The Syria Conundrum

After months of hand wringing the White House has finally started stirring. In breaking front page news, the newspaper of record reported US efforts to get Russia on board for a solution to the Syrian crises on the Yemen model. What is the Yemen model? It is the same strategy that was tried in Egypt: replace the boss with his second-in-command and keep the regime intact. The Policy Tensor pointed this out in the post The dog who only knew one trick. The title of that post was spot on. The White House really seems to have only one trick up its sleeve.

The conundrum

The Assad regime is a hard nut to crack. As the Times article points out: “Mr. Assad oversees a security state in which his minority Alawite sect fears that if his family is ousted, it will face annihilation at the hands of the Sunni majority. That has kept the government remarkably cohesive, cut down on military defections and left Mr. Assad in a less vulnerable position…” Unlike Yemen or even Egypt, Syria is a remarkably affluent. The large middle class–located in affluent neighborhoods of Damascus and American style suburbs–is dominated by Alawites and the Sunni business community that the Assad regime has astutely cultivated. As the conflict has taken on increasingly sectarian overtones and raised the spectre of chaos, this dominant strata has coalesced around the Assad regime. In that sense, it is similar to Bahrain with the same nexus of class and sectarian axes pitting the rich and the privileged sectarian minority against a poor, enfeebled, and restive sectarian majority. Because the regime has firm control over the entire coercive apparatus and a monopoly on heavy weapons, the opposition cannot possibly wrestle power away from it without external support even if it were united and cohesive.

At first sight, one would think that this support would be readily available. The Assad regime has no friends in the West or the Arab world. The Arab regimes see it as a part of the Shi’i crescent and allied with Iran. Indeed, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been supplying weapons to the Free Syrian Army, a motley group of army defectors and radicalized Sunni activists. The regime has been regarded as a pariah state by US policymakers. In fact, back in 2002, the neocons were wondering if after a triumphant invasion of Iraq they should turn right to Iran or left into Syria. The Syrian regime is a primary conduit for the supply of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah, there being no other land route for these supplies. It is a major sponsor of Hezbollah itself, and exerts enormous influence in Lebanon which it regards as a vassal state. It also housed Hamas and cultivated it to the chagrin of the Israelis, that is, until three months ago when–under pressure from domestic opposition in the occupied territories–Hamas declared its opposition to the Assad regime. It participated in all the Arab-Israeli wars and Israel securitizes it, not as much as Iran but pretty intensely. In 2007, Israel conducted an airstrike and destroyed a nuclear reactor that it suspected was being used for developing nuclear weapons. There was not a peep from any Arab or Western powers.

But however much a nuisance the Assad regime has been it has kept the peace in the Levant. This is because it is too weak to take on Israel without other powers (basically Egypt). It has presided over a dynamic economy with an expanding middle class and been good for business. In the interest of stability, the United States has refrained from backing efforts to topple the regime. Furthermore, as Adam Garfinkle pointed out weeks ago:

“Assuming for a moment that for strategic reasons (that is, not just for aesthetic or moral reasons) the United States wants the Assad regime to fall, we cannot readily send an expeditionary military force to turn the trick. Syria is a country of diverse and sometimes difficult terrain, with about four times the population of Libya. Unlike Libya, it is not for practical military purposes an island (bordered, as is Libya, by barren desert to its south and the sea to the north), where all major targets can be attacked from sea-based airpower. It has a relatively sophisticated air defense system. It has something of an ally in a major power—Russia—although one should not exaggerate the closeness of the relationship these days. Russia would not go to war to protect the Syrian regime from an American- or NATO-led invasion.”

The Russian connection

The Assad regime is a Russian client. Its geopolitical usefulness to Russia should not be trivialized. Per the Times, “Syria is Moscow’s main Middle East ally, home to a Russian naval base and extensive Russian oil and gas investments. It is also a major trading partner and buyer of Russian arms.” The Obama administration is therefore trying to assure Russia that its interests would be guaranteed. In any case, it is not like Russia will go to war over Syria. But staunch Russian opposition does increase the costs of a more interventionist US policy. This is a recurring problem with US-Russian relations. As Russian power has declined, it has tried in vain to maintain its influence when, in fact, the geopolitical ground has been shifting beneath it. All it can do is block UNSC action. It cannot credibly offer to protect its clients militarily like it used to. It just does not have the wherewithal for such a policy.

Russia has so far blocked UNSC resolutions aimed at Assad. It seems extremely unlikely that they would come around and support a UN intervention in Syria. Which brings us to the only option that might work.

Turkey to the rescue

Adam Garfinkle, an editor of The American Interest, has proposed a plan to let the Turks take the initiate. Turkey is the only power in the Levant that has the capability and the interests at stake to carry out a military/humanitarian intervention. Turkey fears a flood of refugees across the border, especially Kurds. This is already happening. Turkey has cultivated ties with the Assad regime over the past few years and the Erdogan government has invested quite a bit of political capital into it. But as the situation has become more gruesome and Syria has spiraled out of control, Turkey has backed off and started making plans for Assad’s ouster. In particular, they have made plans to create a safe zone for opposition fighters to regroup and contain the refugees on the Syrian side of the border. They have even approached Washington to get support for a more interventionist policy, but the Obama administration has refused to even consider it.

Garfinkle thinks that a limited Turkish operation would be enough to prompt a coup against Assad: “It could also invite Syrian soldiers and police to join the Turkish effort (one need not use the word “defect” in public)—a far better option for said soldiers and police than being killed by Turkish arms, one would think. An operation premised on humanitarian grounds but that nonetheless had the appearance of a threat to the regime could very well prompt the coup. The tactical logic of such an operation is simple: Its message to the hesitant Syrian elite would be, “The sooner you remove the Assads from power, the less Syrian territory we will occupy, and the less territory we will consequently need to evacuate as a new government is built and achieves a capacity to restore and maintain order.”

I think its naive to think that anything short of an assault to overwhelm Assad’s military is going to work. Elites in Syria will need to be fairly certain that the Assad regime is going to get toppled before they would throw their support behind the opposition. If Turkey leads a large scale operation with the support of NATO and the Arab league, and the credibility of the Assad regime collapses, then we can expect a coup. More likely, we will see not a coup and orderly transition but rather an intensely chaotic situation with a potential for genocide and mayhem. Which is why we need peacekeeping forces ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.

Also, a coup against Assad might quell the uprising if there is political dialogue. Or it might not, especially if it is seen as one gang of Alawite thugs replacing another and there is no let up in the crackdown. Obama has basically waited too long for such a strategy to work. By now, the opposition is totally radicalized and Syria is on the brink of an all out sectarian civil war.

A NATO-blessed Turkish operation aimed at the removal of the Assad regime is the only workable option. Policymakers in Washington need to take their head out of the sand and stop trying strategies which have no chance of working. My expectation is that we will need to see another pile of little bodies with holes in their heads before the Obama administration will be pressured to lead from behind.

[Read the next post on this topic: The future of Syria, a.k.a., statecraft for freedom fighters.] 


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