Home inFocus A Year of Arab Upheaval (Winter 2011) How Washington Can Help Syria

How Washington Can Help Syria

Matthew RJ Brodsky Winter 2011

With the Syrian uprising closing in on its one-year anniversary, more than 7,000 people have been killed as the tyrannical Bashar al-Asad regime uses tanks, artillery, snipers, mass detentions, and torture to quash the opposition.

Conventional wisdom in Washington and European capitals is that it is only a matter of time before Asad is removed from power. But this optimistic assessment is dangerously flawed. Despite Western sanctions and other punitive measures that have largely targeted Syria’s economy, Asad continues to maintain his grip on the four pillars of Syrian power: the unity of the Alawites, supremacy of the Ba’ath Party, supremacy of the al-Asad clan, and Alawite dominance over the military and intelligence apparatus.

The international response to the Syrian uprising has emboldened the Asad regime at the expense of the opposition and American interests. With Western nations having foresworn military intervention, Bashar al-Asad knows that Syria would pay no significant price for objectionable behavior. Indeed, without external intervention, the uprising will likely turn into a protracted, bloody, and sectarian civil war with destabilizing consequences for its neighbors, particularly Lebanon and Iraq.

Syria Matters

Syria’s regional importance rests on the Asad regime’s ability to create mischief. Without the means to play the role of spoiler, Syria would be a fairly weak player in the Middle East arena. Asad acts as both arsonist and firefighter, creating problems on one hand, and asking for rewards and favors for non-destructive behavior on the other.

Examples of this behavior are plentiful. Take, for instance, the trial balloon floated by Damascus after Barack Obama was elected president but not yet in office: If Washington would improve its ties with Damascus, Syria would use its influence with Hezbollah and Hamas and help find a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. But Bashar al-Asad doesn’t provide influence; he provides cover for Hezbollah and Hamas, and pursues his own nuclear program. In effect it was a Syrian proposal to prevent itself from arming terrorist groups it already supports in return for American rewards. Another example is Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mu’allim’s 2008 offer to help secure “an honorable exit” for U.S. forces from Iraq, while his government continued to facilitate the flow of insurgents into the country. Syria has served as the primary gateway for foreign jihadists entering Iraq to kill coalition forces.

In fact, Syria under Asad has stood diametrically opposed to nearly every issue and initiative of importance to the United States. Syria is a charter member of the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist supporting states. The regime is Iran’s only Arab ally and it transships weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Under Asad, Syria remains a permanent threat to Lebanon’s sovereignty and stability. Damascus has hosted the headquarters of Hamas’s external leadership since 2001 and a number of Palestinian rejectionist groups opposed to the peace process. As far as making peace with Israel is concerned, it remains the official policy of the Syrian government not to permit representatives to meet with Israelis at any level. And the regime continues to stonewall the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at every turn.

But above all else, the reason Syria’s fate is important to the United States is because it is politically and tactically wedded to Iran. It provides the rulers of Tehran with their only base to project power over the Middle East—an incredibly important tool for the Iranian regime.

U.S. Options

While President Obama has reiterated that his goal is to see Asad go, the administration has yet to act effectively and coercively toward that outcome. The president still does not support arming the Syrian opposition, and a military option remains “absolutely ruled out,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said. But without some kind of intervention, it is unlikely that the tide will turn against the regime. Indeed, to reach the goal of ending Asad’s rule, any of the following measures should be taken, either independently or in conjunction with others:

Undermine the Syrian economy: The White House imposed three incremental rounds of sanctions on Syria in April, May, and August 2011. The U.S. should continue to target Syria’s fragile economy and raise the cost of remaining loyal to Asad among the predominantly Sunni business classes. Many among the business community still straddle the fence between supporting the regime and joining the opposition. As Turkey’s ambassador to the UN, Selim Yenel, told Reuters on February 9, “Asad still has backing. The middle class is still supporting Asad. They are afraid of what comes after him.”

The EU also has an important role to play. Ninety-five percent of Syrian crude oil exports—close to half-a-million barrels per day—is destined for Europe. If Europe extricates itself from Syria’s economy it would deal a severe blow to the regime. In December 2011, the EU banned the export of gas and oil industry equipment to Syria and recently imposed a targeted freeze of assets against Syria’s central bank. The EU should be encouraged to ramp up its economic campaign. In early February, the EU called for tighter sanctions against Damascus, focusing on freezing the central bank’s assets and banning trade in diamonds, gold, and other precious metals. These measures should be agreed upon. European action is vital to make the regime and those who support it feel the squeeze.

Undermine regime supporters: The U.S. should pressure the Alawite generals—who hail from the same minority sect as Asad—to step away from the regime. As an incentive, they should be promised a future for their communities in a post-Asad Syria, in exchange for their refusal to follow orders and kill their fellow citizens. Although the U.S. lacks military contacts with Syrian generals, Turkey, Jordan, and France could be particularly useful in this effort. The Asad regime’s stability does not rely on the Alawite community alone; it relies on other Christian (10 percent of the population) and Sunni (74 percent of the population) communities with extensive family ties to the West. Targeted sanctions against the regime’s greatest supporters levied by the U.S., EU, and Turkey could provide an additional avenue of leverage.

