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Taking Out a Tyrant

3:20 PM, Aug 11, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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BeirutPress reports over the last few days claim that the Obama administration is preparing to announce that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad must step down. However, an official readout from the president’s conversation with Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan this afternoon suggests something else. Obama and Erdogan, the statement reads, “further agreed to closely monitor the actions that the Syrian government is taking, and to consult closely in the days ahead.” It seems that the Turks, who have been running the administration’s Syria policy, have convinced Obama to walk it back some.

Bashar al-Assad

No doubt Ankara played up the administration’s fears: Obama is uncertain about what follows the current regime in Syria. The White House is frustrated with the state of the opposition in exile, disorganized, fractious, and unprepared. However, in the end, Washington will have at best an auxiliary role in shaping post-Assad Syria. The White House says that Syrians will have to shape their future, but seems unable to get its head around the idea that this is already happening.

In due course, whether Obama steps up or not, the uprising will find its leaders. Leadership can arise in one of three ways, explains Lebanese political activist Lokman Slim. “There are democratic means,” says Slim. “But obviously no one is going to be voting to elect national leadership right now. Then there is inheritance, but no one is inheriting leadership roles in Syria, outside the Assad family itself. Finally, there is the leadership that comes from the battlefield.”

Slim says he would not be surprised if the uprising lasts two or three years. “Maybe the regime will fall in a month, or maybe a year, or maybe more. The Syrian regime has not played all its cards yet. They can stir up trouble in Lebanon, Turkey, the Gulf states and Israel. Maybe not big trouble, since neither Iran nor Hezbollah want war with Israel right now, but enough trouble to concern outside powers, like the U.S.”

The longer Damascus can hold out, says Slim, the more it can count on the prospect that there will be more engagement, more talk, and more time. “In the meanwhile, opposition leaders will come to the fore as they prove themselves fighting against the regime.”

These leaders, says Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “will essentially be militia heads, like those who arose during Lebanon’s civil wars.” This leadership will exist alongside notables, sheikhs, doctors, businessmen, and lawyers. “If we learned anything from Iraq it's that entrenched social institutions on a local level usually produce leaders, from tribes, families, clans, etc.”

Unfortunately, the Obama administration has shown little interest in learning from Iraq, ignoring both the Bush administration’s errors and successes. The strange paradox is that in its efforts to avoid empowering another Ahmed Chalabi, the White House has effectively fixed its policy on the search for someone who promises before the fact to make post-Assad Syria cohere, in other words, a Syrian Chalabi.

Maybe in the administration’s search for a worthy opposition it understands all too well that real leaders will arise from the very civil war that it rightly fears. And understandably the administration wants to avoid that bloodshed, which is perhaps why it is reluctant to say Assad must go. Even if the White House would prefer to stay in the background, the fact is that American decisions carry weight around the world. That is, not only would other actors follow Washington, including perhaps some of the Arab states that have already withdrawn their ambassadors to Damascus, like Saudi Arabia, but it would also send signals inside Syria that the Americans were willing to entertain candidates to succeed Assad, a referendum that, given conditions in Syria, would be staged largely through violence.

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