Bashar al-Assad is finished. The Arab League has condemned him, as have former allies Qatar and Turkey. One time Saudi intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal says Assad’s exit is inevitable. Perhaps most significantly, King Abdullah II of Jordan felt sufficiently confident of Assad’s fall to call for the president of Syria, the Hashemite Kingdom’s historical nemesis, to step down.
In the past, a more vigorous Syrian regime would have lashed out against its critics and rivals by unleashing its terrorist assets. But to date, Hezbollah has kept its head down, balancing its support of Damascus with the recognition that the regional Sunni majority has come to detest a regime that has so far slaughtered upward of 3,500 people, most of them Sunni. Hamas is doing its best to distance itself from Assad and is looking to relocate—maybe to Qatar, or even to Islamist-friendly Tunisia. It’s true that Assad hasn’t played all his cards yet: He’s still threatening to destabilize Turkey, but attacks on embassies in Damascus—including those of France, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Morocco, and others—rather than terrorist operations abroad suggest the regime is hemmed in.
The domestic front is no better for Assad. The Syrian economy is in free fall. Businessmen are betting against his survival by holding on to dollars and euros and devaluing the local currency. The last few weeks have seen more and more defections from the Syrian military and armed operations against security and military outposts. Assad has the Russians in his corner, for the time being, but soon he may have only Iran standing with him.
Meanwhile, as Assad is running out of time, the Obama administration’s Iran policy is running out of options.
The peace process that was supposed to galvanize a coalition of pro-American Arab states to take on the Islamic Republic is moribund. Moreover, some of those allied regimes no longer look the way they did when Obama came to office. Egypt, for instance, is too consumed with its domestic upheavals to align its foreign policy with the foreign powers whom the loudest voices in post-Mubarak politics perceive to be the real enemy—not Iran but Israel and the United States.
Obama’s engagement with Tehran also proved fruitless. The prospect of reaching an accommodation so clouded the president’s judgment that when the Green Movement took to the streets in June 2009, he missed a huge opportunity to back the regime’s internal opposition.
Containment will fail too. For in the scheme put forth by the White House, containment is a catchword rather than a policy. If the model is meant to conform to the Cold War, it becomes obvious that no matter how many weapons are sold to the Saudis, Emiratis, and other Gulf Cooperation Council members, the coalition is worthless without a strong American presence on the front line. But, instead of maintaining a presence comprising hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, the White House is withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, the one forward position in the region that could have served a role similar to that of the American troops still in Germany.
Obama has a big move left on the board, but it will require the president to turn his worldview on its head. He came to office with the idea that Syria was central, and as it turns out it is—but not for the reasons he imagined three years ago.
Obama believed that getting Damascus at the negotiating table with Israel would cool the region, earn the president the confidence of Arab regimes and their subjects, and drive a wedge between the Syrians and the Iranians. The Arab Spring brought clarifying, if intemperate, weather: Damascus was key not because it was strong, but because it was feeble, the weakest link in a chain that extended from Hezbollah to Iran. The self-described “beating heart of Arabism” was nothing but a smoke and mirror show. Assad exported terrorism to Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and elsewhere for the same reason his father did—to destabilize his neighbors before they could destabilize Syria. With history as a guide, a post-Assad Syria will almost certainly look like the Syria Hafez al-Assad inherited in 1970—a country susceptible not only to the influence of regional actors, but vulnerable to its own internal dynamics.
Before the Alawites came to power, Syria was ruled by a succession of Sunni governments that fell in coups and countercoups, some engineered by outside forces, others merely the natural result of domestic rivalry between various centers of Sunni power. That is to say, while Islamists are undoubtedly going to have a role in a post-Assad Syria, they are going to have a lot of competition. Among others, there are the military leaders, including those who’ve already defected from the army, as well as the Sunni merchant class, which itself is split into rival branches, most famously between Damascus and Aleppo. Then there are the tribal leaders, who tend to take a dim view of Islamists or those absolutely devoted to a religious faith that specifically challenged the authority of the tribes.
The administration cannot imagine a post-Assad Syria because its vision is obscured by a post-Saddam Iraq. The Obama White House wants to avoid the sectarian bloodshed that split Baghdad. More than anything else, it wants to steer clear of anything that smacks of George W. Bush. Accordingly, the administration has petitioned the opposition to stay peaceful and include minorities in the Sunni-majority movement. A White House wary of Bush-style nation building has taken on the role of opposition building.
It’s too late for that. The opposition already exists on the ground. Administration spokesmen have perversely tried to discourage the opposition from taking up arms. It will only play into the regime’s hands, said a White House spokesman. It will cost the peaceful opposition international support.
It appears that it doesn’t matter to the Syrian opposition that they can only win Washington’s affection by extending their necks willingly to the regime’s executioners. They’re already fighting. A recent report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies explains that the Free Syrian Army, made up of defectors from the Syrian military, estimates that there are already 17,000 men under arms, operating out of Turkey and, of all places, Lebanon, the Damascus regime’s terror lab. According to the report, the FSA’s leaders will call for more defections—as soon as the international community implements a no-fly zone. That’s the one move the White House has right now. Time to make it.