Here’s my latest on Syria below as appeared in Foreign Policy when it asked five “smart observers” to offer their solutions for the quagmire in Damascus.

– Bilal


In an attempt to find a solution to the Syrian crisis, the United States and Russia appear to be discussing a diplomatic option, modeled on the U.S.-led political transition in Yemen, that ensures the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his family, and perhaps a few of his close associates but keeps his regime intact. Let us save Washington and Moscow the trouble of having to think through this latest proposal, known in diplomatic circles as “the Yemenskii Variant”: It is a very bad idea that will make things worse.

First, while this proposal, albeit with major modifications and conditions that guarantee a democratic future for Syria, could have been entertained during the first weeks of the uprising, 14 months and more than 13,000 deaths later is simply too late. The bloodshed is too extreme, and Assad must be held accountable. And any theory of him not being in charge or not having ordered this brutal crackdown is utter nonsense. Assad is the head of the Syrian government and — as far as we know — all major decisions, including management of the uprising, are made by him and members of his family.

Second, the Syrian people should be consulted first and foremost. It is one thing to try to stop the carnage and save lives in Syria, but quite another to do it without respecting the long-term aspirations of the Syrian people. Who said that the Syrian people would be on board with keeping a murderous regime that has massacred them on a daily basis? Of course, it is a challenge to know precisely how the Syrian people wish to achieve their goals of freedom, security, and prosperity. Those who speak for the people — the Syrian opposition — are hardly coherent or united. There may not be consensus or unanimity among Syrians on how to move forward. Nevertheless, there is something terribly wrong about the notion of foreign powers planning the future of a people they wish to rescue without their endorsement.

Third, the plan is highly immoral. Diplomacy should seek to end the violence in Syria, but certainly not at the expense of justice. History shows that diplomacy is most effective when it is just and rooted in morality. The Syrian people, like their Egyptian counterparts, deserve to see their tyrannical ruler stand before them and face punishment for his crimes. Without justice, there is no reconciliation, and thus any post-Assad political order that preserves the outgoing president’s regime is a recipe for continued conflict. For Syrian society to be given a chance to heal, all sects and communal groups must come together and collectively build a better future.

Preserving an oppressive and minority-led regime means that the Alawites will retain their political dominance over others, a condition that is guaranteed to cause more sectarian violence and further alienate the Sunnis, who represent the majority of Syrian society. While former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh personified the state in his country, Assad is not the only problem in Syria. It is the fascist and security-oriented regime that the Baathists built in 1963 and Hafez al-Assad — Bashar’s father — remodeled in 1970. Syria needs new leaders, but it also needs a new system and a new identity and role in international society.

Fourth, has anybody called Bashar and asked him if he is willing to play ball? Given the alliance between Damascus and Moscow, one would assume that Russian President Vladimir Putin has phoned his Syrian counterpart and asked him how he would feel about packing his and his family’s bags in return for his life. Even if he did, there is reason to believe that Assad will reject this offer for one simple reason: He thinks he is winning. His regime has yet to face a significant security or political threat and the balance of power, despite the rebels’ receipt of more modern weapons recently from neighboring countries, still tilts heavily in the government’s favor.

One can understand why Russia would favor the Yemeni model for Syria. Moscow does not really need Assad to preserve its strategic interests in Syria and the Middle East. All it wants is a Syrian government that allows it to use the port of Tartous for access to the Mediterranean Sea, that purchases Russian arms, and that maintains trade relations. Assad is expendable as long as his successors stay the course on relations with Russia.

How could the United States even be thinking about this exit strategy, which does nothing to address the roots of the uprising or hold anyone accountable for the crackdown? The stakes in Syria are too high to resort to solutions on the cheap, especially when such solutions are more likely to make things worse and lead to the same unintended consequences that top U.S. officials have been warning about: a full-blown civil war that engulfs parts of the Middle East, further Islamist radicalization of Syrian society that could open new doors for al Qaeda, and a generally chaotic and violent environment in which chemical weapons — suspected to be held in large quantities by the regime — are either lost, used or both.

