WHAT THE HELL SHOULD WE DO ABOUT SYRIA?

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.

TAKING DOWN DAMASCUS IN MOSCOW

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.

-Bilal