THE SYRIAN 'CONUNDRUM': AN UPDATE
"I met today with a small group of U.S.-based Syrian activists and members of the Syrian-American community to express our profound sympathy for all Syrian victims of the Assad regime’s abuse of its own citizens. In our discussion, the activists reaffirmed the internal opposition’s vision of a transition plan for a Syria that will be representative, inclusive and pluralistic; a new, united Syria with a government subject to the rule of law and fully respectful of the equality of all Syrians, irrespective of sect, ethnicity or gender. I encouraged the activists to work closely with their colleagues inside Syria to create this unified vision.
I admire the courage of those brave Syrians, both inside and outside Syria, who continue to defy their government’s brutality in order to freely express their universal rights. And I remain confident in the Syrian people’s ability to chart a new course for Syria’s future.
As I told the activists today, the United States will continue to support the Syrian people in their efforts to begin a peaceful and orderly transition to democracy in Syria and to have their aspirations realized. We have nothing invested in the continuation of a regime that must kill, imprison and torture its own citizens to maintain power.
The United States is working to move forward with additional targeted sanctions under existing authorities. We are exploring broader sanctions that will isolate the Assad regime politically and deny it revenue with which to sustain its brutality. The United Nations Security Council has also consulted this week on the escalating violence in Syria. Our view remains that strong action by the Security Council on the targeting of innocent civilians in Syria is long overdue. Some members of the Security Council continue to oppose any action that would call on President Assad to stop the killing, and we urge them to reconsider their positions".
American Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton, "Press Release: Meeting with Syrian Activists." The Department of State. 2 August 2011, in www.state.gov.
"More than any other Arab uprising in this year’s upheaval across the region, Syria has left world powers grappling for a policy. Some western diplomats say the weakness of the response is due to the intervention in Libya, which has yet to break the back of the regime of Muammer Gaddafi.
“We messed up Libya, that’s what complicates Syria,” as one diplomat put it, pointing to Russia’s fears that a UN resolution would open the way for a similar involvement in Damascus....
In a remarkable turnround, Washington has gone in a few months from suggesting Mr Assad is a reformer to recognising that his regime is the very source of instability in its neighbourhood. The US now recognises that political change in Syria would greatly benefit American policy, shattering Damascus’ alliance with Iran and radical groups in the Middle East. Western diplomats are expecting the US to soon call for Mr Assad’s departure, a declaration it has already come close to, with the White House saying on Wednesday that Syria would be a “better place” without its president. More US sanctions are being prepared and three senators are working on a bill to target companies that invest in Syria’s energy sector or buy its oil.
“US policy is a slow and deliberate game,” says Jon Alterman of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There is not much the US can do in the short term, in part because there is not much of a bilateral relationship to put at risk and in part because there is little chance of committing US troops or firepower. But there is a deep desire in Washington for Bashar to go.”
In Europe, where the commercial relationships are more important for Syria, the brazen attack on Hama has outraged policymakers but has not broken the resistance to more substantial pressure. Britain, for one, is still engaged in a tortuous concoction of nuanced statements about how Mr Assad is gradually losing legitimacy and risking international isolation. London is among those reluctant to heed Syrian opposition (and apparently US) calls for sanctions against the oil industry which could cripple the regime’s finances (and not significantly affect oil markets). Indeed, some European statements still hold out hope that Mr Assad will somehow lead a democratic transition.
Economic pressures could be a decisive factor in the crisis. And although going beyond measures that target regime figures is always a risky strategy, the EU is running out of names of officials to add to the travel bans and asset freezes. In any case, if the US slaps sanctions on Syria’s oil industry and the killings continue, European companies will come under increasing pressure to stop oil purchases and investments. As Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Damascus, said this week, markets are beginning to understand that Syria is “radioactive”'.
Roula Khalaf, "West Fails to Answer Syrian Conundrum." The Financial Times. 4 August 2011, in www.ft.com.