Kofi Annan’s U.N.-backed plan has served its goal of exposing the Syrian regime before the world. But that was all anyone could realistically hope of Annan’s mission. Now, the United States should pursue tough talks and bargain with Russia to find a solution that respects the hopes and interests of the Syrian people — not a short-term solution that betrays the Syrian people and undermines U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East.

It’s time for real and serious negotiations with Russia over not just Syria but a range of Middle Eastern issues of concern to both countries. But the Yemenskii Variant is not it.


There is no question that Washington is suffering from a policy logjam on Syria. The better way to move forward, I say, is by launching high-stakes talks with the Russians. I share the following thoughts on the subject, which appeared in today’s the National Interest. Full text follows below:

Other than what it has already tried, there is nothing the United States can do to stop the violence in Syria or make things better for the opposition forces there: this is the conventional wisdom shared by a good number of analysts in Washington and almost ingrained in the minds of U.S. officials working on Syria policy. But there is another strategy worth pursuing with greater urgency: talk tough and bargain with Moscow.

Washington’s policy logjam on Syria is not surprising. There is an acute awareness of the high risks of alternative and perhaps more forceful strategies, be they diplomatic or military. The Obama administration sympathizes with the plight of the Syrian people and is eager to help, but it also does not want to make things worse in that country—and it can’t absorb substantial costs along the way, especially during the fall run-up to the presidential election.

Those who remember the horrors of America’s military intervention in Iraq and the fact that it cost the United States billions of dollars and 4,486 lives so far—not to mention the intangible and indirect costs from the invasion and post-war occupation—may immediately laud the administration for its extra cautious approach toward Syria.

But how much caution is too much? Is Washington being so careful on Syria that it risks undermining U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East?

As things currently stand, the two main U.S. priorities for Syria, containing the civil war and securing the regime’s WMD, are more or less fulfilled. The risk of chemical-weapons loss or usage in Syria is relatively low because Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is not facing a mortal threat—at least not yet. And the sectarian violence inside the country has not furiously spilled over to neighboring countries—again, not yet.

An Agenda for Washington

Does the present calm mean that the United States can afford to watch from afar and do the bare minimum in Syria? Assad may be in good shape now, and the balance of power currently may be tilted in favor of his forces, but several developments could change the dynamics inside Syria in the not so distant future and undermine U.S. priorities there.

Neighboring Turkey is starting to get worried about its own security. The recent firing by Syrian soldiers into a refugee camp inside Turkey (Turkey hosts thousands of Syrian refugees), killing two, has raised the prospects of Turkish military action, with prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan calling for NATO intervention. And it is only a matter of time before Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other neighboring countries actually deliver on their promises to supply the Syrian rebels with substantial amounts of money and modern weaponry. Unsurprisingly, Kofi Annan’s peace plan has failed to stop the violence, thus boosting the chances that military options will be seriously entertained by neighboring countries.

The reality is that a full-blown civil war in Syria is in the works, one that will surely change U.S. priorities in the country. Thus, Washington cannot afford to lead from behind. It is smart to repeat that Syria is not Libya in advancing an argument against military intervention. But it is precisely because Syria is not Libya that Washington cannot merely state its concerns and hope for the best. Unlike in Libya, the stakes in Syria are high, and the United States must take charge, although that does not necessarily mean boots on the ground, another Libya-like aerial campaign or other military options.

Washington’s reactive Syria strategy is at risk of being overrun by events on the ground. A more proactive strategy is desperately needed, one that entails tough bargaining and creative diplomacy with the Russians. The United States needs to know what it would take for Russia to abandon the Syrian regime. If it is continued access to the port of Tartous and business opportunities, as well as healthy trade and strategic relations with the next Syrian government, then so be it. The administration should get it on paper and have the Syrian opposition sign off. There also should be frank discussions about the U.S. policy of NATO expansion.

