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The Syrian Challenge

This administration never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Jul 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 41 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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The administration’s policy toward Syria is shaping up to be the greatest missed opportunity of Barack Obama’s presidency. His failure of vision and nerve, paired with an acute Republican fatigue with the Middle East and foreign policy in general, has allowed Syria to drop off Washington’s radar screen. But if Syria were to break the right way and the regime in Damascus were to fall, the most tenacious state-sponsor of terrorism in the Arab world​—​Tehran’s strongest ally and the lifeline to the terrorism-loving Lebanese Hezbollah​—​would be taken out. Alas, an administration that came into office only a little less eager to engage Damascus than Tehran seems stuck in its stillborn Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the turmoil of the Great Arab Revolt. 

Protest poster, March 2011

Protest poster, March 2011

There is some reason to believe that the White House now knows Bashar al-Assad’s Syria is not essential for solving the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio. And clearly, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton want to help Syrian protesters; both give the impression, however, that they don’t really think they can. 

Further, the uncertainties of the Arab Spring and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s air war in Libya have spooked the administration. Its “realist” tendencies are well known, and “realism” powerfully comes to the fore when a president doesn’t know what to do​—​or believes that the United States can do little. The safest and easiest bet then is to do nothing​—​the essence of most “realist” policy. 

Such “prudence,” “restraint,” and “patience”​—​the administration is fond of these words​—​can be commendable when a situation is messy or murky. But neither applies in Syria. This is an easy call: We have a chance to eliminate one of America’s worst enemies in the region​—​the linchpin of Iran’s alliances and terrorist apparatus. We have a chance to traumatize Tehran: The world will look a lot more precarious to supreme leader Ali Khamenei and a lot more hopeful to the millions behind Iran’s pro-democracy Green Movement if Bashar al-Assad goes down. The importance of Syria to Iranian foreign policy and internal politics cannot be overstated. 

Through Syria, we have a chance to convulse the politics of Lebanon, where Hezbollah, revolutionary Iran’s only Arab offspring, now reigns supreme. The organization does not own the majority Shia community of Lebanon; the potential political diversity of the Shia has been stymied by Hezbollah’s military and economic power, which depend on its ties to Damascus and Tehran. The Sunnis of Syria, some 75 percent of the population, have long chafed under the harsh rule of the Alawites, who are nearer 15 percent. Empowered, the Sunnis are unlikely to be nice to Hezbollah, which has run roughshod over Lebanon’s Sunnis, with their close, historic ties to Syria’s Sunni community.

If Assad falls, Hezbollah will have no choice but to hunker down and avoid any conflict with Israel.If even the most rudimentary, morally repugnant, Islamist-felicitous, Israeli-cursing democracy arose in Damascus, we still might see the Arab world realign decisively toward representative government. Egypt, Iraq, and Syria have been the engines of modern Arab thought; if they all embrace popularly elected governments, Middle Eastern Muslims may evolve in a direction that will make both state-sponsored terrorism and al Qaeda-type extremist movements unsustainable. The most modern Arab societies—Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Algeria—have been brutalized so badly by secular Arab police states that this process will not be quick or easy. 

Yet it has been perverse to watch American liberals and conservatives fret about unleashing Islamists through the downfall of dictatorships when it was those very dictatorships that largely created the zealots. The administration certainly suffers from this Islamist-run-amok anxiety, which dovetails nicely with the State Department’s infatuation with enticing an Alawite-dominated Syria into the peace process. But this anxiety is a strategic cul-de-sac. 

Arab police states ethically upended their societies as they sought to “modernize” them. Representative government offers a way for these societies to regain their moral balance—to have the great debates about the role of religion in society that were simply shut down by the lawless Westernizing dictators who have done so much to give secularism a bad name in the region. The West is stable because it enjoys (after much blood, sweat, and tears) an organic, responsive, and law-abiding relationship between the citizens and their elected leaders. The Middle East is unstable because its authoritarian regimes are essentially lawless (the kingdoms are in slightly better shape than the “republics” because royal structures retain social layering and conventions that buffer and restrict the ruler’s behavior). 

The Middle East is also unstable because faithful Muslims feel injustice acutely. Although this is poorly appreciated in the West, Islam has been a religion of rebellion as much as it has been a faith of “oriental despots.” As modern Middle Eastern societies have become more religious, they have become more rebellious. This Islamic “protestantism” now coincides with the anomie and anger of the Facebook generation, who are intimately connected to the West. 

In Syria, most protesters have probably come from the average Sunni faithful, the non-college-educated men and women of the smaller towns who have no commercial ties to the regime, as do the Sunni elite of Aleppo and Damascus. The protesters have proven astonishingly brave. And their calls for self-government have been crystal clear. They have​—​so far​—​been amazingly resistant to calls for attacks on the ruling Alawite community. It’s hard to believe that this moderation will last, however, if the regime’s savage reprisals against the Sunni demonstrators continue. 

