Syria: An Inconvenient Revolution

BY Robert Zeliger  May 17, 2011 at 10:00 AM EST

After Egypt and Libya, the White House doesn’t plan on inserting itself into another Arab uprising with an uncertain outcome, analysts say.

Despite weeks of protests and escalating violence in Syria, the White House is not ready to call for Syria’s leader Bashar Assad to step down as it did with Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, according to multiple sources with insights into the administration’s thinking.

Perhaps one of the most perplexing ironies of the Arab Spring is while America eventually dumped its close ally Mubarak, one of its greatest regional thorns, Assad has so far squeaked by without calls to resign.

The Obama administration has slapped sanctions on some of Syria’s leaders and is lobbying Turkey — one of Syria’s closest and most important allies — to ratchet up the pressure on Assad. Yet they fear the fallout that would follow the president saying Assad has lost his legitimacy to rule.

It’s partly the bad luck of timing. If the Syrians had revolted several weeks ago, before the U.S. and its NATO partners sent aircraft to bomb Libya, then there might be more options, these analysts said.

But when White House officials scan the Syrian horizon, all they see are negative repercussions if they choose to take a stronger stand. What happens if they give the protesters false hope that the U.S. will come to their rescue like it did in Libya — something that is not going to happen? What happens if Assad calls the president’s bluff, steps up his repression and Mr. Obama is made to look weak? What happens if Assad survives and the U.S. has to deal with him — a very real possibility, the White House believes.

All that adds up to a policy of trying to change the regime’s behavior, not the regime itself.

“They are calibrating their response to the regime’s actions,” said Robert Malley, a former Mideast adviser to President Clinton and a regional director for the International Crisis Group. “They want to do enough so Assad’s government knows where they stand. But they want to be careful not to be seen encouraging a protest that, if there is a bloodbath, they can’t do anything about.”

Of course, the White House could be forced to step up its action if, for example, there’s a massive slaughter of civilians.

Reputation for Reform?

It was only a few weeks ago that many senior officials were arguing Assad was a potential reformer who might be capable of making peace with its neighbor Israel.

“Many were enticed,” said Mona Yacoubian, a Syria expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “He was a young ophthalmologist with a glamorous, British-born wife. That was supposed to add up to ‘he’s a reformer.’ But the regime is the same whether he’s in charge or his father.”

Critics say President Obama came into office focused on engaging Syria and that history is clouding his judgment now.

“They really panned President Bush’s approach of isolation and sanctions,” said Michael Singh, senior director for Middle East affairs in Bush’s National Security Council. “They spent so much effort to get an ambassador back into Damascus. Withdrawing him and going back to a policy of isolation would require them to implicitly acknowledge they were wrong about their strategy.”

For the president to recall Ambassador Robert Ford the situation would have to escalate much further, most analysts agree. And even then it would be done in concert with European countries. The administration believes the ambassador has become a valuable asset, sending back vivid reports of what’s happening on the ground.

What his reports say about Assad’s words and actions — and the accounts surfacing online — have infuriated the administration. Even people who strongly backed engagement were “livid” after Assad’s first speech to his parliament on March 30, when he refused to lay out any reforms and blamed the protests on outside conspirators.

And many were disgusted by the death and mass arrests that protesters faced two weeks ago during their “Great Friday” demonstrations.


Syrian President Bashar Assad (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

Is a Weak Assad a Good Assad?

The White House also is frustrated because it believes the Assad regime isn’t getting the message clearly from Washington. “They fear the Syrian regime believes that the U.S. — like Israel — is more comfortable with the status quo. So the administration feels we need to get [Assad] out of his comfort zone,” said Malley.

How to do that is debatable: perhaps stronger sanctions, specifically targeting Assad himself. There’s some talk of trying to get the International Criminal Court to look into indicting him.

One option, fraught with potential pitfalls, could be convincing Turkey that they need to put pressure on Assad to enter a power-sharing agreement with some element of the opposition. One problem is little is known about the opposition, and the White House see no charismatic leader to rally behind.

The Saudis would likely support that option as a means of weakening Assad and forcing concessions.

“They believe that if we can wean him away from Iran and Hezbollah that could be a major victory. Plus they don’t want to see another regime fall because of demonstrations in the street,” said a Mideast observer with close ties to the Saudis who wished to remain anonymous.

But the Saudis want the U.S. and others to take charge of dealing with Syria. “They don’t like Bashar [Assad], they don’t like his relationship with Iran, they don’t like what he’s done in Lebanon, but at the same time they are in Bahrain with a thousand troops,” said Theodore Kattouf, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who recently returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia.

There’s one glaring problem with the above scenario. The Syrians are relying on the Iranians now more than ever to help crush dissent, making it even less likely Assad would drop them. It would require major carrots from the U.S. — perhaps removing them from the terror-sponsorship list — a move that would be politically difficult in Washington.

Limited Options

There are many on Capitol Hill and in Mideast policy circles advocating that President Obama move in the opposite direction and call on Assad to step down.

“It’s mystifying to me why they don’t say that,” said Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Bringing him down could be a tremendous strategic opportunity for us. And it’s worth the risk. Haven’t we been trying to isolate Iran from the region since the 1980s? This is the nexus for Iranians to do not very nice things. A new Syria would certainly be more in the Arab fold.”

Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian-born political analyst at the National Defense University, said such a strong declaration could shake up European and Arab leaders.

“If the U.S. says to the world the Assad regime as a result of its use of lethal force against unarmed civilians has made itself illegitimate, that will put pressure on states such as France, who are also very close to saying that, to do the same. It would put pressure on Turkey to swing 180 degrees away from Syria. I think it will be a catalyst.”

But Kattouf, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, sees little benefit in making that move.

“We are really limited in our ability to affect the situation on the ground,” he said.

Plus, the U.S. ought to be concerned with what follows Assad, Kattouf said. “There is no civil society, no democratic center. There has to be a lurking concern that Salafis will take over. We really don’t know how things will play out.”

“This is not Libya,” said Yacoubian of the USIP. “There is legitimate fear of what would happen if Syria descends into chaos. There are implications for Lebanon, Israel and the broader region.”

That calculus — that the risks outweigh the benefits — is the prevailing thinking at the White House.

“My hunch is they are not going to say it soon, unless the Syrians do something outrageous,” said Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for Al Arabiya Television and a close observer of Syrian-U.S. relations.

He added, “Knowing this regime, they will almost definitely do something outrageous.”

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