October 5, 2011 | NOW Lebanon

The Uncomfortable Reality in Syria

October 5, 2011 | NOW Lebanon

The Uncomfortable Reality in Syria

The Obama administration is slowly coming to grips with the uncomfortable reality that its preferred scenario of a peaceful transition in Syria is looking less likely. As much as it had hoped to avoid it, the administration finds itself having to develop contingency plans as signs of armed resistance to Bashar al-Assad’s regime are becoming increasingly visible.
 
Commenting on this development in the Syrian uprising, State Department spokesman Mark Toner remarked on Monday that “the longer the regime continues to repress, kill and jail these peaceful activists, the more likely that this peaceful movement’s going to become violent.” It’s a matter of self-defense, Toner explained; “It’s not surprising.”
 
This belated recognition comes as more reports are emerging of pushback from army defectors, especially in the provinces of Homs and Idlib, but also in Daraa and Deir al-Zour. In the town of Rastan, hometown of former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, the regime has had to bring in artillery, armored units, attack helicopters and reportedly even fighter jets in a bid to quash the resistance put up by soldiers who decided to protect the protesters. Assad’s forces have been shelling it relentlessly for days, but one Western diplomat told Reuters it was “highly possible” that the defectors were holding their ground.
 
It remains uncertain how large a force these defectors constitute, with one US official placing their number at around 10,000. Arabic news reports have claimed that in recent days, Rastan witnessed a large defection in an engineering battalion. However, without a concerted effort to provide them with material assistance, it is not clear how long these defectors can hold on. For this reason and more, calls by the protesters and the opposition for some form of international protection, such as safe havens and no-go zones, have recently intensified.
 
This foreseeable development throws into sharp relief critical flaws in the Obama administration’s Syria policy. Eager to avoid any semblance of intervention or a repeat of Iraq’s turmoil, the administration put all its hope in a peaceful transition. Though it never really explained the mechanism that would bring about this transition, the idea was to raise the economic pressure on the regime, urge the opposition to unite and present a platform all Syrians could endorse, and hope for cracks inside the regime and a shift among its pillars of support in society.
 
Still, how that was supposed to translate into Assad’s overthrow was not straightforward. Essentially, it seems that the administration held out hope for a coup by Assad’s generals (preferably Alawites, which would have the added benefit of avoiding a sectarian coloring).   
 
In reality, the coup scenario was unlikely to ever be peaceful. What this hope did mask, however, was an eagerness to avoid having to deal with a more complicated course of events. The US administration has not made a secret of its antipathy for the option of intervention in Syria. And yet it now finds itself having to deal with what it wished to avoid.
 
But without a fallback plan, Washington is only reacting to the unfolding events. The New York Times recently reported that, “In coordination with Turkey, the United States has been exploring how to deal with the possibility of a civil war” in Syria. What that means, however, is far from clear. Perhaps Turkey’s announcement that it would block any arms shipments headed to Syria is part of this effort, but far more is needed. Harnessing the resources of regional allies is important. But this must be under US leadership, as only Washington can balance the competing interests and agendas of these regional players while channeling them toward an endgame in line with US interests.
 
However, the Obama administration continues to be reluctant to lead. As the Times reported, “The administration does not want to look as if the United States is trying to orchestrate the outcome in Syria.” The justification a US official gave the Times for the disinclination to lead was that the administration does not want to give the Iranians “an excuse to intervene.” But such reasoning does not hold water. Tehran has been involved unambiguously on Assad’s side from day one, and will continue to be engaged in what it rightly perceives as a battle for its position in the Eastern Mediterranean.
 
And in the end, it is here that the administration’s policy has been most lacking, as it has yet to properly articulate the strategic stakes in the Syrian uprising. Aside from upholding US values of freedom and democracy, the strategic framework in which the Syrian revolution must be situated is that of an opportunity to break the Iranian alliance system. At a moment of great upheaval in the region, it is an opportunity that cannot be squandered.
 
As the Syrian revolution enters this new phase, Washington is faced with tough decisions. Deferring these decisions by once again subcontracting policy to regional players with differing agendas is likely to result in failure. The administration cannot shy away from leadership, nor can it lose sight of its strategic objective: ensuring the demise of the Assad regime.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

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