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An Obama road map to change in Syria

Today, President Barack Obama, in what is being described by administration officials as “a major address,” will talk about the political upheavals in the Middle East. Better late than never.

However, you get an uneasy sense that on the most potentially significant uprising of the moment, the one taking place in Syria, Obama will not say very much more than he has until now.

That doesn’t mean Washington will not raise the heat on Syria’s President Bashar Assad. This week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, alongside the European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, noted, “Assad talks about reform, but his heavy-handed brutal crackdown shows his true intentions.” She added, “They have embraced the worst tactics of their Iranian ally and they have refused to honor the legitimate aspirations of their own people in Syria.”

The U.S. and the Europeans have indicated that a new round of sanctions is forthcoming, and these will even cover Assad himself. This is too little too late. The U.S. and leading European states such as France and the United Kingdom must formally demand that the Syrian president step down. By ordering, or allowing, his army and security forces to open fire on unarmed, peaceful demonstrators, Assad has forsaken all legitimacy. Something is fundamentally broken in Syria, and delaying recognition of that reality may be ruinous.

We’ve heard Obama administration officials declare lately that they have little leverage over Syria. But nations build leverage, they don’t just pick it out of the ether. If there is one country that has the means to bring the Arab states, Europe, and Russia and China into some sort of concerted effort to hasten Assad’s exit from power, and more importantly, to help Syrians who oppose their regime organize a smooth transition to a democratic, pluralistic, order, it’s the United States. In fact only the United States can take such measures.

That’s not to say that such a process would be easy. However, enough states have enough of a stake in avoiding the further disintegration of Syria, one that might well lead to widespread sectarian conflict, that it is entirely possible to push for a successful end to Assad rule.

The Arab countries would play an essential role. The Obama administration could fashion an Arab consensus by portraying a change in Syria as fatal for Iranian interests in the Levant. Despite Saudi-American tensions in recent months, there would be much sympathy with this approach in Riyadh, helping to unlock Gulf skepticism. What bothers the Saudis is that they see an Obama administration without any discernible strategy to contain Iranian power. An American initiative to use the Syrian crisis as a means of countering the influence of Iran and Hezbollah could reverse this sentiment. It would likely also earn considerable support from Egypt, which views Iran as a major spoiler on the Palestinian front.

Russia and China have been recalcitrant at the United Nations, blocking all efforts to condemn Syria. This week the French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, announced that France and the U.K. were close to getting nine council votes for a resolution on Syria. Moscow and Beijing have threatened to wield their veto, but there is probably more room for Washington and the Europeans to find a middle ground than is apparent. Ultimately, the Assad regime is not more important to the Russians and Chinese than Iran, and yet the Security Council repeatedly managed to approve tough resolutions against Tehran.

The case that could be put to Russia and China is this: The Assad regime, by escalating the repression of its own population, has made a peaceful resolution to the revolt in Syria highly improbable. Nor is the violence even working to quell demonstrations against Assad rule. Worse, the Syrian leadership has exacerbated sectarian antagonisms through its brutal retaliatory actions. This could have dangerous repercussions in neighboring states with mixed societies, heightening regional instability, therefore endangering international security.

Neither Russia nor China would want to risk valuable political capital by defending a despotic Syrian regime against hardening international recognition that Bashar Assad’s days in office are numbered. A crucial ingredient in bringing about this Russian and Chinese realization would be an adamant American and European, perhaps even an Arab, statement that it is time for fundamental transformation in Damascus; not bogus “reform” that the Assad family sees merely as a means of neutralizing dissent.

The doubters would respond that the Assads have great latitude to adopt a scorched earth policy to remain in place. They do, but as the Syrian situation festers and worsens, as it almost certainly will do, we should not underestimate the willingness of family members to look for escape routes. This is where international justice and diplomacy comes in: the first to limit the Syrian regime’s destructiveness; the second to negotiate an end to Assad rule by offering key figures possible incentives. Arab states and Turkey could play a significant role in this, but Obama alone can bring all the pieces together.

The progress would be dynamic. As the Assads watch Arab governments, the United States and Europe moving forcibly against them, followed by Russia and China, they would necessarily begin recalculating their options. They have tried to suffocate the uprising in Syria, but their efforts have gone nowhere. Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of the Syrian president, has warned that Israel would suffer from the Assads’ departure. That did little to keep the Israelis on the regime’s side, and the border incidents last weekend, which Israel and the United States blamed on Syria, only made matters worse.

A civil war in Syria would be a catastrophe, as much for a majority of Syrians as for the regime’s minority Alawite community. The Assads have boldly implied that it must either be them dominating in Damascus or chaos. Obama and the Arabs above all must quickly shoot down that mad thought. Syria can become democratic without more carnage, but it does need outside assistance. The Assads have to sense that their “Samson option,” that of bringing down the temple over everyone’s head, will fail. For the region’s sake it has to fail.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster), listed as one of the 10 notable books of 2010 by the Wall Street Journal. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 19, 2011, on page 7.

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