Syria Needs Action

Kofi Annan is “shocked” that the agreement he brokered with Bashar al-Assad’s government is breaking down.  Really?   The Syrian opposition continues to bravely mount demonstrations and the Free Syrian Army continues to operate – so for Assad to withdraw from cities as he has promised would give space for the opposition to return.  No dictator intending to remain in power by force is likely to give his opponents free space to operate.  Instead, Assad has used the interval before the agreed-to cease fire to step up his army’s attacks on the Syrian opposition.  Having now battered his opponents and occupied hostile neighborhoods, he has surprised Annan with new conditions saying he cannot possible withdraw his troops as promised until he has written assurances that the opposition will lay down its arms (which of course would leave them open to massacre since there is no international force in place or contemplated to enforce the cease-fire or separate combatant forces).

In short, Annan’s well-meaning efforts at a cease-fire have both failed to achieve that goal and left Assad in a stronger position.  So much for ‘preventing’ a civil war!  In reality, Syria is already deep into a revolutionary civil war, and the only question is which side will prevail.

While Assad continues to alienate the majority of Syria’s population, key elites – the Alawites that lead the security forces and the Christians in the business community – continue to remain loyal out of fears that the opposition will become a populist Sunni Islamist regime if it gains power, and create a worse situation for them.

However, for the world at large, an Assad victory would be a major blow.  It would leave in power a close ally of Iran, in fact an ally more deeply in Iran’s debt for the aid and advice that kept Assad in power.   It would halt the march of democracy in the Middle East and signal to dictators everywhere that force still works, and that sufficient force can crush even a broad opposition and keep authoritarian regimes in power.

The Syrian opposition has now openly committed itself to respect minority rights in Syria if Assad falls.  But their words are not enough – the international community must forcefully insist that those rights be honored and commit itself to demand those rights in return for aiding the Syrian opposition resist Assad.  To make that commitment stick, the international community needs to be vigorous in helping to undermine Assad – continue and upgrade the sanctions; supply arms to the opposition; set up safe harbors for the resistance within Turkey; recognize the SNC as a government in waiting; directly promise protection and contracts to Syrian businesses if they join the opposition; use drones to provide intelligence and document the regimes’ atrocities; provide security and support for refugees fleeing regime violence (especially the families of opposition forces and defectors).

These actions are already biting – the Syrian pound has collapsed; high level defections continue, if slowly; and the opposition is uniting and organizing as it seeks international support.  As in Libya, resolute support and action by the international community will lead the opposition to grow and Assad’s support to crumble.

Statesmen know that bold action can bring great rewards – timidity rarely does more than stall for time and often makes a situation worse when the outcome is delayed but not shifted.  But timidity is thriving in Syria for fear that Assad’s fall would create a failed state and destabilize the region.  Of course, it would be a delusion to think that international aid will suddenly create a perfect democracy or a wholly secure and stable region if Assad falls.  The choice is definitely to seek the lesser of two evils – an imperfect populist democracy with serious issues of minority rights but with stronger ties to the West and the Sunni nations of the region, or a vicious authoritarian regime closely allied with Iran that will eventually fall to a more radical Islamist and populist movement sometime in the future.

In many ways, Syria is not a good candidate for democracy – its population is too young and too divided to presume a stable democracy can quickly take root. It may shift from Assad’s personalist dictatorship to a single-party government or another strong-man regime.  However, as in Ukraine and Georgia, such a transitional regime will almost certainly be less violent and less anti-Western than the current dictator. It will likely look to Turkey and Saudi Arabia for support rather than Iran.  And it will be far more fertile ground for building the healthy civil society that is necessary if Syria is ever to become a true democracy.

It would be a great tragedy if fears of greater instability, or unrealistic demands that only when a true democracy seems likely should the West engage, were to lead the international community to stand by while Assad strides to renewed power over the bodies of his countrymen.


About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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