Home inSight Flunking the Syria Test

Flunking the Syria Test

With the Syrian uprising now past its one-year anniversary, it’s long past time to take stock of the carnage. More than 7,000 people have been killed to date by the Assad regime, as it has unleashed war on its own people.

The spark that lit the fire was an errant one. On March 6, 2011, state security forces arrested 15 teenagers for spray painting anti-regime graffiti on a wall in the southern city of Deraa. Their continued detention sparked massive demonstrations in the city, and in turn were met by the regime’s brutal crackdown using live fire and tear gas. By the time the teenagers were released, the flashpoints between the Syrian security services and the protesters had already claimed many lives. This began the cycle of funerals which became rallying points for further protests—and further regime violence.

The anti-regime opposition began as a peaceful protest against a dictatorship. President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal response—including the arrest and torture of regime opponents, the indiscriminate shelling of cities, and the cutoff of escape routes to Turkey and Lebanon for civilian refugees—has pushed the opposition to respond with force.

Meanwhile, conventional wisdom in Washington and in European capitals is that the Syrian regime is doomed and that it is only a matter of time before Assad is removed from power. But these optimistic assessments are dangerously flawed. Despite Western sanctions and other punitive measures levied to date, the Assad regime as of this writing continues to maintain its grip on the four pillars of Syrian power: the unity of the Alawites; supremacy of the Ba’ath Party; supremacy of the al-Assad clan, and; Alawite dominance over the military and intelligence apparatus.

Why Syria matters

Syria doesn’t matter because of the economic spoils it represents to the United States; it is a poor state with a weak economy and few resources. Nor does it hold strategic importance to the degree that did Egypt, where the Mubarak regime upheld the country’s historic peace treaty with Israel, worked as an American ally, and stood in staunch opposition to Iran. And Syria doesn’t matter the way Qaddafi’s Libya mattered—which, from an American strategic standpoint, was not at all. Qaddafi was a past international pariah who gave up his nuclear program and support for terrorists years ago. He simply remained a colorful buffoon on the international stage, known for crazy antics, but without an ability to cause too many problems.

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

Plainly stated, Syria under Assad has been diametrically and actively 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 terror-supporting states. The regime is Iran’s only Arab ally, and transships weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Under Assad, Syria is a permanent threat to Lebanon’s sovereignty and stability. Damascus hosted the headquarters of Hamas’ external leadership until the current uprising left the terrorist group with little choice but to disassociate itself from the regime and leave Syria in December 2011. Assad continues to host 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, talk, discuss, and debate with Israeli representatives at any level. And while it is assumed that its nuclear program was destroyed by a 2007 Israeli air strike, the IAEA since has been stonewalled in its investigation by the regime at every turn.

Above all else, however, the reason Syria’s fate is important to the United States is because it is politically and tactically wedded to Iran. The Syrian regime provides Tehran with a vital ally—and an external base—to project power into the Middle East.

Failed U.S. policy

Syria represents what is perhaps the clearest example of the misguided “engagement” policy pursued by the Obama administration since it took office. From early on, the administration believed that President Assad could be convinced to reorient his state toward America’s regional allies and play a constructive role in Middle Eastern affairs. But for that to be possible, the relationship between Syria and Iran would have to be nothing more than a “marriage of convenience” (rather than the full-fledged strategic partnership that prevails today). Still, the worthy goal of working to remove Syria from Iran’s sphere of influence fell victim to the misguided policy of diplomatic engagement, as the White House set out to rehabilitate Bashar al-Assad.

In early 2009, the White House and the 111th Congress increased calls for greater U.S. engagement with Syria. Several congressional delegations visited Damascus, and administration officials held talks with their Syrian counterparts. In February 2009, the U.S. Department of Commerce approved an export license of Boeing 747 spare parts to Syria’s national air carrier. A month later, assistant secretary of state Jeffrey D. Feltman was dispatched to meet with Syria’s foreign minister—the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Damascus in over four years.

