The Ba’thist dictatorship in Syria has caused a lot of trouble over the decades for America, Israel, Lebanon and—most of all—for the people of Syria itself. A popular—and so far largely nonviolent—uprising against this regime has persisted since it began earlier this year despite unremitting and often brutal repression. This would appear to be an opportunity for the United States to help the Syrian people get rid of the Bashar al-Assad regime. So far, though, the Obama administration has done little more than impose “targeted sanctions” against some thirty Syrian officials (including President Assad), ban the U.S. import of Syrian petroleum and freeze Syrian government assets subject to U.S. jurisdiction. This is too timid to be serious policy.
The United States can and should do more at this moment of Assad’s vulnerability to bring his regime down. The Ba’thist government is the vehicle by which Syria’s Alawite minority (variously estimated at 7 percent to 13 percent of the population) dominates the rest of the population—especially the Sunni Arab majority. Furthermore, Syria works closely with Iran to support both Hamas (which threatens Israel) and Hezbollah (which has created a “state within a state” in Lebanon and also threatens Israel). The Ba’thist regime is likely to continue conducting all these activities so long as it remains in power.
The downfall of the Assad regime holds the prospect of replacing the Alawite’s authoritarian rule with a Sunni majority regime and possibly some form of democratic rule. But it also could result in several geopolitical benefits for the United States and its allies. These include the probable end of the Syrian-Iranian alliance that allows Tehran to arm Hezbollah and Hamas via Syria; the probable end of Syrian support for Iran’s ally, Hezbollah, in Lebanon; possible Syrian support for Lebanese democratization if Syria itself becomes more democratic; and the possible diminution or end of Syrian support for Iran’s other ally, Hamas.
But if the Assad regime is to be brought down, it is going to take more than continuing the exceptionally brave demonstrations by the Syrian populace or the tepid sanctions that America and the West have so far imposed. The Obama administration understandably does not want to launch a major intervention against Syria and risk all the problems that attended the Bush administration’s interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nor will Russia and China approve a U.N. Security Council no-fly resolution similar to the one that allowed America and certain European states to aid the Libyan opposition against Muammar Qaddafi.
Yet the U.S. and its allies could provide money, arms and other support to the Syrian opposition. Airpower could be deployed to destroy Assad’s military bases and equipment now used to suppress the Syrian people. Assad now enjoys a near monopoly on the use of force, but Washington and its allies would raise the costs that the regime’s personnel face in obeying orders to suppress the population. At the same time, such actions would reduce the costs of defecting to the opposition. This alone could go a long way to change the dynamics of this hitherto one-sided contest.
So far, however, the Obama administration has preferred to act according to international law and not unilaterally, as the Bush administration did. And since Russia and China have made clear that they will veto any Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Syria (and not just abstain as they did with the Libya resolution), international legal consensus for any kind of intervention (multilateral or otherwise) is not available. President Obama, though, should contemplate that the Clinton administration did not allow the threat of a Russian or Chinese veto to stop it from spearheading a NATO intervention against Serbia during the crisis over Kosovo.
Given that Russia and China merely complained when the United States and/or NATO fought in Serbia, Iraq and Libya, Obama’s limited reaction to Assad’s brutal suppression of his people appears to result less from the constraints of international law than from the administration’s desire to avoid this conflict. What accounts for this? Obama seems to fear the consequences of Assad’s fall in much the same way as the current Israeli government.
The Netanyahu government has emphasized its fears that the Arab Spring will result in the rise of Islamist regimes that are hostile to Israel. The Obama administration may share this concern—or it may simply not want to challenge the Israeli government on this issue before next year’s U.S. presidential election. It is easy to understand why Israel feared the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, which maintained peace with Israel over the past 33 years. It is more difficult to understand its concerns about the downfall of what is already an extremely hostile regime in Damascus.
Israeli conservatives and their American supporters would undoubtedly argue that a radical Sunni regime in Syria might prove to be worse even than Assad. This line of argument, though, could prove to be an example of worst-case planning contributing to the outcome it seeks to avoid. The Syrian people have been absolutely clear that they want the Assad regime out. If America and the West aid this process, they increase their prospects of influencing the Syrian opposition and establishing good working relations with it once it comes to power. The danger, by contrast, of not helping the Syrian opposition is that America and the West could lose any opportunity to influence it and so prevent it from becoming virulently anti-Western.
The conviction that the United States and Israel are somehow better off with the current Syrian regime remaining in power simply is not rational. There are definitely risks in promoting change in Syria, but the risks posed by a victorious, vengeful Assad more dependent on Tehran than ever to remain in power are far greater—as well as far more certain. For the benefit of the Syrian people as well as to serve American, Western and even Israeli interests, the Obama administration needs to do much more than impose sanctions on the Assad regime.
Mark N. Katz is Professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University. Links to many of his articles can be found at www.marknkatz.com.
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