The situation in Syria deteriorates by the day. This morning, protestors—with a wink and a nod from the regime—stormed the U.S. embassy following a weekend-long protest. Opposition rallies have swelled in recent weeks to the levels seen in Egypt and Tunisia during their respective revolutions. So far, the U.S. has only said that President Bashar al-Assad needs to reform or “get out of the way”—falling short, in diplomatic language, of calling for his resignation or removal.
Professor David Lesch of Trinity University has interviewed Assad several times and written numerous books on Syrian politics and the history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, including The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Assad and Modern Syria. Professor Lesch answered five questions for us on the political crisis in Syria and American strategy in response to it.
1. What’s your assessment of U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford visiting Hama in the middle of mass protests against the Assad regime? How does that reflect American strategy handling the uprising? Does that gesture help or hurt the Syrian protest movement?
As the State Department commented, Ambassador Ford’s visit to Hama was meant to indicate U.S. support for the Syrians fighting for democracy, especially as the Obama administration has been perceived as sitting on the fence with regard to Syria and not coming down clearly on the side of the protestors. The U.S. has been trying to find ways to signal to the regime its displeasure regarding its use of violence against the protestors, hoping to compel the Syrian regime to cease and desist as well as engage in more dialogue with opposition elements and implement political reform.
The U.S. does not have much leverage against Syria—as much of what the U.S. can do has already been done over the years in terms of economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure—especially if Russia and China continue to oppose U.N. Security Council resolutions that could amplify the pressure on Damascus. Ford’s visit to Hama does not necessarily signal a new direction, but it does indicate a hardening of the Obama administration position and a warning shot across the bow that the U.S. could begin to come out more forcefully against the Syrian regime and maybe issue an out-and-out call for the removal of Bashar al-Asad.
2. Things seem to have reached a stalemate. The government cannot defeat the protestors, and the protestors appear unable to defeat the government. What do you think is the most likely catalyst that would shift events in one direction or another?
Three things could, in my opinion, change the current stalemate:
1) The U.S. could convince Russia (as it appears to have done regarding the situation in Libya) to drop its opposition to Security Council resolutions condemning Syria (China would most likely then abstain), thus isolating Damascus internationally with few, if any, escape routes, especially as Turkey seems to have lost its patience with the Assad regime. This could finally force Assad to implement comprehensive reform or negotiate for some sort of transitional phase that would eventually lead to political pluralism, a new constitution, and presidential terms limits while protecting current regime elements against prosecution or retribution. It is these latter points, especially in light of what has happened to Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali, that have encouraged regime elements to resist to the end unless they receive some sort of foolproof guarantees—which, as shown with Pinochet’s situation in Chile, are not always so foolproof. It could also embolden the opposition elements and possibly peel away supporters of the regime if they see Syria becoming more and more isolated;
2) Bashar al-Assad could finally engage in real, inclusive, systemic political reform, thus taking the steam out of the opposition movement. If he had done this earlier, the situation in Syria could be quite different—and more stable—currently. Even if he does so now it might be too little, too late, as many of the protestors have moved from demanding reforms to demanding the removal of the regime as the violence has escalated. He is unlikely, however, to implement the depth of reform necessary to quell the opposition because he would simultaneously lose the support of key elements in the regime, ones, especially among the ruling Alawites, whose position he appears to be committed to protecting, and:
3) Assad could successfully split the opposition in Syria by negotiating with certain opposition elements and implement some reform while stamping out the existing protest movement over time as long as the security forces remain loyal to the regime. In the near-term, the regime would maintain power, but Assad’s loss of internal legitimacy is irreparable. If Syria’s international isolation continues, particularly if the E.U. heightens its trade sanctions against Syria, thus causing Syria’s economy to continue to deteriorate, over the next couple of years the silent majority and Sunni business class elements who had stuck by the regime (or at least not opposed it) could shift their position against Assad, at least pushing for change from within elite circles if not resuscitating the protests with more direct support.
3. You have met and interviewed Assad multiple times. Is there any remaining chance that if Assad stays in power he might actually make moves to become the reformer he has always promised to be? Have the reformers pushed him too far, such that they will get all or nothing? Why does the Assad regime seem schizophrenic at times, lifting the emergency law but sending troops to wipe out whole towns?