In April, the Obama administration sent Feltman and senior National Security Council aides to attend the Syrian National Day festivities, thus ending the moratorium initiated during the Bush administration that forbade official U.S. attendance at Syrian embassy functions. Syria’s ambassador, Imad Moustapha, wrote about it in his blog: “The huge attendance was a testimony to how Syria is regarded by the American people despite years of trying to distort its image, particularly during the Bush era… The implication of their heavy attendance was both a rebuke to the Bush legacy, and a strong condoning of President Obama’s policies of dialogue and respect.”[i]

On June 24, 2009, the White House declared its intention to name a new ambassador to Syria. The post had been vacant since George W. Bush withdrew Margaret Scobey in 2005 when pro-independence Lebanese politician Rafiq Hariri was murdered in Beirut in an operation widely believed to be sponsored by the Assad regime. In July 2009, the Obama administration announced it would ease sanctions on Syria. The same month, the U.S. State Department spokesman explained that the president’s Middle East envoy, Senator George Mitchell, told President Assad that the U.S. would process all eligible applications for export licenses as quickly as possible.

In February 2010, President Obama followed through on his promise to name a new ambassador to Syria, and selected Robert Ford to fill the post. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs explained, “If confirmed by the Senate, Ambassador Ford will engage the Syrian government on how we can enhance relations, while addressing areas of ongoing concern.”[ii] Days later, the U.S. State Department lifted its travel warning for Syria.

Obama’s overtures, however, met with a chilly reception in Damascus. In February 2010—the same month Team Obama named a new ambassador to Syria and lifted travel warnings for the country—the Assad regime rejected an IAEA request for a meeting; began importing sensitive nuclear-related military equipment from North Korea; exported Syrian-made Fateh-110 missiles to Hezbollah; began training the terrorist group in the use of SA-2 and SA-6 surface-to-air missiles; mocked Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over dinner in Damascus; met with Hezbollah’s leader; vowed to strengthen its relationship with Tehran; pledged to continue support for the resistance; and threatened missile attacks against Israeli cities. One could be forgiven for concluding that Washington’s diplomatic carrots had merely emboldened the Assad regime.

As a result of these actions, the Senate would not confirm Ford’s appointment as ambassador. Nevertheless, President Obama made the recess appointment in December 2010, and Ford took up his post just as the year of Arab upheaval was about to dawn. And what a difference a year makes. Ambassador Ford was finally confirmed in October 3, 2011, seven months into the Syrian uprising. He was attacked by pro-regime thugs while attending a meeting of Syrian lawyers, and upon attending a funeral of a Syrian activist he was chased by a violent mob tossing concrete blocks and wielding iron bars.

In March 2011, as the peaceful protests gained steam in Syria, the Obama administration joined NATO in setting up a no-fly zone in Libya. At the time, American news outlets such as CNN were identifying what they proclaimed was the “Obama Doctrine,” believing that the administration in fact had a strategy for dealing with Middle East conflicts. To this end, CNN cited President Obama’s March 28th speech regarding America’s involvement in Libya and concluded that the U.S. would intervene in conflicts overseas “when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are,” as the president said.[iii] The potential slaughter of Libyans rebelling against Qaddafi was the sure case in point.

Yet, as now is apparent, there was no “Obama Doctrine.” When the United States decided to get involved in Libya, there were 1,000 known fatalities. By comparison, it took half a year and 2,000 deaths in Syria before President Obama even called for President Assad to “step aside” in August 2011.[iv] And he did so without any concrete plan for realizing that goal.

The era of official diplomatic engagement with the Syrian regime came to a close on February 6, 2012, when the United States shuttered its embassy in Damascus and removed its ambassador and all diplomatic personnel. The move came days after Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for Assad to step down and for a transfer of power to take place. The U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, proclaimed she was “disgusted” by the veto.[v] Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it “a travesty.”[vi]

“Faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people’s right to have a better future.” Clinton added, “Asad must go.” Nevertheless, after the veto, Clinton reiterated, “military intervention has been absolutely ruled out, and we have made that clear from the very beginning.”[vii]

U.S. options

The immediate goal of U.S. policy should be an end to the violence that has claimed over 7,000 Syrian lives so far. At the same time, however, the U.S. should endeavor to create the conditions for a stable democratic system in Syria that protects the rights of all minorities. American strategy must aim to weaken those who support the regime within and outside of Syria, while encouraging the opposition to demonstrate its goal of a nonsectarian and democratic Syria.