This high-stakes negotiation with Moscow will obviously not be just about Syria. It will be about the future of the Middle East and U.S. strategic interests—oil, Israel, stability and democracy promotion—in that vital part of the world. Maybe the price of Russian cooperation is higher than this, but it’s high time Washington negotiates with Moscow in a serious fashion.

If Assad loses Moscow as a friend at the UN Security Council, things will get much tougher for him at home. Russia’s change of position could well be the trigger for some real defections in the Syrian government. Yet domestic politics in Washington and Moscow could stand in the way of a more aggressive U.S. diplomatic strategy. Will Barack Obama risk raising the stakes on Syria before November and talk tough with Vladimir Putin? Will Putin play ball at a time when he is trying to reassert himself on the international stage and show domestic opponents that he can defy Washington? It’s possible but not inevitable—and only an offensive diplomatic strategy can keep the possibility open.



The Arab Uprising, and specifically the ongoing Syrian crisis, has got me thinking about a number of things that are related to the future of the Middle East. But for now, my thoughts have converged on one topic – the relationship between (violent) repression and dissent. The question I have been pondering, which I believe will have direct relevance to socio-political events in the Arab world for generations to come, is the following:

Why do dissidents sometimes respond to physical state repression by increasing their protest behavior and at other times respond by decreasing their protest behavior? The answer seems simple, right? Well, after doing some basic searching, I realized that it is a little bit more complicated than I thought.

Scholars of political repression have produced and developed a good number of systematic studies on the conditions under which national governing elites resort to repressive action to counter and/or deter actual or latent dissident behavior (Boudreau, 2004; Davenport 2004 & 2007; Della Porta and Reiter, 1998; Earl, 2003; Ekiert and Kubick, 1999; Ferrara, 2003; Francisco, 2004). Yet, despite this sizeable body of academic research, theoretical work and empirical analysis on the strategic interaction between the agents of repression (governments) and the agents of dissent (protestors) are lacking, creating an important gap in the literature.

The relationship between repression and dissent is important, I think, for at least two reasons. First, it is closely tied to one of the major debates in the literature on violent political conflict: many rational choice explanations, including the resource mobilization/political process school (McAdam, McCarthy, Zald 1996), suggest that repression will reduce dissident activity whereas the relative deprivation approach (Gurr, 1970) suggests that repression will increase dissident activity. The first group contends that repression raises costs to collective action whereas the second contends that repression will increase people’s sense of relative deprivation. Second, the literature is plagued by inconsistent empirical findings connected to the contrary theoretical expectations. As such, it provides a puzzle for scholars interested in evaluating general explanations of political phenomena by confronting them with systematically gathered evidence.

I am more curious about political phenomena after governments initiate physical repressive action against dissidents to crush collective action (obviously, the causes of initial dissident behavior would be relevant to any systematic study as well). What are the crucial factors that influence dissidents’ response? I suspect that a careful investigation of this sequence of events could challenge some of the findings of several prominent repression studies that have shown empirical support for the domestic democratic peace, i.e., that democracy decreases state repression (Davenport, 2007).

In the repression literature, there are two major explanations for the observation that repression sometimes deters and at other times spurs dissident activity. The first explanation, presented by Lichbach (1987), suggests that dissidents view nonviolent and violent protest activity as substitutes and select the type that best achieves their goals, depending on state repression and concessions. Lichbach presumes that because dissidents are interested in maximizing the shift in policy, they will pursue the most effective protest activity. Hence, if the state responds to violent protest behavior with repression (as opposed to accommodation), then dissidents will abandon violent protest behavior in favor of nonviolent protest behavior. Similarly, if the state repressed nonviolent protest behavior, then the dissidents will respond with violent protest behavior.