Prepare for regime alternatives: The lessons from Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya should make crystal clear the necessity to plan for the day after the regime falls. Replacing one radical dictatorship with another does not serve American interests, just as it does not serve the interests of those in the Middle East calling for regime change. Today, there are two primary opposition groups: the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change.

According to its website, the SNC would affirm national unity among all components of Syrian society. The Council rejects foreign intervention but promotes “democratic change” and “national unity… to ensure there is no political vacuum.” Within the group itself there are now divisions over whether it would accept foreign intervention, and if so, should it be in the form of Arab or Western intervention. Second, inside Syria is the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, which represents many of the opposition groups bearing the brunt of the Asad regime’s atrocities. Like the SNC, the Committee called for no foreign intervention at one point, but subsequently softened its stance. There are strong divisions between the two committees and while they have tried to meet to overcome their differences, they have yet to succeed. Between the two political bases there is agreement that Asad must go but there is little unity on how that should happen and what should follow.

Washington should work to unify these committees and find an agreed upon strategy moving forward.

Support the Free Syrian Army: As the diplomatic track works to unify the opposition committees and solidify that relationship, the U.S. should support the Free Syrian Army (FSA)—formed in order to protect innocent civilians against Asad’s thugs. Engaged in the day-to-day fighting with regime forces, the FSA is comprised of defected Syrian soldiers, the young population from urban centers, and former gang members. Estimates of the number of soldiers in the army range from 10,000 to 50,000.

There are a number of ways the U.S. could support the Syrian armed opposition. First, there are clandestine measures. At a minimum, the U.S. should be ramping up all intelligence activities in Syria, which would include developing contact with key opposition figures and providing advice. It should encourage Syrian generals to conduct a coup or defect to the opposition. Moreover, the U.S. could train members of the FSA in Turkey, where many FSA figures are already located.

Moving to covert actions, U.S. intelligence services should help the opposition improve their information warfare activities and consider acts of sabotage and assassinations. The U.S. and its allies should provide the opposition with portable communications equipment that is encryption-enabled to help the movement organize. A cross-border wireless Internet zone that reaches just 20 miles from Syria’s borders would be a significant boost for opposition groups. The U.S. should also arm the opposition. At present, the FSA does not have enough arms to turn the tide of the fight or break the current and bloody stalemate.

Moving toward Western communication supplies and providing American weaponry not only would empower the FSA, it would send the regime the signal that the U.S. is now firmly—and militarily—behind the opposition.

Impose no-fly zones and safe havens: Safe havens along Syria’s common border with Turkey and Lebanon would hasten defections from the Syrian army and provide a place for refugees to receive humanitarian aid. In order to create a no-fly zone, the U.S. and its allies will first have to destroy Syria’s air defense systems. Syria has benefited greatly from its close ties and arms purchases from Russia, but its weapons systems are no match for U.S. air power. More significant is what would happen to these weapons if in the wrong hands.

Deter arms proliferation: Both during and after the conflict, special attention must be paid to preventing the proliferation of Syria’s weapons arsenals, most notably Syria’s Small and Light Weapons (SALW), which include Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems (MANPADS)—a type of Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM). Like Libya, Syria has a considerable stock of SA-7 (Strela-2) and SA-14 (Strela-3) shoulder-launched MANPADS. While they are considered today to be militarily obsolete against fast jets, they still pose a considerable risk to commercial airliners. Of even greater concern are the SA-18 (Igla) and the SA-24 (Igla-S) produced by Russia. These MANPADS can shoot down an aircraft flying at 11,000 feet. Syria is thought to have close to 4,000 in its inventory.

There is also the issue of Syria’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Syria has amassed hundreds of tons of chemical weapons, including nerve agents Sarin, Tabun, VX, and mustard gas. It is also thought to have developed biological weapons such as anthrax and Cholera. Intelligence sources believe that many of these are weaponized and ready for use in artillery shells, bombs, and SCUD Missile warheads. These stockpiles do not take into account any additional WMD that may have been transferred to Syria from Iraq in the opening weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Securing all of these weapons and preventing their proliferation should be a priority for the U.S.

Arriving Late to the Game

CNN recently reported that the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command have begun an internal review of U.S. military capabilities in the event President Obama were to ask for them. This is not necessarily a sign that the White House has decided to use military force; these types of internal reviews are standard for the Pentagon. The wide-ranging reports look at varying options including humanitarian relief, supporting opposition groups, creating no-fly zones, and military strikes. One might think 11 months into the uprising that a plan for humanitarian relief and support for the opposition would have already been considered.

There is much at stake in Syria in the wider context of the Arab upheavals across the region. So far, the result of U.S. engagement in the so-called “Arab Spring” has empowered the Muslim Brotherhood and those inspired by them in countries relatively friendly to Washington—in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and beyond. Meanwhile, Washington has proved ineffective in convincing Iran and Syria to respond to U.S. interests. Taking a pass on Syria now could give Tehran domination over the Shia crescent—from Iran to Iraq to Syria to Lebanon—which it has pursued since its 1979 revolution. The key to any possible gains in the “Arab Spring” lies in helping the Syrian “Spring” succeed.

Matthew RJ Brodsky is director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center and editor of inFOCUS.