Syrian President Bashar Assad will not listen—not yesterday, not today, not tomorrow—to the U.S. government. If you can’t manipulate the decision-making of an authoritarian government during peacetime, imagine how difficult or almost impossible that task would be during times of existential crisis when that government is fighting a brutal war against its own people for survival.
President Obama’s policy on Syria is haphazard. It is also pragmatic. Crises and wars usually present opportunities for policymakers to overhaul policy and make necessary changes. Unfortunately, the Syrian case is an exception to the rule. One would think that the ongoing popular uprising in Syria, which is making the Syrian regime more vulnerable at home and less cocky in its dealings with the West, would make the job of breaking the policy logjam easier for the American president. But it is not. In a carefully worded op-ed for the Arabic newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton threw the kitchen sink at Assad but fell short of asking him to leave. Why?
Three reasons, as enumerated to me by a State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, explain why Obama and his foreign policy team are not likely to go all the way and ask Assad to step down.
One, war weariness: The American people are dead set against another war in the Middle East. Polls show that even the Afghanistan war Americans no longer support. And that is a war that most Americans tie to 9/11 and in which the American national interest is supposedly clear and well defined. A forceful policy toward Syria that is backed by the credible threat of military intervention will not be supported by the American people simply because Syria does not undermine the national interest and does not threaten the homeland. These are election times and Obama is running next year with the promise of drawing down in Afghanistan and focusing on economic problems at home, not waging more wars abroad. Furthermore, Libya killed all chances of more aggressive US action in Syria. Had the crisis in Libya not happened, the United States and NATO may have thought about making a move in Syria to teach it a lesson. Unless a major breakthrough happens in Libya (Qaddafi dies or the rebels win), the United States and NATO will not lift a finger on Syria.
Two, no regional consensus: The one truly remarkable aspect about NATO’s intervention in Libya is that the crushing majority of Arabs, governments and publics alike, supported it. On Syria, there is no regional consensus whatsoever and that complicates matters for Obama significantly. The Saudis may not like Assad and co. due to his regime’s awful treatment of their allies in Lebanon and partnership with Iran and Hezbollah, but they still see strategic value in the survival of the regime because they can do business with it. The Turks have issued some harsh statements against Syria lately, but in reality, their preference is a reformed regime not a new regime in Damascus because their priorities are security along the borders and control of the Kurds, two matters which Assad has delivered on. And then there is Israel, which can say all it wants about supporting the course of democracy in Syria but in reality is more than fine with Assad in power largely because he is predictable and keeps the Syrian-Israeli borders calm.
Three, no critical mass: It might have been easier for Obama to ask Assad to step down had the Syrian protestors reached a critical mass. Unfortunately and for several reasons primarily related to organizational weaknesses and division among the ranks, the Syrian popular uprising is viewed in Washington as a “rural phenomenon” and until it becomes more “urban” serious attention and more forceful action by Americans and the international community will remain elusive. The images of thousands of Egyptians demonstrating in Tahrir Square signaled the end of the Mubarak regime, making it relatively easy for Washington to pick up the pieces and call for Mubarak to leave. No such images have appeared in Damascus.
The fact is this: Assad is here for now.