It is sad that the American ambassador in Syria, Robert Ford, has been trying to encourage the protesters to engage the regime. It beggars the imagination that Thomas E. Donilon, Obama’s über-realist national security adviser, thinks Bashar has any intention of liberalizing, let alone democratizing, his rule. If Assad survives, he’ll most likely turn his draconian police state into an Orwellian one. And if Assad survives, Obama loses. Iran, Hezbollah, and all the bad actors in the Middle East (most of whom have offices in Damascus) are going to rejoice.

Although the administration realizes the importance of Turkey for Syria’s future, it has not tried arduously to encourage the Turks to counter and undermine Damascus. But if the Alawite regime cracks and some sort of democratic government follows, then the Turks, who so far have forcefully condemned Assad, can rightly claim to have advanced democracy in the region. 

This ought to be viewed as a dream scenario for the United States: The most powerful Muslim state of the Middle East becomes the most influential advocate of democracy. This would be a revolutionary turn for the ruling Justice and Development party in Ankara. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu both had sought friendly relations with Assad. But the savagery of his crackdown turned opinion in Turkey, then in the midst of a parliamentary election. 

Turkish public opinion became intensely hostile to Damascus. Turkish newspapers started talking about the “Alawite [read Shiite] dictatorship” in Damascus, enflaming Sunni Turkey’s distaste for things Shiite. Davutoglu’s nonsectarian, pro-Muslim, “neo-Ottoman” policy of good relations with all of Turkey’s Middle Eastern neighbors has been coming apart because a democratizing Turkey actually does care about self-government beyond its borders. It cares, too, about Sunnis getting killed and tortured by Shiite heretics. 

There are many things that the Obama administration should be doing that it isn’t: using the presidential bully pulpit against the Assad regime, deploying the American ambassador in Damascus as a shield and voice for the opposition (if Ford gets expelled, he gets expelled), organizing the Western diplomatic community in Damascus to do whatever it can to aid the opposition, offering substantial technical support to the Turks to extend a Wi-Fi-ed broadband as far over the Syrian border as possible, and working with Paris to implement energy sanctions that might severely impair the Assad regime. But the most important thing it could do now is encourage Turkey to stand firm against Syria. 

Ideally, we should want to see the Turks establish a buffer zone or safe haven on the Syrian side of the border (Ankara sometimes did this in Iraq to counter nefarious Kurdish activity). Such a Turkish intervention, which would likely be backed by the French, would be convulsive inside Syria and would signal to the military that Ankara had irreversibly chosen sides. It would also signal to the Sunni elite of Aleppo, just 26 miles from the Turkish border, that their essential Turkish trading partner had drawn a line in the sand. 

Neither Erdogan nor Davutoglu would want to do this; but Turkey might feel obliged to if the demonstrations continue, regime savagery and the number of refugees increase, and Sunni Syrian military units start to peel off (the regime so far has been able to maintain military discipline among Sunni soldiers while using predominately Alawite units and militias as shock troops against the protesters). Even though supporting Turkish military action is undoubtedly a bridge too far for President Obama, not to mention his “realist” national-security team, the administration should do itself a favor and sympathetically discuss this contingency with Ankara. One of Assad’s most critical objectives now is to turn the Turks back towards him. If he can take Ankara out of play​—​which, given the semiofficial nature of the Turkish press, would curb most of the Turkish media’s anti-Alawite coverage​—​then Assad could neutralize the Sunni elite. If Aleppo stays loyal, then the protest movement may be killable. 

As much​—​even more​—​than Egypt, Syria has incubated the ideas that have shaped the Middle East since the collapse of the Ottoman and European empires. In a critical way, modern Syria is the polar opposite of modern Egypt. A solid Egyptian identity launched the people of the Nile into modern Arab politics. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism was an easy extension of his profound patriotism, which depicted the fatherland as the cutting edge of “the Arab nation.” A weak, almost nonexistent, Syrian national identity, when it collided with the supercharged “isms” of the twentieth century, hurled the heterodox people of Syria into an especially mean-spirited Arab nationalism, which ravaged the country. Like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, Syria is rebelling against all that went wrong since the country became conscious of itself. Rebellious Syrians, like so many other Arabs (and Iranians), are trying to re-attach their patriotism, their faith, and their personal pride to -ideals and politics that aren’t so violent, fearful, and corrupt. 

Like all Arabs outside of Israel, they have no real experience with democracy; like all the Arabs along the Mediterranean, they have been permeated with Western ideas. They are yearning for freedom and opportunity, which is just across the sea, tantalizingly accessible via television, the Internet, and family members in the West. 

Syria is the most important state to be convulsed by the Great Arab Revolt. It offers the prospect of a devastating setback to America’s worst enemies. And the Obama administration hasn’t yet blown it. Time remains, thanks to the courage of ordinary Syrians. Yet the Turkish window​—​the most important operational opportunity​—​may be closing. American power cannot effectively be deployed unless Washington senses that a great victory can be won. Does President Obama have this strategic sense? Does he know how to marry power politics to idealism?

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and the author of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East (Hoover Institution Press).

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