Beirut—Press 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.
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.
What’s peculiar about the administration’s deliberations on Syria is that its expressed belief that it has a very limited ability to shape the outcome is at odds with its fear of an impending civil war that might be made worse by strong American words. The fact is, there are no diplomatic or political instruments at hand that can forestall the incipient bloodshed. The regime has waged war against much of its Sunni population for almost half a year now, and while the opposition has to date been peaceful, Assad’s security forces have incurred thousands of vendettas that will most likely be paid in gore. There is fighting now, and there is going to be more fighting. There is little that American policy can do to rewrite the history of the last five months, the last forty years of Assad rule, or many hundreds of years of sectarian enmity.
What the Obama administration can do, says Slim, is put forth something like an update of Woodrow Wilson’s 14-points, focusing on Middle East minorities. “The U.S. ambassador stands with the protestors at Hama, which is great,” says Slim. “But what about going to Lattakia and standing with the Alawites? The point should be that just because the U.S. is against the Assad regime doesn’t mean it’s against the Alawites. Just because it’s against Hezbollah doesn’t mean it’s against Lebanese Shiites. And because it’s allied with the Bahraini regime doesn’t mean it’s against Bahrain’s Shia.”
It’s a noteworthy moment in the region when anti-Israel sentiment places well behind anti-Alawite and anti-Shia slurs in the popular Sunni-majority discourse. The Arab Spring has given the lie to Arab unity and Arab nationalism, an ideology first advocated by, among others, American missionaries to the Middle East who recognized that Middle Eastern minorities—from Shia and heterodox Muslim sects, to Christians and Jews—were all too often treated like second-class citizens. Early Arab nationalist ideologues had hoped that defining all the inhabitants of the region according to certain shared linguistic and historical features would obviate the violence that so often came from sectarian differences.
Arab nationalism may not entirely be dead, even yet, but its failures are clear. The violence we are witnessing today in Syria—the slaughter of Sunnis and the minorities’ fear of Sunnis, the Alawite regime’s determination to destroy all of Syria if it means the Alawite community’s survival—is the logical outcome of trying to erase differences. There’s no country, no social experiment in history better able to provide an example to the Middle East that it is possible to live with your neighbor’s difference and even flourish than the United States. We don’t side with sects, but with individuals and against repressive regimes. It would be great if the president were to deliver that message to Assad.