The U.S. must prepare for the militarization of the conflict. If the Syrian civil war grows, regional actors will likely become involved, eager to sway the outcome. In the event of such a scenario, the U.S. will need to have a plan in place to set up no-go, no-fly, and humanitarian zones. The deadlock at the UN Security Council means that this plan must take shape among a “coalition of the willing.” To prepare for this likelihood, Washington should form a contact group to work with international partners to share this cost and responsibility, while increasing the pressure on the Syrian regime.

The White House also should apply pressure on Russia, where the Kremlin has become Assad’s lifeline, providing diplomatic cover and the continued supply of weapons. Moscow should know that Washington will base its future relations on how Russia acts during the Syrian crisis. It must be made clear that there are consequences for Russia’s actions. On the other hand, Washington is not without carrots to offer Russia as well. Moscow’s only base in the Mediterranean is the Syrian coastal town of Tartus. If Asad goes, the fear in the Kremlin is that they lose their maritime base as well. Washington could guarantee that Russia could keep the base in a future Syria. It might be enough to change Russia’s voting at the UN.

Any of the following measures should be taken, either independently or in conjunction with others:

Undermine the Syrian economy

The White House already imposed three incremental rounds of sanctions on Syria, in April, May and August of 2011, respectively. The first targeted several high-ranking Syrian officials and Iran’s elite Qods Force, which is aiding Assad in his crackdown on protesters. The second set of sanctions expanded the list of Syrian officials to include Assad himself, in addition to many high-ranking ministers in his government. The latest round froze all Syrian assets under U.S. jurisdiction, and barred American citizens and companies from participation in a broad range of transactions with Syrian entities.

To build on these early steps, the U.S. should continue to target Syria’s fragile economy and raise the cost among the country’s predominantly Sunni business classes of remaining loyal to Assad. 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 at the time, “Assad still has backing. The middle class is still supporting Assad. They are afraid of what comes after him.”[viii]

The EU has an important role to play as well. Ninety-five percent of Syrian crude oil exports—close to half-a-million barrels per pay—is destined for Europe. If European nations extricate themselves from Syria’s economy, it would deal a severe blow to the regime in Damascus. There is movement in this direction already; in December 2011, the EU banned the export of gas and oil industry equipment to Syria, and more recently imposed a targeted freeze of assets against Syria’s central bank. The EU should be encouraged to ramp up this economic campaign, including through the imposition of asset freezes on the Syrian central bank and bans on the Syrian trade of precious metals and minerals.

There is good reason to hope that further crippling Syria’s vulnerable economy will reshuffle the internal political deck in favor of the opposition. Already last year, Syria’s foreign exports were down by two-thirds, while foreign direct investment and tourism shrank to half the levels of previous years. Greater economic pressure (especially from Europe) could thus have real effect, and help squeeze both the regime and those who still support it.

Undermine regime supporters

The U.S. should pressure Syria’s Alawite generals—who hail from the same minority sect as Assad—to step away from the regime. As an incentive, they should be promised a future for their communities in a post-Assad 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 Assad regime’s stability does not depend on the Alawite community alone; rather, it relies on other Christian (10 percent of the population) and Sunni (74 percent of the population) communities with extensive familial ties to the West. Targeted sanctions levied by the U.S., EU, and Turkey against the regime’s greatest supporters could provide an additional avenue of leverage.

Prepare regime alternatives

The lessons from Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya should make crystal clear the need to plan for the day after the regime falls. Simply 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 now calling for change. Today, there are two primary groups within the Syrian opposition.

