Michael Totten

What to do about Syria

by lebanon.profile
The news coming out about Syria just keeps getting worse.
The major new story is about mass graves the Syrian regime dug in their military base in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Whenever I see “mass graves” in the news, it always means someone somewhere has committed an undeniably atrocious act. If you didn’t think Syria was bad before, it’s hard not to now.
The Assad regime continues to sweep problems under the carpet. They deny, cover up, assassinate, arm terrorists, support insurgencies, dig mass graves, and more to protect themselves.
The game has ended. The Syrian regime has done enough harm to enough powerful people that their actions can no longer be overlooked. We haven’t even begun discussing everything the Syrian regime did during 30 years in Lebanon. Few ever mention the suffering of the Syrian people. We’ve barely scratched the surface, and Syrian regime already looks deplorable.
The counterarguments the Assad regime gives just don’t cut it any more. They can’t justify their actions with the old pan-Arab rhetoric. Destroying Israel, supporting terror, and assisting war in other countries are not good excuses for anyone (not even Arab regimes) any more. The old hat arguments cannot justify mass graves and the assassination of a Sunni Arab Prime Minister with Lebanese and Saudi citizenship.
Israel is now getting support from Arab regimes after the Gaza pull out. Arab regimes are no longer willing to tacitly condone Syrian supported Palestinian terror after the terrorist attacks against Arabs in Saudi Arabia, and after Egyptian and Bahraini government officials are kidnapped in Iraq. Arab regimes want the problem in Iraq to go away, and they definitely don’t want Iran (Syria’s new best friend) to benefit from Iraqi chaos.
Syria has lost their rhetorical cover. Arabs won’t shield them. The international community has taken interest.
What should be done?
Lebanon is in no position to take action against Syria. The military and intelligence agencies are filled with men who assumed their positions because of their loyalty to Syria. Hezbollah is virulently pro-Syria and remains armed.
Geographically, Syria engulfs tiny Lebanon. The economies are closely linked. Lebanese trucks must pass through Syria to deliver their cargo, and Syria hit the Lebanese economy hard this summer with a trade embargo.
The best strategy for Lebanon is to continue pressuring the international community to keep watch over Syria. Simultaneously, the government must cooperate closely with the Syrian regime to guarantee stability and trade.
Key word: Containment
The European Commission
The EU has been playing hardball with the Syrian regime. It feels strange writing that, but it’s true: the EU can play hardball.
The European Commission does not threaten through military means. Their power comes with their economic might. Sanctions would be devastating to Syria. However, they don’t want to use sanctions because that does more harm to the people than to the regime. The Assad regime and the Europeans both know that sanctions reinforce government control.
The EU cannot destroy Syria, but they can inflict a harmful blow. The Syrian regime knows that they can survive anything the EU does to them. However, if the Syrian regime loses the EU, they’ve lost the middleman between them and the United States. They also risk further pressure from the member states of the EU. If the EU unanimously decides to take action against Syria, then one can be sure that the French, British, and perhaps Spanish response will be harsh as well.
Key word: threaten. If the EU can check Syrian behavior now, the regime will no longer be an imminent threat in Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine. There will then be time to single out and prosecute (Europeans love courts) every single member of the Assad regime for all atrocities committed without risking the lives of the Syrian people.
Threatening, not placing sanctions, and not promoting regime change will give Bashar Assad the benefit of the doubt he asks for (but doesn’t deserve). The Assad regime will be given the chance to reform, a chance President Bush extended to Saddam before the war; a chance that was not taken.
The United States
It’s assumed that the United States always holds the winning cards. That’s not true. The military option is the worst option available, if it’s even there.
It’s hard to believe the American people will condone attacks against Syria with Iraq the way it is. Even supposing the international community supports military action against Syria without a fight, would the American people support such a move? Why should a country that’s lost over 2,000 soldiers in combat in a Middle East war wage another war that is solely for democracy and human rights? The only benefits to the American people are intangible. Only hypothetical arguments can justify why taking out the Assad regime would be a good move, and that’s not good enough for a people who are still in the middle of two other wars (Afghanistan isn’t over, either).
However, the military threat remains. The Assad regime knows that a full scale, Iraq style invasion of Syria is unlikely. But they also know that all Donald H. Rumsfeld has to do is pick up the phone, and we could have Shock and Awe all over again. Few, if any, American lives would be directly at risk. The toll on the Syrian regime would be massive.
The US directly targeted Saddam. Why wouldn’t they directly target Bashar Assad and his inner circle and leave the Syrian people alone?
Even though this option remains, pushing for regime change is asking for trouble from the international community and the American people. Seymour Hersh probably already has an article written linking the campaign against Syria to US actions in Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War.
The Bush Administration may want to spread democracy and peace in the Middle East, but regime change and the military option have yet to prove effective in this tumultuous region. There is great potential for further instability.
The Bush Administration learned a lot from the Iraq campaign. President Bush, Secretary Rice, US Ambassador to the UN Bolton, and US Ambassador to Lebanon Feltman are brilliantly using diplomacy. The United States government deserves congratulations for the way it is deftly using international institutions to support America’s agenda. This is highlighting the best attributes of American foreign policy – support for democracy, human rights, justice, and anti-terror – while regaining the trust of the international community. America does not appear as the bully.
Key word: diplomacy. The US does not need to assert the military option because everyone knows it is there. A few brazen remarks every so often wouldn’t hurt, but shouldn’t be a quotidien habit.
Harnassing international institutions is the best way to give the US cover and restore trust in America’s devotion to equality and fairness in international relations.
Given that Syria is not a direct threat to the United States, it doesn’t matter if the diplomatic process drags out a long time.
Concluding remarks
This is Europe’s chance to prove itself. Lebanon does not have the power. The Bush Administration gains domestically and abroad if it uses international institutions and diplomacy, and lets the military rest.
Regime change, as much as many Lebanese desire it, should not be on the table RIGHT NOW. It wouldn’t be good for Lebanon or the region.
However, should Europe and the US fail in their negotiations and the Assad regime continues to support terror in Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel/Palestine, that option should be used.
The Assad regime is getting a second chance right now. They believe they are under attack, but they are actually in a lucky position. The regime is not under imminent threat. Even if other countries desire regime change, there is no way attain that even if the regime is found guilty of assassinating Rafiq al Hariri.
The main concern is for the Syrian regime to reform. They are responsible for assassinations and mass graves, but those are matters for courts, not armies.
If the regime does not take this chance to reform, they are risking the lives of the Syrian people. Bashar Assad has the opportunity to slowly introduce freedom, stop terror, and be seen as the bringer of peace to his country. Sadly, all of his current actions indicate that he is more interested in war, terror, violence, and assassinations.
Regime change may be the only option, but we won’t know that until diplomacy has been carried to its fullest extent.