is a well plugged in Washington analyst. He asked that I not use his name if I posted this. This is a shame because he is smart. This is the best overview of dominant themes being discussed in Washington. The big question is will there be violent chaos in Syria should the regime collapse. I hope my readers will respond in the comment section so we can get a good cross-section of opinion. Let us know if you are actually a Syrian, who has lived in the country during the last few years. Lebanese perspective is always welcome as well, as they probably know more about the probability and dynamics of violence than others. All views always welcome.
1/ My conclusion is that Washington prefers a weak Syria at the moment
- No insult intended – I have an utmost respect for those in the opposition in Syria – but the alternatives are not yet credible, and opposition figures themselves acknowledge that they are not ready to govern yet. The Damascus Declaration is a good platform, but probably not enough to precipitate change anytime soon. The good news is that Syria is not seen anymore as only a hard security problem in Washington policy circles: thanks to Syrian opposition members inside and outside Syria, and to mediums like your blog, the debate has qualitatively moved forward.
- Washington cannot pull off a new military adventure
The maximum it can do is something along what the Turks did in 1998: use the threat of force to get the Syrians to comply. But it would have a hard time convincing the US military that this will not lead to a new military adventure and contrary to Turkey which had a very specific demand that Syria could meet (and smartly met), the US is embroiled in a major conflict and its list is much longer. Even the hot pursuit option will be carefully examined: its implications could be such (think Laos and Cambodia) that the US military will say no. Where do you draw a line?
The key questions that derive from this conclusion are the following:
- Will Washington consider a Libya-type deal? Maybe, but not anytime soon. The London Times report may or may not have been on target. It does not really matter: it contains the essence of what the US wants short of regime change. If Syria had accepted something along these lines before the Mehlis report (something highly improbable), it would have been called a deal. It did not, and now it will take a new form: UN-sanctioned demands that will be presented by the Syrian government as unacceptable diktats.
Syria lost many opportunities to shape the outcome in previous years: it could have left Lebanon on its own terms, it could have toned down its anti-US rhetoric, it could have better managed its relations with France and the EU, and it could have granted citizenship to the Kurds… The list is long, but Syria did not seize these opportunities and that’s mainly Syria’s own doing.
- Does this strengthen the position of the opposition in Syria? I don’t know. A weak regime vis-à-vis the international community does not necessarily mean that the Syrian opposition will benefit from the new dynamic. A tough sanctions regime would hurt the Syrian people more than the regime (something US officials are aware of), and could bring the people closer to the regime. If the regime were smart, it would try to initiate a rapprochement with opposition figures, but the Damascus Declaration clearly says that the regime is part of the problem, not the solution. And in any case, who honestly believes that this regime can be that smart? We have been hearing rumors about reconsidering the status of the Kurds for the past several years. Today, the news surfaced again. Same for the legal framework regarding political parties. Typical of this regime. But does it have any credibility left with its own people?
- Does this default policy meet Washington’s other needs (i.e. secure borders with Iraq)? Probably not entirely, but under the current conditions, a weak, contained Syria might not be as risk-taking as it currently is.
2/ Examining all the options does not mean that a policy of regime change has been adopted
- Meeting with Ghadry or drawing up lists of names of potential alternatives to Assad does not mean that the policy has been set. A good bureaucrat will always consider all the alternatives: that is the essence of working in a foreign policy or national security bureaucracy. Of course, this administration has clear preferences, but preferences do not always translate into policy, especially in the current conditions. It has moved a long way in recent months.
- People at State and especially the NSC are not the stubborn ideologues one might suspect. And they seem to acknowledge that they don’t know everything about Syria. So far, they have proven very smart, especially on the Lebanon file. And Bolton (not a big fan of his – see D. Ignatius today) does not set the policy! He is a negotiator, not a policymaker. He can say tough things, but those who call the shots are in Washington.
- They also realize that the US is not the only country with leverage over Syria: the role of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states is key. Every time Bashar or Sharaa meets with an Arab head of state, he pretends that all went well even though he has been scolded once again (are Amr Moussa and Ahmadinejad helpful allies?). And France is moderating the US position. A US-French rift would probably jeopardize much of what has been achieved so far.
In short, US officials are playing their hand very astutely. So far, and despite reservations many might have, the Lebanon-Syria file is this Administration’s real success story in the Middle East (along with Libya, for more complex reasons that it acknowledges). The US government will make its best that it remains so.
3/ Damascus is finally coming around the fact that the Mehlis investigation and UNSCR 1559 have become the substance of US policy toward Syria (and also of French and UN policy toward Syria). Or has it?
Syrian officials have long operated under the assumption that both tools were only pretexts to pressure Syria. Once again, they were wrong. Why? Because there are no strategists or foreign policy thinkers in this regime.
Essentially, many agree with Young and Perthes regarding their assessments of Bashar (not always their conclusions): he is no reformer, he has proven immature when it comes to both foreign policy and domestic policy, he seems to be a real believer while his father was a shrewd realist, he has managed to convince some that he has introduced reforms when all he did was to dismantle the business interests of the regime’s older barons to the benefit of his inner circle, that the June Baath conference would jumpstart a new cycle of reform when it actually served as a venue for a non-violent purge to further consolidate power etc…
My (open and speculative, I admit) question for those of you living in Syria and who know Syrian society better than us is the following: what is the potential for violence in Syria?
Recently, there have been many instances of communal, ethnic and religious, violence. My questions are - no insult intended: how violent is Syrian society? Was it brutalized by the regime to a point that it has integrated violence and sees it as a normal tool, or did state violence (Hama, political prisoners etc.) and previous experiences (MB in the 70s and 80s) lead to an intense dislike of violence? Did the regime use coercion smartly? Where do people in the opposition stand? What does Iraq tell us about fractured societies? How fractured is Syrian society?