Getting to post-Assad Syria
By Adam Lewis, Editor & Webmaster at Peacefare.net
Today a Middle East Institute panel entitled “Syria on the Verge: Implications for a Nation in Revolt” stirred hopes for the revolt there to succeed.
The four panelists featured were Radwan Ziadeh (Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University and a member of Syria’s “opposition in exile”), Ausama Monajed (Executive Director of the London-based Strategic Research Communication Centre), Andrew J. Tabler (a Next Generation fellow at the Washington Institute) and former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Theodore Kattouf. While offering different perspectives, there were a few key points on which they agreed: The collapse of the Assad regime has become inevitable.
- The Obama administration announcement that President Bashar al Assad must step down will have positive effects.
- There are still major obstacles to overcome on the road to a democratic Syria. Most worrisome is that the regime continues to maintain almost uniform loyalty among the security and military forces.
- To facilitate the collapse of the Assad regime and the peaceful emergence of a new Syrian government, the U.S. should lead in international efforts to isolate the regime. This will require sanctions and diplomatic pressure while at the same time offering “lifelines” (or incentives to defect) to key regime supporters: senior military commanders, Allawite community leaders, and members of the Sunni business elite.
Through this combination of carrots and sticks the international community can convey to the regime loyalists that they have a great deal to lose by going down with the Assad ship and alternatively have the option to be part of a brighter future for Syria.
The Assad regime’s Ramadan offensive has not impeded the gathering momentum of the Syrian opposition. It is a mistake to overestimate the role that religion is playing in the uprising. Ramadan, and specifically the Friday prayers, have provided a gathering place where protesters organize. It is difficult for the regime to prevent such gatherings.
Prominent Allawites are beginning to speak up against the regime. By doing so, they are undermining the regime’s attempts to present the Allawite community as an unconditional supporter and are diffusing sectarian tension. In fact, many Allawites have not done particularly well under the regime.
More forceful U.S. and global condemnation of the regime would give Syrian protesters greater momentum while also encouraging wider-scale defections within the regime. But Ankara should take the diplomatic lead in international efforts as Syrians view Turkey more favorably and with less suspicion than the U.S.
While the growing movement has created a vast proliferation of opposition groups, committees and factions (each city or small town has its own), it should not be understood as divided. All of these various factions share a similar vision for a post-Assad Syria and have a similar set of core principles that guide their activity. On any given day, 70% of the slogans protesters use are shared across Syria.
The international community should not worry about a non-democratic outcome. Syrian protesters are experiencing a form of democracy as they build a broad coalition. Many of the larger opposition groups are already discussing the formation of political parties as well as the drafting of a new constitution.
International efforts can be most helpful if they:
- help Syrian opposition groups both inside and outside the country coalesce. The outsiders have a stronger grasp of foreign policy and can help the domestic Syrian movement develop a leadership core that can effectively engage internationals;
- convince the Sunni business elite to abandon the regime. This can be accomplished by pairing sanctions that undermine any benefits that come from working with the regime with assurances that those who jump ship now can avoid prosecution. If this group can be won over, Damascus and Aleppo will succumb to protest and the regime will crumble.
The Syrian regime is not immune to international economic and diplomatic pressure. It has anticipated this movement for a long time. Since 1980 Syria has been one of the twenty fastest growing countries in the world, and the regime has recognized the economic challenges that its now burgeoning population poses. The Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 is an example of how international pressure caused the regime to change policy. The international community’s best leverage is energy export sanctions. Oil proceeds account for about 25-33% of Syria’s revenue and if eliminated could cripple the regime without decimating society (as occurred with oil sanctions in Iraq).
The opposition’s lack of a clear leadership group is both its greatest weakness and greatest strength. While it has not offered the international community an effective negotiating partner, it has also avoided a hierarchical structure that the Syrian security forces could decapitate.
A coup is an alternative to either the regime maintaining power or the opposition winning outright. The lack of government control in Eastern Syria, as well as the growing Saudi support for opposition elements in that area, could lead to the creation of a Benghazi-type opposition stronghold.
Since talks in Geneva broke down in 2000 there has been general confusion about how the U.S. government should approach the Syrian regime. The aftermath of the Hariri assassination in Lebanon in 2005 shook Bashar al Assad. Since then, however, Assad has become smug and overconfident.
The Obama administration has been right to be cautious, even if it was overly optimistic early on that the protests could inspire Assad to implement meaningful reforms. The administration recognized at the beginning of the conflict it simply did not have the leverage to take effective action without Arab League or UN Security Council support. It thus avoided taking ownership over the outcome of the conflict. The Syrian opposition generally endorsed this approach, as it did not seek international intervention.
The U.S. is now in a much stronger position. It can and should push the UNSC to apply sanctions against Syria as well as encourage Turkey and the EU to help it further Syria’s economic isolation. The Syrian security forces still appear fiercely loyal to Assad. These forces will have to be stretched much further before they break. If sanctions can trigger an economic collapse that prevents the regime from paying the troops, loyalties could shift quickly.