Obama Needs to Do More Than Pay Lip Service to Regime Change in Syria

By Ilan Berman
January 31, 2012

When the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad was engulfed by the “Arab Spring” last March, many waxed optimistic that regime change in Syria wouldn’t be long in coming. But ten months into the ensuing civil war, Assad’s regime shows no signs of fading away quietly. To the contrary, it has doubled down on repression, waging an extended campaign of official brutality against its own people in its bid to remain in power. As of mid-January, the death toll from Syria’s uprising had topped 6,000, with no let-up in sight. 

Still, there are hopeful signs that the tide could finally be turning against Assad. Recent days have seen armed Syrian opposition forces make progress in their push against the regime, with skirmishes now being reported on the outskirts of the Syrian capital of Damascus. 

What can America do to help? At least so far, the Obama administration’s response has been largely laissez faire. Back in August, President Obama finally broke months of silence to call for Assad to respect the will of the Syrian people and “step aside.” Since then, however, his administration has done far too little else. Although it has imposed three incremental rounds of sanctions on Syria to date (in April, May, and August, respectively), it has stopped short of levying comprehensive economic pressure against the Syrian regime—or of truly pressuring international partners in Europe and the Middle East to do the same. At the same time, it has written off the idea of using force, taking pains to draw a distinction between Syria’s situation and that of Libya, where NATO successfully intervened to contain and ultimately oust dictator Muammar Gaddafi. 

This deliberate minimalism speaks volumes about the White House’s hesitance to truly become a stakeholder in Syria’s civil unrest, and serious doubts that it can actually make a difference if it does. And yet, there is actually a considerable amount that the Obama administration can do to tilt the scales against Assad, and toward the Syrian people. 

First, hold allies to account. Assad’s brutal crackdown has generated no shortage of outrage from the international community, but precious little concrete action. The Arab League provides a case in point. Its 27 members have been vocal in voicing their disapproval via diplomatic channels, even going so far as to approve a broad spectrum of sanctions (including the isolation of Syria’s central bank) at the League’s November 2011 meeting in Cairo. Yet these measures have been held in abeyance for months, as Arab states have unsuccessfully tried to coax and cajole Damascus into scaling back the bloodshed. By now, however, it has become abundantly clear that Arab diplomacy alone isn’t enough; Washington should lean on Arab states to at long last implement the measures they have already authorized, and by doing so signal their seriousness.           

Even more crucial in this regard is the European Union. An estimated 95 percent of Syrian crude oil exports of nearly half-a-million barrels per day end up in the Eurozone, making the European market a critical one for the Assad regime. If Europe moves seriously to isolate itself from the Syrian economy, the results could be devastating for Assad and company. European nations have already begun moving in this direction, passing a December ban on the exportation of gas and oil industry equipment to Syria and most recently imposing a targeted asset freeze against its central bank. The Obama administration now must encourage European nations to do still more, and systematically begin to exclude Syria from their energy markets in a way that robs the regime of critical financial lifeblood.

Second, provide humanitarian protections. The Obama administration has made clear that it isn’t prepared to take the critical step that Syria’s opposition forces are clamoring for, and actually provide them with the weaponry they need to turn the tables on regime forces. But even short of arming Syria’s opposition outright, Washington has the power to give it the critical breathing room it needs to organize. Working through the United Nations and in concert with regional allies, it could push for the establishment of internationally-enforced no-fly zones and protected humanitarian areas as a way of protecting civilians and limiting Assad’s aggression. In much the same way, it should also apply political and economic pressure to Assad’s last real international partner, Russia. In recent months, the Kremlin has emerged as a critical lifeline for the Assad regime, providing it with both high-tech military cover and political cover. The Obama administration needs to make clear that where Moscow stands on Damascus actually matters a great deal—and that it is prepared to regard Russia’s behavior on Syria as a barometer of the so-called U.S.-Russian “reset” writ large.

Third, contain and deter potential proliferation. Israel’s 2007 raid on Syria’s al-Khibar reactor succeeded in laying bare the Assad regime’s nuclear ambitions. What is comparatively less well known is that the Assad regime boasts one of the region’s most robust stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. As Syria’s regime becomes increasingly beleaguered, the safety and security of that stockpile is paramount. The Assad regime’s cozy relationship with Lebanon’s radical Hezbollah militia, as well as with Palestinian rejectionist groups like Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, should rightly raise concerns about potential seepage from Syria’s arsenal to terrorist actors. Washington will need to deepen its cooperation with regional neighbors (like Turkey and Iraq) on counterproliferation, border security and an array of other security issues if it hopes to ensure that that doesn’t happen.

Fourth, prepare regime alternatives. The West’s recent experience in Libya should have hammered home the point that the enemy of my enemy isn’t necessarily my friend. The Gaddafi regime, after all, has been replaced in short order by an unpopular and divisive transitional government and a troubling drift toward radical Islam on the part of country at large. The lesson is applicable to Syria as well. Assad’s dictatorship is doubtless an odious one, but it should be in no-one’s interest to swap one radical regime for another. That’s why Washington needs to get much smarter about the various corners of the Syrian opposition now clamoring for international attention, and what, exactly, it is that they stand for.           

To its credit, the Obama administration has already begun some of this legwork. Recent months have seen some early administration efforts to organize Syria’s disparate opposition elements into something resembling a coherent front—an initiative spearheaded by the Obama administration’s enterprising envoy to Damascus, Robert Ford, at considerable personal risk. But much more still needs to be done on that score. At the same time, Washington needs to communicate to these elements, clearly and consistently, that American support for their cause is predicated upon them upholding the values and principles that we care about. 

In his State of the Union address, President Obama told the American people that “the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change can't be reversed, and that human dignity can't be denied.” That’s certainly lofty rhetoric. But in order for it to become a reality, the U.S. will need to assist in undercutting the Assad regime’s sources of external support and increasing the internal costs of its rogue behavior. If, at long last, Washington truly commits to doing so, then perhaps it can indeed help bring real change to Damascus.

Related Categories: Middle East; Radical Islam

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