Getting Syria Right
April 20, 2012
It has been a bad year for Middle Eastern dictators. Several have lost power or died trying to keep it, despite efforts to avoid a common fate.
So far, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has had better luck. His government remains entrenched, and the opposition to it remains divided and weak. Change took days or months in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. In Syria, it may take years, even though it is likely to happen.
Many note that the Syrian people drew inspiration and lessons from events in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011. Fewer note that the Syrian government did, too. After watching President Zine al-Abdine bin Ali forced from power after six weeks, and President Hosni Mubarak in only 18 days, Bashar al-Assad likely concluded that that those leaders gave in too soon, and the public saw their willingness to negotiate as a sign of weakness.
Beyond teaching Assad to resist, Egypt and Tunisia also highlighted methods for doing so. In both countries, the military decided the president’s time was done. Bashar al-Assad has been careful to preserve his control over the military, leaving elite brigades under the control of family members and maintaining Alawite control of the senior officer and enlisted ranks. Assad has also actively sought the support of international allies, especially Russia and China. Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi never took this step, and it cost him Chinese and Russian support in the UN Security Council. While neither country fully supports Assad, each has blocked collective international action that would otherwise hasten his fall.
Assad also enjoys some luck when it comes to the Syrian opposition. Many who have worked with the oppositions in Libya and Syria believe that the Libyan opposition was much more organized than its Syrian counterpart. The Libyan opposition also controlled territory from the earliest days of the uprising, and it enjoyed the prospect of tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues to distribute annually. The Syrian opposition has none of those advantages.
In the process of digging in for a long fight, however, Assad has also made fundamental miscalculations that make his long-term survival unlikely. The biggest of these mistakes is alienating Turkey, whose regional instinct in the last decade has focused on mediation and conflict resolution. Having pivoted away from the Syrian government starting last August, Turkey now has the will, power, and territory to provide both a buffer for Syrian refugees and a base for anti-regime operations. In addition, Syria cannot use an alienated Turkey as a bulwark against global isolation. Were Turkey in its traditional role, it would be harder for the United States and its allies to squeeze Syria; with Turkey in a more hostile position, it is harder for Syria to escape the squeeze.
Assad has also needlessly alienated Saudi Arabia and Qatar. For much of the last decade, these two countries have often sought to protect Assad, or at least to buy him off. That stance has yielded to a determination that he should—and must—go, in part driven by the efforts of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to weaken Iran and by the GCC’s sense of accomplishment for having helped force the loathed Muammar Qaddafi from power. The dispute is also a personal one, as neither Assad nor the GCC rulers have any respect for each other. While the conservative GCC states are concerned about popular revolution becoming a precedent throughout the region, Bashar al-Assad is now less preferable to them than most alternatives.
None of Assad’s miscalculations put him in immediate jeopardy, and a drawn out war of attrition could still last for years. Even the sanctions that isolated Saddam Hussein for more than a decade were unable to remove him from power. It is true that Saddam had more assets than Assad does, but he also had more enemies. Even so, they were not enough to do him in.
In the coming months, antagonists in Syria will dig in. Yet, the more militarized the conflict becomes, the more it plays to the government’s advantage. Not only will the government likely retain a permanent advantage in firepower, but militarization also legitimizes brutal attacks on civilian populations and authenticates a narrative of a patriotic government fighting against foreign-financed rebels.
The Syrian government is weakest when Syrians question its legitimacy en masse. Tunisia and Egypt demonstrated that police can be effective against hundreds, but not hundreds of thousands. The quick scaling of protests swiftly undermined the legitimacy of these governments. Such scaling in Syria would harm Assad much more than a guerrilla war would. So far, Syria’s commercial elite and urban middle classes have remained divided about whether to push for a post-Assad Syria. Creating confidence that the country’s economic and political situation will indeed be better after Assad, and that they will have a place in the new order, is vital to bringing them over to the cause of change.
For the United States, broad and creative diplomacy is key. Keeping Russia and China open to the possibility of a change in government in Syria is essential. Full coordination with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other friendly states will make joint efforts much more effective and will help avoid a chaotic proxy war that plays into Assad’s hands.
If the United States seeks to fine-tune a solution to the problems of Syria, it will not only lose Russian and Chinese support with certainty, but it will be unlikely to be able to sustain Turkish and Saudi support. If the United States seeks to avoid some of the worst outcomes in Syria, it is more likely to have the support of all of its partners. There are many ways that this can end badly. Working broadly with others, the United States can maximize the chance it ends well.
(This commentary is reprinted from the April 20, 2012, issue of CSIS Middle East Notes and Comment, http://csis.informz.net/CSIS/data/images/0412_menc.pdf. The commentary is based on Jon Alterman’s testimony, “Syria: U.S. Policy Options,” before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 19, 2012. For the Senate testimony, see http://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Alterman_Testimony.pdf; for a video of the hearing, see http://www.foreign.senate.gov/hearings/syria_us-policy-options.)
Jon B. Alterman holds the Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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