The first is the Syrian National Council (SNC). According to its website, the SNC would affirm national unity among all components of Syria society. The SNC rejects foreign intervention and hopes to safeguard “the non-violent character of the Syrian Revolution.” Within the group itself, there are now divisions over whether it would accept foreign intervention, and if so, whether it should be in the form of Arab or Western intervention. The Arab League could soon consider recognizing the SNC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, with key members now making the diplomatic case for doing so.[ix] Inside Syria, meanwhile, is the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, which represents many of the opposition groups bearing the brunt of the Assad regime’s atrocities. The Committee at one time rejected foreign intervention outright, although it has since softened its stance. Between the two political bases, there is agreement that Assad must go but little unity on how that should happen—and what should follow.

Then there is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which was formed in order to protect innocent civilians when the protests began and Syrian security forces and irregular armed thugs, or shabbiha, attacked unarmed civilians. It is comprised of former Syrian soldiers who defected, youth from urban centers, and former gang members. It is believed to have some 30,000 to 50,000 soldiers,[x] although other estimates put that number as much as two thirds lower. The FSA also enjoys support from abroad, with Syrian expatriates in Qatar, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia known to have provided the group with money and material resources. Engaged in the day-to-day fighting with regime forces, the FSA has become frustrated with the SNC and now calls for a no-fly zone or buffer zone. This reflects a realization that the current stalemate on the ground is unlikely to be broken without outside help, and a recognition of the threat opposition forces face if the Assad regime unleashes its full military might.

Washington should work to unify these elements of the Syrian opposition, and help them find an agreed-upon strategy to move forward. At the same time, however, the White House needs to have a much clearer sense of their respective political platforms before it moves to recognize one or the other as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Press Turkey to lead

If the United States and Europe remain unwilling to commit to military options vis-à-vis Syria, Turkey should be pressed to take the lead. Turkey has spent much of the previous decade carving out a new regional role for itself. It is a regional power independent of Western countries and NATO and increasingly sees itself as an ideological and geopolitical balancer to the growing power of Iran. Ankara, along with Qatar, has been vocal about the need for regime change in Damascus. And Turkey may well be pressed to lead a regional force of Turkish and Arab armies against the Assad regime—something which policymakers in Ankara may see as preferable to a U.S.-led force that utilizes Turkish air space and military bases. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already funding the opposition and would likely support Turkey in creating and maintaining safe havens.

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, however, the U.S. and its allies will first have to destroy Syria’s air defense systems. Since the start of its domestic turmoil, Syria has benefited greatly from its close ties and cooperation with Russia. Over the past year, Moscow has defiantly continued to provide Damascus with weaponry and military materiel[xi]—supplies which in turn have been leveraged by the Assad regime in its bid to stay in power. But the reality is that these weapons systems are no match for U.S. air power, and could easily be eliminated in the event of coalition action. More significant, however, is what would happen to those weapons if they fell into the wrong hands in the event of a collapse or implosion of central power in Damascus.

Deter arms proliferation

Both during and after the conflict, special attention must be paid to preventing the proliferation of Syria’s weapons arsenal. First, there are Syria’s national assets, such as combat aircraft, tanks, and naval vessels—all of which present a low risk of proliferation, given their size and probability of detection. More worrisome, however, are the Small and Light Weapons (SALW), which include Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS)—a type of surface-to-air missile. In the West, they are best characterized by the U.S. Stinger missile that gained its fame in the 1980s in the hands of the mujahideen in Afghanistan.

Then there is the issue of Syria’s weapons of mass destructions. Syria is known to have amassed hundreds of tons of chemical weapons, including the nerve agents Sarin and VX.[xii] The Syrian regime is also thought to have developed biological weapons such as Anthrax and Cholera.[xiii] Intelligence sources believe that many of these are weaponized and ready to be used in artillery shells, bombs, and SCUD missile warheads.[xiv] 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 these weapons and preventing their proliferation should be a top priority for the U.S. and its allies—lest Syria’s turmoil become a source of regional instability.

Late in the game

Although the Obama administration’s focus remains on exerting diplomatic and economic pressure on Syria, 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.[xv] This is not necessarily a sign that the White House has abandoned its pledge not to use military force; such wide-ranging reports tend to look at options ranging from military strikes to humanitarian relief. Yet such signs of activism are most welcome.