The second explanation, offered by Gupta, Singh, and Sprague (1993), suggests that context (i.e., the type of regime) explains the difference in responses. Here, dissidents are believed to choose between economic and political activity (rather than nonviolent and violent protest), and protest behavior is a function of government coercion, regime type (democratic or autocratic), group identity, and benefits from economic activity. Gupta, Singh, and Sprague find that in democracies repression is positively (and linearly) associated with both nonviolent and violent protest behavior, but in autocracies repression has an inverted –U relationship with both nonviolent and violent protest behavior.

Building on Rasler (1996), I thought of a third explanation which focuses on timing (i.e., short-run vs. long-run) effects and concessions by the state. I believe that it is important to distinguish between short-run reactions to repression and long-run reactions to repression (again, I am only interested in the effects ofphysical repression and not those types of repression that indirectly constrain political behavior). Examples of physical repression during a protest, strike, or demonstration include individual or mass arrests, torture, beatings, disappearance, imprisonment, and individual assassinations or mass killings.

I would expect that in the short run, dissidents perceive physical repression as a cost and, hence, decrease their protest behavior. Yet, as time goes by (it could take weeks or months), grievances become more acute and lead to a lagged spur to new protest activity. Thus, I believe that a single act of physical repression has both a negative “instantaneous effect” on protest activity and a positive “lagged effect” on protest activity. But we should also consider not only repression, but also concessions by the state. Thus, concessions, often in revolutionary contexts, could well spur further protest. So in sum, in the short-run, physical government repression decreases protest behavior, whereas in the long-run, physical government repression increases protest behavior.

People usually rebel if they become convinced that dissent will achieve the collective good (Muller and Opp 1986; Finkel, Muller, and Opp 1989). If the value of the collective good is combined with a high expectation of success, people are likely to participate in mass actions. The factors that are likely to increase the expected value of a collective good are individual assessments about whether their participation will make a difference in achieving the public good, and expectations that group action will be successful. Government concessions to highly visible groups enhance their perceived influence and increase the probability that individuals will join them for mass action (Muller and Opp, 1986). Thus, government concessions increase protest behavior.

In order to develop more precise empirical tests and more refined causal relationships between repression and dissent, we need to focus on sequences of interactions. A number of scholars have taken interest in studying sequences of behavior (Abell, 1993; Abbott, 1992: Dixon 1988: Heise 1989; Schrodt 1990: Schrodt and Gerner 1997) and several have done so with a particular focus on the repression-dissent nexus (Davies and McDaniel, 1996; Khawaja, 1993, 1994, 1995; Olzak, 1992; Poe et al, 1996: Snyder, 1976; Tilly, 1985).

Whether it makes sense to construct one’s theories by thinking about the sequences of interactions among actors depends entirely on the questions one asks. I personally am interested in examining dissident responses to physical state repression by paying close attention to processes and sequences of actions located within constraining or enabling structures (it should be noted that Lichbach’s model, mentioned above, relies primarily on sequential analysis).

I would probably design the statistical analysis by specifying an action-reaction equation where dissident activity is a function of the dissident’s previous behavior, previous government action, and a lagged variable of past government action, but instead of using the regression techniques used in the repression studies I referenced above (which rely on aggregate analysis), I would follow Dixon (1988) who makes a case for the superiority of using a logit estimator.

Let’s say I work on this study and go about operationalizing and measuring my variables and conduct some statistical tests, if I find in my results that there is strong empirical support for changing effects of repression over time, then I would say that we need to examine dynamic relationships between governments and challengers over time a littel bit more carefully. These interactive relationships between government and non-government actors may have more explanatory power than the type of the regime under study, be it a democracy or a non-democracy, thus challenging the findings of the domestic democratic peace. So how much does it really matter that the Syrian government is a brutal, authoritarian, killing machine? Ok, maybe it still matters big time (these guys are nuts!). But you get my point. It might have to do with a little bit more than the fact that Damascus is not Athens.