America’s Allies Are Getting Seriously Concerned About Syria’s Future

Interviewee: Jon B. Alterman, Director and Senior Fellow, Middle East Program, centre for Strategic and International Studies

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor

Syria is beset by growing protests and the government has used the army in a brutal crackdown. Middle East expert Jon B. Alterman says there is considerable concern and uncertainty among U.S. officials about what will happen going forward, particularly should the country’s President Bashar al-Assad be ousted.

Complicating U.S. policy on Syria, he adds, are the many U.S. allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel that want to keep Assad in power.

“I think the fear of many is that a post-Bashar Syria would actually empower non-state proxies of Iran to action and in the net, help Iran in the Arab world.” Alterman also questions whether democracy will take hold in the short term in the Middle East. “The nature of these protest movements make it hard for them to enter into normal politics,” he says. “It’s hard to know whether some of these activists, frustrated by their inability to effect change in 2011, in 2015, or 2016 will regroup and produce an entrepreneurial political culture.”

Do you have any thoughts on how this Syrian turmoil is going to resolve itself?

Syria is not like the other places. It is less internationally connected than Egypt is. It is less internationally isolated than Libya is. It is more ruthless than Tunisia. The Syrians also have the advantage of being able to learn from what other leaders have done and what their mistakes have been. The Syrian instinct is to talk soft; but to act hard. In other words, talk broadly about reform but be very conservative about introducing real changes.

Can you give an example?

They’ve announced that they are lifting the emergency law established in 1963, but they are not about to give up power. They reportedly have deployed more than three thousand troops to Deraa to put down the uprising there.

That could be quite bloody. There is really no armed force against them.

I assume the intention of the Syrian leadership is to demonstrate that they have the capacity for so much force that they don’t have to use it. It also seems to me, however, quite clear that we are not close to the final denouement here. There are probably several more rounds [to go] of both efforts to repress and the contrary push, to turn this into a genuine nationwide revolt.

I guess we’ll know better in a few weeks at least if the use of force has really quelled the opposition.

We haven’t seen the decisive moment in Syria. The fact that Syria is so isolated in the world may make it easier for the Syrians to act with impunity. In Cairo, every [television] company in the world was broadcasting from Tahrir Square. Egypt’s own self-image is as a country that is deeply connected to the world. Syria’s self image, on the contrary, is that of a country that’s hunkering down, a country that has real enemies. When the national narrative is about real enemies, it makes it easier to cut yourself off, to use your force, and to keep the world from knowing much. In terms of the Syrian people, there has not yet been the sort of catalytic moment where people either say “this is too much, I’m going to stop protesting” or “this is too much, I’m going to push on.” We haven’t gotten there yet. I don’t know if we will, or when we will, but that point hasn’t come.

Some people have been speculating that a change in leadership in Syria would be a plus because it would reduce Iran’s influence in the region. Do you share that view?

Syria is Iran’s closest state ally in the Arab world – there are also non-state allies [like] Hezbollah [in Lebanon] and Hamas [in the Palestinian territories]. I think the fear of many is that a post-Bashar Syria would actually empower non-state proxies of Iran to action and in the net, help Iran in the Arab world.

You’ve worked in the U.S. State Department on Middle Eastern policy. So far the United States has been publicly critical of the repression in Syria, but it also seemed that the United States was hoping that Assad would actually institute reforms and solve the situation that way.

The Obama administration has been struggling to find its footing, faced with all the revolts in the Middle East. In the beginning, there was a belated suggestion for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down which went over quite poorly among the United States’ Arab allies in the Middle East. But it clearly played a role in President Mubarak’s decision to resign. There has been a U.S. call for the end of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s rule in Libya. This has not prompted Qaddafi to step down. [Instead] it has been used at home to criticise the administration for not following up vigorously on its policy. When we look at Syria, we not only have the question of what the United States wants, but the complicating factor that many U.S. allies [in the region] seem to want to keep Bashar in power. If you look at the Israeli press, there are articles expressing extreme concern about what may follow in Syria after Bashar. The Saudis and Turks are also reportedly concerned about what might follow if Bashar leaves. So, Syria’s significant neighbours, all of whom have close relations with the United States, are deeply concerned about events in Syria. That only underlines concerns in the U.S. government about what might follow after Bashar al-Assad. Many officials are reluctant to get too far out in front, partly because of the unanswerable question of what are you going to do to follow up if Bashar leaves. U.S. officials do not want to alienate allies. And there is a desire to avoid “owning” a post-Bashar environment in Syria because we are having so much trouble having influence over the post-Saddam environment in Iraq.

What would be the worst case scenario in Syria that Israelis, Saudis, and Turks are worried about?

The worst case is sustained turmoil with jihadi groups operating out of the country; extreme sectarian violence and a period of proxy wars throughout the region.

With all the changes going on starting with Tunisia and then Egypt, would you say that in six months to a year’s time the area will be more democratic, more open to change, more amenable to the United States?

My sense is disappointment in six months and more possibilities in six years. The status quo forces in the Middle East, particularly the military, remain extremely strong. The wealthy entrepreneurial families remain extremely strong. The nature of these protest movements make it hard for them to enter into normal politics. To go from the post-modern politics of Facebook groups to the modern politics of getting people in power to make concessions is an extraordinarily difficult task. They don’t seem on the verge of being very successful in those countries.

It’s hard to know whether some of these activists, frustrated by their inability to effect change in 2011, in 2015, or 2016 will regroup and really produce an entrepreneurial political culture, and a more entrepreneurial economic culture.

The near-term prospect is that the democratic politics of the Middle East will be much more sceptical of U.S intervention, will be much less willing to do things to accommodate the United States. The militaries remain strong; the militaries won’t cut ties with the United States. But the overall tenor will be towards much more scepticism towards the United States, and much more scepticism towards Israel.

You would think that the democratic forces would be looking towards close relations with the United States.

The United States actively supports Israeli activities in the region. The United States actively supports both militaries and the monarchs of the region who are responsible for the political repression. The United States has economic policies, which don’t help ordinary Arabs, and the United States is waging war against Muslims throughout the world. So the public perception is that that’s what we have from the United States, and close ties aren’t in the interest of the people but in the interest of the aggressive leadership.

So even if we support the overthrow of the current leaders, we’re not actually winning ourselves a popularity contest?

The goal of U.S. policy has to be to lead towards something different, and what kinds of tools are there to do that when we have small numbers of people who are far away and don’t understand the situation well in many cases. What’s our leverage to lead these situations to a better outcome? We have some leverage, but it’s not a huge amount.

Egypt is a prime example where the United States and the Egyptian military have been very close for years, and we were very close with Mubarak. Now that he’s gone, we’ll have to start almost from scratch again, right?

No, because the military remains in control. We have quite a positive relationship with the military and the military’s been extremely eager to mature its relationship with the United States through all of this.

If your goal is to wholly transform Egypt and empower the Facebook kids to rule the country, I think we’re likely to be bitterly disappointed. If the goal is an Egypt whose policies are a small change from the status quo, but not a complete revolution, then I think the prospects are much better. The danger in Egypt remains that you’re going to have a political elite at the time the economy weakens significantly because of tourism going away, foreign direct investment drying up, capital flight, global economy crisis arising, and that could lead Egypt to very different kind of political system than we now have.

This post originally appeared at Council On Foreign Relations.