Shift policy on Syria

In the last three years, the Syrian opposition watched with delight as Syrian President Bashir Assad has blundered amid amplified U.S. pressure on his tyrannical regime aimed at changing his behavior.

Among the many policies that the United States used to pressure Mr. Assad was a meeting with the Syrian opposition on March 24, 2004. The meeting was the first of its kind, held with Liz Cheney, then the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. Since then, the United States has escalated both its rhetoric and the implementation of some of the components of the Syria Accountability Act.

But we have witnessed, contrary to what the State Department has been predicting, more violence directed by Mr. Assad — not only against the Lebanese political leaders and intellectuals but also continued sanctioning of the Ba’ath Party onslaught against the elected government of Iraq.

Today, while the war is raging in Lebanon against Hezbollah with the tacit approval of Syria and Iran, many Middle East analysts have come to the conclusion that the policy of trying to encourage behavioral change of Syria’s Assad regime is a major disaster.

A wistful strategic paradigm had become entrenched in Foggy Bottom and in the U.S. intelligence community, which believed that the Ba’athist regime in Damascus would not dare risk its own survival by partaking in an adventurist foreign policy — one that would include undermining regional democracies and supporting international terror on a substantive scale.

This line of thinking held that Mr. Assad’s government could conceivably be brought back into the fold of normalized relations with the world community and behave in a responsible and moderate manner. But instead of the positive adjustment that diplomatic nuance and a cautious approach predicted, we saw a regime drunk with its own infallibility turn further toward Iran, redouble destabilizing efforts in Lebanon and serve as a main conduit for terrorists in Iraq.

In short, a policy that was intended to give added leverage the United States’ position of strength for the purposes of engendering tangible political reform from within the Assad regime has resulted in the global projection of the United States as weak and impotent. Because of this, what we are witnessing today is a Syria more lethal and bold in its open flaunting of its chosen rejectionist path. The fruits borne of those months of trepidation and willful self-delusion on the part of policy principals here are on open display today as the Middle East devolves further into chaos.

Israel’s determination to see Hezbollah’s powers in Lebanon diminished should provide American policymakers with a fresh perspective in the utility of imposing a new order on Syria and Iran. Missed opportunities in the Middle East have a tendency to exact an even heavier future cost. Diplomacy does not necessitate weakness, but open-ended caution ultimately serves no policy interest of this country.

The United States is concerned, and rightly so, about another ascendance to power in Syria of a Hamas-like group, mainly the Muslim Brotherhood, which would further disturb the strategic equation in the region. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has associated itself with Hamas and the Ba’athists in Syria; it certainly considers Syria a fertile ground for a Sharia-driven government. However, with a closer look, one can observe that Syrian society is too educated and complex to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to rule.

Fifty percent of Syria’s Muslim community follows the Sufi order, a moderate Islamic teaching that believes in the government in power. Their natural separatist views between politics and religion makes them an ideal partner for change. The U.S.-led Syrian opposition has managed to connect with the Sufi order and they have allied for change in Syria. Why now? Because Sufis believe the lack of opportunity in Syria has left 2 million Syrian girls unmarried, which is directly threatening their survival.

The United States, and certainly the Syrian opposition, has learned a valuable lesson from Iraq: Do not break down the system and then attempt to reconstruct it with American officials. For Syria, a Syrian government in exile, ready to act in a transitionary manner prior to a Ba’athist collapse, would avoid most of the problems of post-liberation Iraq. Moreover, a U.S. call for regime change in Syria would dramatically shift the political dynamics within that country’s populace and power elite. Regime supporters would understand that Mr. Assad’s inept rule is near its end and would ally themselves, secretly, with the opposition. After all, the Alawites are concerned with their survival as much as any Syrian.

Today, the opposition remains fragmented, but that is easy enough to fix. The White House should send out invitations to five of the most important Syrian opposition leaders to unite them in forming a government in exile: a government that will pave the way for a critical mass of dissent to openly materialize alongside a popular rejection of a Syrian government that becomes increasingly beholden to an Iran bent on a path of messianic destruction. The current government serves the Syrian people no purpose other than providing yet another Arab chapter of needless tragedy.

Farid N. Ghadry is cofounder of the Reform Party of Syria.

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