In both foreign and domestic policies, the Assad regime has typically pursued what seem from the outside to be contradictory policies at the same time. As one Syrian official once said when asked some years ago whether or not, in response to U.S. pressure, Syria would lash back, make concessions, or muddle through, and the official said Syria would do all three. They do this to hedge their bets on some occasions; on others, it may reflect different power-brokers within the regime advocating different policies. I believe the current situation is more of the latter than the former. The regime was clearly caught off guard by the rising intensity of the protests, and it has disastrously handled the situation in a schizophrenic and ultimately counter-productive fashion that has alienated much of the international community just at a time when Bashar al-Assad seemed to be rehabilitating his image from the dark days surrounding the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, and it has actually exacerbated the protests.
I believe Assad at first was truly interested in reform when he came to power, especially economic and administrative reform, and in this there have been some notable advances in Syria. But he became too comfortable with power, something I have noticed first-hand over the years in meeting with him, which is typical of even the most well-intentioned authoritarian leaders. He and his inner circle became invested in the status quo, and they were complacent, if not in a state of denial, to the underlying forces of change that has generated the Arab Spring across the region. If there is some sort of transitional phase where Assad oversees the transition, if he can survive internal opposition within his inner circle to this option if it avails itself, then Assad can have one last chance to somewhat rehabilitate his image and build something of a positive legacy. But the Syrian system put into place by the Assads, father and son, is not geared for this type of change. It is geared to react convulsively to challenges domestic, regional, and international. Its default condition is survival mode at all costs, and having done so and survived on numerous occasions in the past, Assad and his supporters probably believe they can do so again.
4. What makes Syria’s protest movement similar to other recent protest movements in the regime—Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Iran even—and what makes it different?
The Syrian protest movement is similar to that which has occurred in other countries in the Middle East in that the underlying causes were the same—i.e. socio-economic distress combined with years of frustration with restricted political space, political repression, and corruption. All of the movements seem to want some level of political pluralism, where the leaders are chosen and people have a say in politics and political decision-making. It is different in that the military-security forces of the Syrian regime have remained loyal, as their fate is tied with that of the leadership, as opposed to what happened in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya, when there were severe splits within the military-security apparatus if not outright abandonment of the leadership.
At this point the Syrian regime would probably like to replicate what happened in Iran in 2009, but it does not have the capability to do so in the short term. Also, the Syrian population is more sectarian ethnically and religiously than the other Arab states that have been convulsed by the Arab spring, thus adding a heterogeneity to the equation that mitigates against a unified opposition movement while presenting the regime with the opportunity to play different sectarian elements off against one another, while all along stoking the notion that the regime is all that stands between stability and chaos, like that which occurred in Iraq when the central authority was precipitously removed in 2003.
5. What do you think a post-Assad Syria would likely look like? Does the West, and Israel especially, legitimately have more to fear from a post-Assad Syria than it does from the present Syria?
This is the singular question, one that no one can answer with confidence. Will a post-Assad Syria break apart into sectarian chaos and civil war that could spill over across the borders into Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and even Israel, thus destabilizing the entire region? Or will the Syrian population’s penchant for political quietism and stability trump fissiparous pressures? Most of the international community, including the United States, have seemed to have wanted to err on the side of caution, hoping against hope perhaps that Assad will do what is necessary in terms of reform that will take the US, U.N., and others off the hook regarding being compelled to adopt more assertive action while bogged down in Libya and by financial restraints. Some may say they are not afraid of a post-Assad Syria, that getting rid of a key Iranian ally which would also weaken Hizbullah and Hamas, is worth the risk; however, no one really knows, and even though the Syrian regime gets mileage out of those who advocate caution, there are too many ready examples in the Middle East of state failure and societal breakdown when authoritarian regimes are removed in what were artificially constructed states with minimal national identity and cohesion, a condition the authoritarian regimes in large measure helped bring about precisely to secure and remain in power.
Syria and the U.S. in recent years have actually cooperated in securing the Syrian-Iraqi border against insurgents entering into Iraq. If Syria implodes, or even if there is a period of political uncertainty associated with little to no central control, insurgent activity from Syria into Iraq could increase dramatically at a very sensitive time in Iraq when the U.S. is withdrawing its troops and the Iraqi government is teetering and desperately trying to consolidate power. These are some of the specific considerations that countries who have direct interests in the region have, leading to the somewhat restrained response to the Syrian situation. Syria’s location is both a curse and an advantage in this case.
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