The 'conundrum' identified by the Financial Times erste-klasse Near Eastern correspondent, Roula Khalaf has still not been resolved. As she notes, this week's United Nation's Security Council statement, was for all intents and purposes toothless 1. Unfortunately, with the stalemate in the Libyian conflict, as Khalaf notes, the willingness of the Western powers to overtly intervene in Syria is at this point next to zero. Not to speak of the widespread economic weakness evident in most Western countries that possess the means of intervening in the conflict, id est, USA, UK and France. In addition to the fact that there is almost no possibility of the Security Council at present passing a resolution enabling the Western powers to intervene `a la Libya 2. With all that being said, where does that leave a positive Western policy? Especially, as it is widely acknowledged, the ouster of the regime of Assad Fils, would no doubt be an important victory for Western policy. A fact which one does not have to be a pro-Israeli zealot `a la the egregious Elliot Abrams to believe to be true 3. With that being said, the issue then becomes for Western policy-makers: how short of the employment of outside military intervention, can the West oust or one should say, assist the Syrian people (really in fact certain elements within the Syrian elite) oust the regime of Assad Fils? Sharp economic pressure, the type that might, just might cause the Sunni mercantile elite in the two key cities of Aleppo and Damascus to join actively join the opposition. Bearing in mind of course, that traditionally since 1949, if not in fact 1927, said elites have been mostly apolitical and have not played a key role in Syrian politics. Indeed, one of the key developments of the regime of Assad Fils, has been the rapprochement between the governmental, security, military Alawite elites centering on the Assad clan and the Sunni mercantile elites in the two cities previously mentioned. One of the key reasons that both cities so far have not erupted into demonstrations on the same scale as other areas of the country 4. However, if the Americans in conjunction with the European Union were to not only proclaim a boycott of purchases of Syrian oil, but endeavor via naval interdiction in international waters in the Mediterranean to actively prevent exports of the same as well, this situation might very well change. While perhaps this policy endeavor may not be a (to use a demotic American expression) 'game-changer', it might add to the other pressures on the inner-ring of the Assad Fils regime to perhaps make way for the beginning of the end of the dynasty. At the very least, this policy option will be infinitely much more worthwhile and effective than toothless United Nation's Security Council Presidential statements 5. Especially in light of the assistance (financial and otherwise) that the Persians are providing to their allies in Damascus. Or as the American political philosopher Michael Waltzer noted cogently approximately twenty years ago, at the time of the First Persian Gulf War: 'what counts in politics is action'.
1. For this statement, see: "Statement by the President of the Security Council." United Nation's Security Council. 3 August 2011, in www.un.org.
2. For the latest semi-official Russian statement underlining its opposition to any further Security Council resolutions along the Libyan model, see: "NATO plans campaign in Syria, tightens noose around Iran [Persia]-Rogozin." Novesti. 5 August 2011 in www.rian.ru.
3. For Elliot Abrams views, see his online journal for the Council on Foreign Relations: "Pressure Points". www.blogs.cfr.org/abrams. One should add that Abrams alleged expertise on the Near East, is sans any knowledge of the major language and culture of the area (Arabic)...
4. On the efficacy of economic sanctions, see: Andrew Tabler, "Lights Out." Foreign Policy 19 July 2011, in www.foreignpolicy.com. On the 'Alawite deep state' and its relationship with the traditional Sunni elites, see: Michael Doran & Salman Shaikh, "Getting Serious in Syria." The Brookings Institute 29 July 2011, in www.brookings.edu. In 1925 the Sunni elites in Damascus and Aleppo joined the Arab Revolt against French rule. A revolt which was ruthlessly crushed by the French (employing by-the-bye Alawite irregulars among other troops). In 1949, Syria saw its first elected Sunni President overthrown in a military coup d'etat. Thus ending tout `a coup, the political ascendency of the Sunni mercantile elites forever. On this subject, see the classic study by Philip Khoury: Syria and the French Mandate (1987).
5. See what are rather cogent statements by Century Foundation Near Eastern specialist, Michael Hanna, to the effect that without a serious internal revolt by the Alawite military apparatus, Assad Fils can probably remain in power indefinitely `a la Saddam Hussein after 1991, see: Josh Rogin & Blake Hounshell, "The Last Stand of Bashar al-Assad?" Foreign Policy1st August 2011, in www.foreignpolicy.com.