The diplomatic illusion that a UN Security Council resolution could be passed without garnering Russian and Chinese opposition resulted in the waste of nearly a year. The internal review of U.S. military capabilities in Syria should have been completed months ago. Instead, Washington tried to placate Moscow and obtain the Kremlin’s acquiescence to punitive measures against Damascus—a gift that Vladimir Putin used to great effect both at home and abroad.

Furthermore, the idea that U.S. involvement in a country vital to America’s security interests should be subjugated to the wishes and actions of the Arab League is an unfortunate change in policy. The United States should lead the world in promoting freedom, and it should not take its cues from the Arab League, given its track record of inaction. With the stalemate at the UN, the U.S. will have to contemplate action with a coalition of the willing—something for which Team Obama had considerable disdain upon coming to office.

There is much at stake. 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 that were previously relatively friendly to Washington (e.g., Tunisia, Egypt, and beyond). Taking a pass on Syria now would be a victory for Iran, giving Tehran the dominion over the Shi’a crescent (stretching from Iran to Iraq to Syria to Lebanon) which it has sought since its 1979 revolution. The key to any possible gains in the “Arab Spring” lies in helping the Syrian spring succeed.

[i] The blog entry can be found here: http://imad_moustapha.blogs.com/my_weblog/2009/04/syrian-national-day-celebration-in-washington-dc.html.

[ii] “Obama Names First Envoy to Syria since 2005,” CNN, February 17, 2010, http://articles.cnn.com/2010-02-17/world/us.syria.ambassador_1_syrian-government-diplomat-president-obama?_s=PM:WORLD.

[iii] Ed Hornick, “How the ‘Obama Doctrine’ Compares With Predecessors,” CNN, March 29, 2011, http://articles.cnn.com/2011-03-29/politics/presidential.doctrines_1_obama-doctrine-foreign-policy-new-world-order?_s=PM:POLITICS.

[iv] “Obama Calls on Syria’s Assad to Step Aside,” Al-Jazeera (Doha), August 18, 2011, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2011/08/2011818125712354226.html.

[v] “U.S. ‘Disgusted’ by Russia, China Double Veto on Syria Resolution,” RIA Novosti, February 4, 2012, http://en.rian.ru/russia/20120204/171148969.html.

[vi] “Hillary Clinton Lambastes ‘Travesty’ of UN Veto on Syria,” MSNBC, February 5, 2012, http://worldnews.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/02/05/10322270-hillary-clinton-lambastes-travesty-of-un-veto-on-syria.

[vii] Josh Rogin, “What’s the Endgame in Syria? Clinton Doesn’t Know,” Foreign Policy‘s The Cable, February 4, 2012, http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/02/04/what_s_the_endgame_in_syria_clinton_doesn_t_know.

[viii] Justyna Pawlak and Sebastian Moffett, “Syria Risks Civil War, Sanctions Pointless: Turkey,” Reuters, February 9, 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/09/us-turkey-syria-iran-idUSTRE8181DE20120209.

[ix] “Qatar Calls for Recognizing Syrian Opposition,” Reuters, March 10, 2012, http://news.yahoo.com/qatar-calls-recognizing-syrian-opposition-102023323.html.

[x] See, for example, Ilhan Tanir, “Inside the Free Syrian Army,” Syrian Center for Political & Strategic Studies, February 2, 2012, http://www.scpss.org/index.php?pid=261.

[xi] Vladimir Isachenkov, “Russia Says it Will Keep Selling Weapons in Syria,” Associated Press, March 13, 2012, http://news.yahoo.com/russia-says-keep-selling-weapons-syria-113352569.html.

[xii] Anthony Cordesman, “Syrian Weapons of Mass Destruction: An Overview,” Draft paper, Center for Strategic & International Studies, June 2, 2008, http://csis.org/files/media/csis/pubs/080602_syrianwmd.pdf.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibidem.

[xv] Barbara Starr, “U.S. Military Beginning Review of Syria Options,” CNN’s Security Clearance, February 7, 2012, http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2012/02/07/us-military-beginning-review-of-syria-options/.